I was a zombie. A shambling ghoul from some old Romero film, dragging about the world doing nothing but killing and eating. And like a zombie, I stared through the open doorway into my apartment without comprehension or purpose, my shoulders limp and a moan building in my throat.
But Fumbles came to greet me, and I stepped inside with a sigh, shutting the door behind me. The cat nuzzled my leg and, when I didn’t move, looked at me and mewed. I bumped him aside as I stepped past him.
I fished a suitcase out of the closet and lobbed it onto the bed, then unloaded most of my closet into it. Suits, ties, jeans and t-shirts, nightwear, and two dresses I never wore. I raided my dresser and returned with an armload of socks and underwear. When I turned to pack, I found Fumbles in the suitcase.
I said, “Move. Go on.” Fumbles mewed, and I dumped the underwear on him. His head emerged from the pile and he still stared at me, demanding my attention. “Goddammit, go!” I said, but Fumbles only mewed and emerged from the pile, rubbing his face against my chest. I had a sudden urge to hit him and hated myself for it. Instead, I groaned and stroked his head.
“Sweetie, I don’t have time,” I said. “I have to get out of here before the cops come knocking again. I can’t be with you anymore.” My throat strained as he nuzzled me again, while I kept petting him as if this were any other day. “I can’t take you with me. I fucked up and now I have to go.”
Finally I gave up reasoning with my cat and slumped onto the bed, crying. Fumbles mewed and climbed into my arms; I held and petted him even as his fur got all over my jacket. Maybe he knew that I needed this. What did it even matter if the cops came here or not; I had time for this, at least.
“I’d put you up in a bed if I had the room. Sorry,” Viola said, and patted the foldout couch in her den. “Is the futon okay?”
“It’s fine. Great, actually.” I could spend my inevitable sleepless nights in front of the TV, just like I did at least once a week in college. Viola tilted her head, and I realized I’d been staring off at nothing. I said, “Sorry. Just got distracted.”
“Uh-huh. You look like your mind’s in another world.” Viola stepped away from me and into the kitchen, where I could see her over a pass-through. “Attached to the old place, or just worried?”
“Bit of both.” I slouched onto the coach and stared around at the red drapes, the line of autumn-tinted glass vases, and the rich walnut furniture set with burning incense. Viola liked her warm colors, and the only metal in sight was in the rough sculptures of elongated people wrapped around each other in poses of passion. Plainly a lot of money had gone into this place, and my apartment felt like a prison cell by comparison. I glanced at my lone suitcase and said, “No telling when the police would knock on my door. I could only grab clothes, photos, and my laptop.” I hadn’t even taken the time to bring Fumbles to a shelter. I was already feeling guilty about that.
“Sorry to hear that,” Viola said, stepping deeper into the kitchen and out of my sight. “Need anything from me?” I heard the sudden sound of sizzling and smelled aromatic chicken among the incense. I’d arrived just as she was cooking dinner.
I said, “Nah. I got toiletries, too, and I can entertain myself.” I hopped off the couch and strolled into the kitchen. “Anything I can do to help? Better than sitting around while you dote on me.”
Viola thrown on a scarlet apron over her dress, and her dyed hair was in a ponytail. I was surprised to see the counters laden with potatoes, salad, wine, and seasonings in little plastic jars. Four chicken breasts were spread across a skillet, oil popping beneath them. Without turning around, Viola said, “You don’t have to. You’re my guest, Barb! Relax.”
I slipped out of my jacket and left it on a chair nearby. “Least I can do is help you with dinner. All this for me?”
Viola laughed and threw a smile my way. “Well, I usually cook for myself like this anyway, but yes, I suppose this is for you.”
I said, “Well then, I’m practically obligated to help. Now tell me what to do.”
Viola said, “Okay, sure. Could you start by washing your hands?”
Half an hour or so later, I sat beside Viola on the couch, chewing on the most tender chicken I’d ever eaten. I’d expected dinner at the kitchen table, but Viola brought us right into the den, where soft jazz poured from unseen speakers. Between bites I said, “So tell me. Wes shoots; James guards; I burn things. What is it you do for Dick?”
Viola brought her wineglass to her lips and smiled behind it. She said, “Still convinced I’m a prostitute?”
“No,” I said. Better to avoid thinking about it and end up offending my host. “I just don’t know your business.”
Viola sighed and set her plate on the coffee table, then crossed her arms. She said, “No harm in telling. I work with prostitutes and other sex workers. I tease my way around the city’s underbelly, sniffing for secrets. I’ve learned an awful lot that powerful people would rather I didn’t know. Stories about cops, mayoral candidates, union bosses, a senator, a priest…” Viola chuckled and laid her cheek in her palm. “Crime lords, too. A few sweet words and you’d be surprised what you can learn. You could use a little charm yourself, Ms. Lenton.”
I blushed and looked away. “I’m exactly as charming as I’ve always wanted to be.”
Viola laughed. “No doubt. When Dick first moved here, when he was first getting started in Ingram, I helped him make his first friends. We had a thing for a couple months, but neither of us were really interested so we became partners in crime instead.”
That irritated me somehow, but I ignored it. “Ever committed any crimes yourself?”
“Hmmmmmm… yeah. Plenty of bad stuff,” Viola said. “Mostly blackmail. Gathering information and using it. Dick’s people protect me when the situation gets dangerous. I’ve picked up my share of clients, too.” I flinched, and Viola smirked. “With a body like mine, I tend to get my pick.”
I said, “Wait. So you really are a—”
“When I want to be, and on my terms,” Viola said. “I get paid to go out and have my fun. I watch out for other girls, and a few guys, because there are few jobs more dangerous. But a girl gets lonely, and other lonely people always welcome my company. I guess that does make me a whore.”
I struggled to hold Viola’s gaze, afraid to show the barest hint of shock or disgust on my face. Viola was sheltering me from the police in her home, and she was my friend. I had no place to judge her. I said, “Does Dick have anything to do with that particular job?”
Viola said, “Oh, no. No, Dick isn’t my pimp. I’m simply using what talents I have to satisfy myself now and again.” She reached past her plate as if it wasn’t there and took up her glass of wine. “I’m not good company, Barbara. I never finished high school, and I was on my own since I was seventeen. I’m a prodigal daughter without a father to run home to. But I’m making my way anyway.”
“Um…” I said. The wine seemed a good idea. I took a drink and let out a nervous laugh. “Fuck, Viola. You’ve got yourself figured out better than I have.”
“I doubt that,” Viola said. When my glass was empty, she refilled it from the bottle on the table. “So what about you, Barb? Why are you here?”
I had never really thought about why I was here. Didn’t like to. I said, “Well, I grew up under a tough dad and a mom with severe clinical depression. At least I had them. Dad put me through college and I couldn’t complain. When I got out of college, I joined the Navy.”
Viola said, “Why’d you do that?”
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” I said. The wine in my glass shuddered, warping the lamp light on its rippling red surface. “No, that’s not right. I joined the Navy because I had no idea what else to do with my life.”
I glanced up from my glass to find Viola leaning close to me. She scooted my way until our thighs touched. I said, “Coasted through high school without liking anything. Couldn’t find a program in college that interested me, so I picked something easy. I was too bitchy and self-centered to keep a relationship. By the time I graduated, I was bored and frustrated, and I had nothing better to do than enlist. I’d blown just about every decent opportunity up to that point.”
I could feel the alcohol in my belly, a sharp warmth that reached up into my throat. Viola was watching me, fascinated. I added, “I’ve never had a passion for anything, even the stuff I’m good at. I’m a gangster and a murderer because I don’t know what the fuck else to do.”
“So, then…” Viola said. “Why do you set fires, then, Barbara?”
I said. “That’s easy. Because it gives me a rush. It’s fun. Lets me feel, feel something, for however long it lasts. When I’m on the edge of life and death, I can fool myself. I can feel like I’m feeling.”
Viola hand was on my thigh, stroking. She said, “I’m sure other things can make you feel, Barbara.”
I sighed, feeling like years of tension had given way with that admission. But I knew the feeling wouldn’t last. I said, “I know. But I’ve more or less given up on looking.”
I have never in my life had a pleasant reason to visit a hospital. Growing up, my mom had been in and out of different hospitals, and I got a bad taste just seeing them now. But today I felt obligated, even eager to visit.
I stepped into Bollocks’s room and immediately stared. A cast swallowed his right arm from fingers to shoulder like a fat white worm. Bollocks looked me in the eyes and smiled before his gaze fell to the bouquet of pink roses in my hand.
I said, “Hey, Baker. How you holding up?” Bollocks beckoned me to a chair beside his bed and I presented the roses in a little vase I’d brought, setting them on a table to my left.
“Better now,” Bollocks said. “Well enough, considering I was shot three times.”
I said, “Jesus. How bad?”
Bollocks winced as he maneuvered his shoulders and lifted up his right arm. “One bullet damaged my ulna and produced a fracture. I underwent surgery which yielded no complications.” He laughed dryly. “You don’t want to see what happened to my leg.”
His legs were hidden a blanket. I said, “Right leg or left?”
“This is bullshit,” I said. “We’re the ones who run into a firefight and you catch it worse than us. Well, more or less.” Some of our grunts had bit it, after all. I leaned in and whispered, “What happened?”
Bollocks said, “A crew of men and women wearing masks stormed the hotel. There’s no need for delicacy, Barbara. The hospital staff are sympathetic to our cause. Mr. Garrett has friends here.”
“Okay,” I said. “Keep going.”
“The front desk notified me as they came up,” Bollocks said. “I was in the hotel room coordinating the various teams attacking Silvers’ warehouse, so I was unable to flee immediately. I only had time to gather computers and Mr. Garrett’s favorite suit.”
“A regular Alfred Pennyworth,” I said. “So I’m guessing you were the one who sent Dick to pick us up?” Bollocks nodded. “Thank you. You risked your life for us.”
“You’re welcome,” Bollocks said. “I escaped down a staircase, but the attackers spotted me in the parking lot.” Bollocks tilted his head toward the wrapped arm. “I drove myself to the Emergency Room after that.”
“Badass,” I said, and smiled as I imagined Bollocks shooting back, or even throwing laptops at the thugs. No, he wouldn’t do that. Nevermind. “What happened to the hotel?”
“I assume it was ransacked.” Bollocks reached out with his left arm and took a drink from a glass of water I hadn’t noticed. “I saw no news of an immolation or explosion. But the hotel is no longer safe.”
I said, “Just how quickly does Dick go through safe houses?”
“One every two years, usually.” Bollocks sighed and ran a hand over his scalp, which had grown a receded mat of dark hair from his hospital stay. “This battle with Silvers is a costly affair. Yet I still see the value in keeping her off our streets. She plays a shrewd tactician, that’s for sure.”
I said, “I’d like to take her out myself at this point. I’ve had enough of bullets flying my way.”
Bollocks said, “I doubt she’s set foot in Ingram since the fiasco in December. But we’ve stunted her operations and won ourselves a reprieve. None of our crew were killed in the attack on the hotel. Dick has other properties to choose from, so we’ll have a base up and running soon. And you’ve been paid for your good work.” I arched my eyebrows and Bollocks added, “Mr. Garrett had me include a generous bonus. Call it risk pay, or merit-based pay, if you wish.”
“Uh-huh. Thanks.” I’d barely touched the money except on trips to nice restaurants. “Wait, couldn’t the police find my account and have it frozen?”
“Your personal funds, maybe,” Bollocks said. “But I’ve been depositing your pay into a separate account with no ties to your name. Haven’t you seen your bank statements?”
“I guess not,” I said. Oops.
Bollocks said, “Well, your money is safe. You’ve no need to worry.”
I gave Bollocks a dubious stare and his eyebrows arched. Leaning closer to him, I said, “You know, Smith, it feels wrong to even think about money when you’re here shot up like this.”
Bollocks shrugged with his left shoulder, favoring the wounded arm. “It comes with the territory, Barbara.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Even so, I’m sorry it happened.” I’d expected an attitude like that from such a consummate professional, but I still hated the idea.
What the fuck kind of business were we in where a nice guy like Bollocks gets shot up and we shrug it off as “shit happens”?
“You know I ain’t your psychiatrist, Barb,” Dick said. “Not very fair of you to use me like one, is it?”
“Yet you keep going on these outings with me,” I said without looking at Dick, pulling into the Ludwig’s Bar and Grill parking lot. I glided the car into a spot right under the restaurant’s neon sign, which was either deliberately retro or hopelessly tacky. Since the mayhem of last week’s operation, I’d driven Dick to restaurants and bars for what was now the fourth time.
Dick said, “Well, ya know I just can’t help how I feel aboutcha, can I?” I rolled my eyes and climbed out, slamming the car door, and Dick wore a shit-eating grin as I came around and opened his door for him. I thought he might offer me his arm, but he just headed toward the bar.
I said, “That’s inappropriate coming from my boss. I’m going to file a complaint.”
“Ah! Knew I could get a joke out of you.”
“Was I joking, though?” I said, and his smile vanished for an instant before it returned with a vengeance. Instead of retorting, he opened the restaurant’s door for me.
“Thank you,” I said, unable to suppress a playful smile of my own.
We said little else until we had a table and tall drinks. The restaurant was sparse tonight; only the bar was crowded, and some slow 60s rock song floated over the walnut tables and partitions, pervading the room like a mist. Eventually Dick said, “Why bother? Why come out with me every week or so when you know I’m interested in you?”
I said, “Well, I’d say I liked your company, but…”
“And why the fuck do you get drinks with me considering what happened the first time around?” Dick said.
I froze, sitting taller and looking Dick in the eyes for any deceit, any manipulation. “When you put your hands on me?” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Dick said. “I said I’m sorry. I… I let the alcohol get to me and fucked up so I thought we were done, but here you are working for me, pulling jobs for me… exposing yourself to the police for me…” He glanced up from the table, but I let him stew. Dick added, “So why? You just doing this for shits and giggles? You like dangling a guy around on a hook? Cuz you just might be wasting your time and mine.”
“It’s complicated, okay?” I said, staring down into my bourbon. “You and Vi and… well, I guess Bollocks are the only people I can talk to. The only ones I don’t have to bullshit. You already know I’m a fucking mess.”
“That club’s getting bigger all the time,” Dick said, and he took a drink of his scotch. “So it’s all take and no give with you, huh, Barb?”
“Why do you put up with it, then?” I said. I took a drink and it burned on the way down, but I didn’t taste it. “Knowing that you fucked up your big chance to get intimate with me, why do you bother? What do you get out of me? With your money and connections, you could have any woman you wanted.”
Dick laughed, slouching in his seat. “Well, you’ve got a great ass—”
“I always had a thing for blondes—”
“What the fuck do you expect, Lenton?” Dick said, lurching over the table and into my face. He whispered, “I ain’t here to be your friend. You know who I am, what I do for a living. You kill people for me. You’ve burned down how many properties for me—”
Something hiccupped in me. I laughed. I tilted my head back and laughed while Dick gawked at me. Finally I wiped a tear from my eye and said, “I get it. I think I get it now.”
“Barb? You okay?” Dick said.
I said, “You might be just as selfish, twisted, and fucked up as me.”
Dick stared at me for a long time while I descended into quiet chuckles. People a few tables over were staring at me. Dick said, “Heh. Knew I could get a smile out of you.”
So he had. My cheeks were hot, and I felt something beyond the laughter, a warmth welling up that had fuck all to do with the alcohol. Then that warmth drained into the sea of everything else on my mind, and my laughter died away. I said, “I guess you’re my kind of fucked up.”
“And you’re mine,” Dick said. “You make it sound like a good thing.”
I said, “Well, are you having fun?”
“Yeah,” Dick said.
We called it an early night a little later. I told Dick I was tired. I needed to think. I could barely see him through the haze of fear and worry and missing my cat. I dropped Dick off at his house, walked him to the door. He opened his front door halfway then paused, half facing toward me.
I saw his eyes on mine—smiling, admiring, as if he expected or hoped for something. So I leaned in and kissed him. I saw Dick’s eyes go wide before I shut mine. He made a little noise and kissed me back.
Dick was warm, all over my chest and through my suit jacket. I felt his hands come round to hold my hips, not quite touching my rear. I cradled his face in my hands and world melted away.
We broke apart panting. Dick had wide, wild eyes and clutched the doorframe to keep himself upright. “Barb,” he said, mouth hanging open.
The warmth in me died down. Maybe it had never been there in the first place. I gave him what I hoped was a smile and stepped off his porch. “Night, Dick,” I said as I marched to my car.
Around midnight I reached Viola’s apartment. I crept inside with the key she’d given me. I had my jacket off and tie loose by the time I reached the living room. Viola was seated on the futon in the dark with the TV’s glow flickering onto her face. Looking up, she said, “Hey, Barbara.”
She stiffened when I climbed onto the futon and crawled up to her. She squeaked when I put my lips on hers and forced her down.
Viola said something as our lips broke apart, but it trailed off as I grasped her chest through the filmy nightwear. Her back arched, and she gave a gentle, pleased grunt. I put my hands over her body and she clung around my shoulders, too stunned to reciprocate. “Barbara—” My lips mashed with hers and she turned her head to the side. “Barbara, what are you doing?”
I wasn’t sure. I had an itch to scratch, an itch Dick had exposed, and I hadn’t even set anything on fire. “Feeling,” I said, and I kissed Viola again. This time she leaned into the kiss, so that our tongues met. Her hands began on the buttons of my shirt, and I dragged up her dress. The TV’s glow lit her up in profile, but its sound was buried under our high, frantic breaths.