I was a few steps out the door of Dick’s hotel room when I realized Viola was following me. Of course, there was only one set of elevators so of course we were walking the same direction, but Viola was also catching up. I felt her presence a few seconds in advance, like an itch on my neck, before she said, “Hey, Barbara. Can we talk for a bit?”
I grunted. I figured we’d get to talking eventually. Dick had lectured me on being polite to her once, but I hardly wanted to make friends with her. I said, “What can I do for you?”
“Dick likes you,” Viola said. I spun around and she stopped short a yard away from me. As I expected, she was dressed like a prostitute about to report for duty. “You don’t say a lot and you don’t make friends, but you’ve still got the eye of our illustrious bachelor of a boss, and I thought I’d find out why.”
I rolled my eyes. I’m only willing to put up with so much, Dick. I said, “You been stalking me lately?”
Instead of denying it, Viola chuckled and cocked her hips. “Watching you, maybe. You’re an easy woman to watch, Barb.” My eyes widened, and I guess she took that as a license to continue. “Anyone who’s made as much headway as you deserves my attention. Plus, are you gonna make me say it? You’re the only other girl in Dick’s inner circle.”
“And you figured I’d want us to stick together?” I said. “You thought wrong. Have a nice day. Kindly keep your eyes elsewhere.” And I turned on my heel toward the elevators.
“Wait,” Viola said, and I stopped again. Not sure why.
I said, “What? What the fuck do you want, Viola?”
“Maybe I came on too strong. I tend to that, you know.”
“I kind of figured.”
Viola said, “I just want to talk to you a bit. Get to know you.”
“And you thought flirting would make a good first impression? Fuck off.”
I turned and made one more long step when Viola said, “You put together a first impression of me long before today, Barbara.”
Ouch. So I did, and it hadn’t been particularly charitable. Viola added, “If I came in introducing myself like a businessman, I bet you’d think I was full of shit. But something a bit more jarring than that, something to catch your attention? Figured I’d get a word in.”
As I reached the elevators, I swung around and faced her. “Why do you care so much?”
Viola said, “Because you could use a friend.”
Bullseye. “Bullshit,” I said. “I don’t set things on fire looking for peace and love, Viola.”
Viola said, “You just got out of lockup. A job gone south and your first arrest; I know how miserable it can be. You had time to think about things, and maybe, just maybe tough Barbara Lenton can get her feathers ruffled, too.”
The elevator arrived and I stepped in. When Viola stepped in after me, I almost held my arm out to block her. Instead I said, “You’ve really been watching me, huh?”
Viola said, “You’re interesting. What can I say.”
“You think you know me?”
“Better than you know me.”
I sighed. I was making weird friends all over the place. Next thing I knew, Tony Vargas would invite me to his kids’ birthday parties. I said, “Fine. What do you propose?”
“Really?! Great!” Viola said; her eyes were bright blue, wide with joy. Pretty, I noticed, if you looked past the gratuitous makeup. “Wanna go out for drinks tonight?”
“I’m having dinner with Bollocks,” I said. He was buying, so I wouldn’t miss it.
“Oh,” Viola said.
I felt an inkling of pity. I’d been feeling too much pity lately. I said, “Tomorrow evening. Later if I end up working.”
“Of course,” Viola said. She winked at me, and I think I scowled in reply. “We’ll have a girls’ night.”
I said, “With sleeping bags and stories about boys?”
“A girls’ night out, then?”
“That’s a little better.”
The elevator doors opened and Viola danced out, catching the eye of the receptionist at his desk. I said, “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“Give me a call?”
“Sure.” I had Viola’s number. I had everyone’s number, just in case.
“Nice to finally meet you, Barbara!”
“How are you holding up, Barb?” Dick said.
“I’m still standing. Still working.”
“I know you better than that. And you’re sitting right now, not standing.”
So I was, looking at my boss over the glass of bourbon in my hand. The ice clinked to and fro as I sipped; I held it before the neon sign above the bar and tilted the glass until the light smeared into a dazzling, incoherent haze. Dick cleared his throat, and I put down the glass, meeting his eyes. I said, “I don’t really want to talk about it.” I didn’t. No cops or crimes, just my glass full of pretty brown liquid.
Dick, meanwhile had barely touched his scotch. He said, “You seemed perfectly eager to come out for drinks with me. Growing fond of me, Ms. Lenton?”
I said, “Don’t you start calling me that, too.” Dick grinned like an idiot; I ignored him and stared off in some other direction. I settled on the pictures on the wall, photos of fishing trophies and big catches. Dad had taken me fishing a bunch as a kid, back when I think he was still trying to raise a boy. When I looked back, Dick was still staring at me. I sighed and said, “Me, fond of you? Maybe, so long as you stay on that side of the table.”
Dick held his hands up innocently. I tried to ignore him again. My bourbon was aged eight years, expensive, and delicious. The bar was warm, but I felt safe and content in my suit jacket. Eventually Dick said, “You met me here, despite the mess of our last get-together.”
I remembered. I said, “Your point?”
Dick said, “So it stands to reason that you’d want to talk about something. Something business related?”
“I’d have done that in the hotel room before we left,” I said. Couldn’t he leave well enough alone?
“So then it’s my company you’re after!” Dick said, and I tried to remember if I’d ever met someone so annoying. “Why, I’m flattered, Barb.”
“Yeah, yeah, fine.”
“What?” Dick said.
I said, “Don’t make me repeat it. I, uh…” What was I doing? What was I saying? “I didn’t want to be alone tonight. Or most nights.”
Dick gave me a look that made my insides squirm with shame. His hand twitched on the table, half extended toward me, but he kept it to himself. Finally Dick said, “Barb, lemme tell you something.”
“I’m always around, okay?” Dick said. I set my glass down; the man facing me seemed more important somehow. “Barb, you’re part of the family now. You’ve done good since you got back. So I’m here for you, okay? I care and I wanna know when you’re hurting.”
I hadn’t expected that. Or maybe I had, and it was the reason I’d gone drinking with him in the first place. I sorted through the tipsy haze of my thoughts, trying to come up with a reply. “Thanks, Dick. It’s… ah, it’s nice to hear you say that. Nice to have you care.”
Dick chuckled and shrugged. “Who am I to complain if a pretty employee of mine needs a friend?”
“I knew it!” I said, and I laughed for the first in a long time; it came out like a note sung off key. “Well, as long as you’re buying.”
“Sure. Go nuts. Relax a bit,” Dick said. He tilted his head toward the bar, where a handsome guy with hairy forearms was cleaning glasses. “Horace over there is a good friend of a friend. Makes a Manhattan like you ain’t never imagined. Even call a taxi for you.”
I cared nothing for the bartender, but I kept up chatting with Dick. Eventually he laughed at something I’d said that I didn’t find funny at all, and I realized Dick had this warm, booming laugh, right up from his lungs, when he was having a good time. This was my first time hearing it at length, and it sounded nice. Maybe Dick was serious for once, and he really was having fun around me. I guess there was a chance I was having fun, too.
All eyes were pinned on Dick sitting tall on the bed as he spoke with an uncommon gravity. Wes, Viola, James, Bobby, Bollocks, and every other face or name I recognized were gathered for this meeting, our war council. Sitting between all of us was Dick, our boss, our Admiral.
Dick said, “Now, this isn’t such a cakewalk like last month. That warehouse was an easy mark in the boonies, and we got plenty to work with for not much risk. This time Silvers has picked a new depot at the edge of Southside, right in public. We hear sirens, we may need to cut and run real quick.”
Bollocks had a laptop plugged into the TV, and we peered at the image he drew up: a street view of an office building like any other, perched on a corner among nail salons, sidewalk cafes, and eateries. This wasn’t downtown, but it was still pretty fucking crowded.
Bollocks said, “Anyone inside the target building is fair game, but those outside are not to be harmed. No hostages, no civilian casualties.” Bollocks swept his grave stare over each of us. “No hostages.”
“We don’t operate that way,” Dick said. “Keep going.”
Bollocks said, “The building itself has a front set of double doors, two fire escapes, and a loading dock. At the operation’s start, we’ll have trucks blocking all four.” Bollocks clicked his mouse, and a blueprint of the building jumped onscreen. “If you need out through one of those doors, call on the radios we’ll give out. Anyone else trying to exit the building will be shot on sight.”
A few guys murmured at that, but Dick beckoned for them to be silent. He said, “You’ll see some unfamiliar faces this time, mercs I’ve hired from New York.” I saw James scowl more than usual at that. “The idea is to hit the target hard and fast, crush ‘em with a minimum of casualties. If Silvers’s move at the Red Baron was assassinating Archduke Ferdinand, this is a Blitzkrieg.”
A laugh rumbled over most of us—except for James, who had no sense of humor. Dick chuckled and waved his hand. “Wrong war. Whatever.” He waited until we’d quieted then said, “But seriously, the mercs are there for a reason. The fight’s gonna be a lot more dangerous this time. We suspect Silvers’s crew is stockpiling guns here. Expect heavy resistance. Expect casualties.” No one was smiling anymore. “I hate to say it, but this is our most dangerous job yet. No one has to come. It’s better the more we have, but I’m not forcing anyone.”
I glanced around at Wes, James, and the other guys who generally handled violent stuff. Of course I was going, and I would probably be the only woman on this job. Oh well. It was no sweat for a badass like me.
Bollocks said, “The strike date is in two weeks, March nineteenth, a Wednesday. If you’re interested, please let me know by this weekend. Pay is twenty thousand per person. Plus medical care, obviously.”
Someone whistled. I would have guessed more, but twenty thousand wasn’t a bad sum for a day’s work. I wondered how much the mercs would make. Bollocks added, “Any questions so far?”
A few came up, questions about details—the targets, the lay of the land, how close the nearest precinct was. I got annoyed listening to them blather. Why was no one asking the big important question?
I raised my hand. “Barb?” Dick said, pointing my way.
I said, “What exactly is our objective? What’s in this office that we want? Is it just extermination?”
“I’m glad you asked.” Dick rubbed his hands together. “Our target is whatever Silvers has stockpiled there. We know they’re shipping in something. If she’s hiding stacks of cash, if she’s got crates of guns and ammo, if she’s planning on dumping Joker Venom into the water supply…” Dick slashed his hand through the air. “Whatever it is. Find it and burn it.”
A grin came over my face before I could stop it. A few of the others chuckled, and Dick winked at me, the cheeky jerk. I finally relaxed and let myself laugh as well. “Roger.”
I stayed behind after the meeting and told Bollocks straight away that I’d be going on the mission. James eyed me from the doorway, then nodded and vanished down the hall. I would have wondered about it, but I’d given up on figuring out James a long time ago.
I was surprised to see Viola staying behind, too. Surely she wouldn’t be arming up and going into battle. Sure enough, as I stepped into the hallway, Viola followed me out. “Hey, Barb!” she said.
I said, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.” I let her catch up and we walked side by side down the hall.
Viola said, “Off on another wild gunslinging adventure?”
“You make it sound like a big barrel of fun.”
Viola cracked a smile and brushed a few strands of wavy hair over her shoulder. She said, “What do you think? Should I go with you guys? I bet I’d look hot in body armor.”
I said, “I bet you’d collapse in body armor.” Viola laughed, but I got an image of this hundred-pound woman struggling through a battlefield, hands over her ears to block out the screams, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. “Have you ever shot someone, Viola?”
Viola hesitated a few seconds, then said, “No.”
“Well, this is no time to start,” I said, hitting the button to summon the elevator. “I bet Dick pays you enough that you don’t need to do something stupid like join an assault team.”
Viola said, “So why do you do it, Barbara?”
I had to think on that. I like the smell of cordite? Explosions excite me? Killing people is fun? None of them particularly rang true to me.
I said, “Fuck if I know. Never thought about it.”
“Huh,” Viola said. The elevator took us downstairs. Our ride was a silent one.
On the way out, Viola suddenly said, “Hey, Barb, listen. My work has me spend a lot of time around police and I’ve heard them talking lately.”
“You work around police?” I said. I didn’t want to assume anything, but I remembered she’d been blackmailing a cop some months ago.
“Uh-huh,” Viola said. “And they’re saying the Blackbird gang is a priority case now. Got a massive detail bent on tracking us down.”
I said, “Yeah, Bollocks had us change the way our phones are encoded again. I didn’t know the case was getting this big.” But of course it was. We’d shot up a warehouse full of people, after all. A funny thought occurred, and I said, “The police ever ask you for help?”
Viola snickered. “No, the ones I meet usually just bitch about work. It’s easy to charm hints out of them.” Viola’s smile shrank, and she added, “You should be careful, Barb. The police are probably already watching you. And they may have something planned on the day of the strike. This operation could be more dangerous than you think.”
I peered at Viola. It felt odd that she knew that, and why would she suggest such a risk unless it was true? Was Viola actually talking to the cops, spilling the beans? I had no reason to suspect her, but it was possible. Maybe Viola was warning me because she liked me.
Maybe I was overthinking things.
When I was silent, Viola added, “So who knows how this will play out. Maybe the cops have someone undercover among the mercs Dick hired, or maybe there’s a snitch. Maybe something else. Remember how you got arrested?”
“The failed burglary?” I said. I preferred Viola not know about how Glass had pulled me over. “Hm. When I think about it, yeah. The cops were waiting outside, probably even before people started shooting.” Maybe we’d had a leak, though I was loathe to suspect anyone involved like, say, Skylar.
“There you go. So watch your back, okay?” Viola said. As we emerged outside the hotel, Viola reached out before I could blink and took my hand in hers. “I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Viola’s fingers were warm and thin. Just looking at them, I could tell she was younger than me. I had no idea what to say, especially when she squeezed my hand. Finally I nodded. “Okay. I’ll stay safe.”
“Glad to hear it!” Viola said, and as she pulled back, I turned away so she wouldn’t see my face heating up. Viola added, “Wanna go out tonight? Get something to eat?”
“Sure,” I said. I had only Fumbles at home to keep me company. “When?”
“Now,” Viola said. When I looked her way, she’d already stopped at my truck and mounted the step leading up to the passenger’s seat. “Come on! I’m thinking Tex-Mex.”
“Tex-Mex,” I said. I was dressed more for a classy restaurant; Viola was dressed for a sleazy bar.
“Yeah. And hey, could you drop me off after? I got a ride here from Clancy.”
“Yeah, he’s cute. Will you?”
Viola was silly; I understood why she and Dick got along. Both of them were insufferable teases, or so I told myself. But I decided to humor her. “Yeah, sure,” I said, and I unlocked the doors with a click from my car key.
Viola grinned and climbed inside. I hopped into the driver’s seat, smiling to myself and not sure why. I had no real reason to go for another girls’ night out with Viola, but it wasn’t so bad. Not like I had anything better to do.