I was warm all over, even sweating, and I had to peel myself apart from my partner. My eyes wanted to stay shut, and my joints felt like jelly. But what occurred to me above the rest was just how tired, how numb, my tongue was. I cracked my eyes open and let out a long groan.
Inches from my ear, Viola sniffed. She sat upright and stretched her arms high above her head. I heard her spine pop and watched the tangled lines of hair running down her bare back. Viola glanced down and smiled at me. “Well,” she said, “that was fun.”
“Tell me about it.” I grunted and rolled over, grabbing at the blanket. It must have fallen off the futon at some point in the night. I rubbed my eyes and said, “Please tell me you’re not one of those nuts who can’t stand having coffee.”
“Yeah, sure,” Viola said. “I’ll make some if you’ll get your butt up.” I shut my eyes again and made a petulant groan. Viola laughed and eased herself off the futon, leaving me to lie around. I felt sore all over, more from the thin futon than anything we did last night.
When I picked up the tantalizing smell of coffee, I risked opening my eyes again. The room was dim, but light streamed between the slats in the blinds. Viola was watching me and sipping from a cup. She had put something on—I had to squint to realize it was my dress shirt, half buttoned and hanging down to her thighs. I could see her panties, and the sight was absurd enough that I chuckled. She arched her eyebrows and sat a steaming mug on the coffee table in front of me.
“Well, don’t you look cheery this morning,” Viola said. “Feeling awake enough to tell me what the hell that was about?”
I forced myself into a sitting position and yawned as I reached for the mug. I took a long drink, and Viola watched me. Eventually I said, “The what now?”
“Last night,” Viola said. “I know you spent the evening with Dick; I thought you’d be tired when you got back. Imagine my surprise when you grab me by the tits, start getting hot and heavy. I didn’t even know you liked girls.”
“I don’t,” I said. Viola arched her eyebrows and I sighed. “Not really. Never given it any thought before. This was just—um—”
“Spur of the moment?” Viola said. I nodded. Maybe I should have given it some thought. “Well, it was a fun night. You’re, uh, pretty good for a newbie.”
“Thanks,” I said, raising the coffee cup again to hide my blush. Oh sweet drink of bitterness, save me from this conversation. Viola went quiet and let me stew, but I struggled to make sense of what I’d done. Why had I come onto her? What the fuck was I thinking? Just how much did I drink last night? It couldn’t have been much. Either I’d just awakened some latent bisexual interest or I’d had sex on the mind and didn’t really aim. I’d been unfair to Dick and Viola either way.
“Sorry,” I said. I wanted to cover myself, but the clothes could wait until I’d showered. I settled for the blanket on the floor. “I shouldn’t have just come onto you like that.”
Viola strolled into the kitchen but kept talking. “Honey, I don’t really mind. You should figure something out, though.” I climbed up as I heard Viola open the refrigerator. Maybe I could get breakfast out of this. “Who was it you really wanted in bed with you last night?”
I stopped midstep. I had no answer for her. Now I remembered I’d been just as confused last night, well before I rolled into Viola’s arms on the futon. I’d kissed Dick last night. I kissed him.
I groaned. Just the thought of being with him… No. Not when I was tired and sore and sweaty and I smelled like another woman. I couldn’t even think about it.
“I’ll figure it out,” I said. I followed Viola into the kitchen to find a carton of eggs set out before the stove.
“No pressure,” Viola said. “I’m not gonna kick you out or anything.” Viola set a pan on the stove and turned on the heat, dropping in a teaspoon of butter. I stepped up beside her, trying not to stare at her butt. “But that was just a one-off thing, right?”
I said, “Yeah. Back to boys for me.”
“Well, you certainly know how to surprise a girl.” A hand slapped my ass, and I reeled back, glaring at Viola. She giggled and cracked an egg into the pan. “I can see why Dick likes you.”
I had no idea what to say. “Thanks,” is what came out, though I felt uncomfortable and vaguely guilty all over. I’d kissed Dick last night, then spun around and dragged Viola into bed with me. I’d been about as forceful with Viola as Dick had been with me the other month.
Some good had come out of last night. I’d found a kindred spirit; two, in fact. One of them had helped reawaken something hot and hungry inside me. And she didn’t even hate me for it.
It was spring, but I still shivered as I watched flames dance in the apartment building’s forth story window. I cranked up the heat in my new car and sighed. Today’s job felt hollow. Maybe if I smoked cigarettes, I’d enjoy the ceremony of each job more. I knew James lit up after work, but I spent enough time around fire and I hated to tempt fate even further.
Some gangbangers had moved into one of Dick’s old properties, hanging around a stairwell doing blow all day. Dick wanted them gone. I’d come to show the thugs that just because the Blackbirds were at war didn’t mean chucklefucks like them could squat in our turf. And right on cue, the building’s rickety front doors burst open and a quartet of gangsters burst out into the cold. I gunned the truck’s engine and drove away.
As far as I knew, Dick was no drug lord himself. Ingram had dealers, of course, and its corners were dotted with foot soldiers. These kids answered to their bosses, who answered to their bosses, who answered to a council out of town, and that council paid protection to the Blackbird gang. Dick kept his hands clean of the whole operation, and he decided which gangs could set up shop in town. He had the guns and manpower, after all, and he had me. A few torched hideouts and the thugs got the message.
I was distracting myself. I hadn’t had any fun setting today’s fire, not really. I hoped no one was actually caught in the blaze. I wondered why I cared. If the gangbangers had brought girlfriends, and if the girlfriends had babies… fuck, I didn’t want to think about it. I’d been avoiding the topic all day, keeping my mind on the job. Now that it was done, the nasty thoughts came crashing in.
At least I didn’t have to shoot anyone this time. One of the cokeheads had spotted me and called something lewd, but they’d given me no trouble. Now they were gone. And I was bored.
I stopped my new Miata a few blocks from the apartment and slumped in my seat, closing my eyes. I knew it was dangerous to linger here; my car had a set of false plates, but I still wasn’t safe in public with my name out. But I couldn’t bring myself to drive home yet.
I wanted to feel. And that fire had done nothing for me. Right now I felt nothing at all.
A police siren in the distance. I clutched the steering wheel and sat up, blinking. I’d dozed off. The siren faded away, and I sighed. Just one more thing to worry about. Normal women worried about grey hairs or irregular periods. I worried about being arrested for gang affiliation and evading arrest.
I drove off again. The sky was dreary today, a sheet of off-white interrupted by a few dark clouds that teased rain. But considering the season, this was a nice day, and it sucked that I had no clue what to do with it. Usually I did my jobs at night, then went straight to bed. Today I’d finished work before noon. I had plenty of time to kill and no idea how. After driving around for another ten minutes, I convince myself to at least get some lunch.
I could afford a meal at any of the nicest restaurants in town. Instead, I pulled into a little diner, a Mom-and-Pop style place called Libby’s. Family-run. I slid out of my jacket as I stepped inside.
Bright red menus and seat covers jumped out at me from a sea of white and black tiles. The front counter had stools lined up like a 50s-style malt shop, but the tacky art deco on the walls didn’t really sell the look. I took a seat and a pretty blonde waitress strolled up to me and offered me drinks. Soon she was off with my order for coffee, and I stared curiously at her ass. Nope, no attraction. Maybe Viola was the only woman who got me going.
It was past breakfast time now, but I ordered an omelet and sipped impatiently from my coffee, slouching in my booth. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was playing from overhead. Oh sure, I was having fun. I had all the fun I knew what to do with.
When the young couple one booth over walked off and I was sure the staff were out of earshot, I whipped out my phone. I did have one extra bit of business to handle. I called up the first number on speed dial.
“Hey, Barb! What’s up?” Dick said.
I was struck by the good cheer in his tone. Dick had to know this was a business call, but he sounded like he’d just gotten laid. The though irritated me. I said, “Dick. Job’s done. Apartment’s set as ordered.”
Dick said, “Are the squatters gone?”
“Right out the door.” I said. An old guy passed my table, giving me a funny look as he sat in the booth behind mine. I sneered at him and cupped my hand around the mouthpiece. “Any more of your properties I need to set on fire, or are we good?”
Dick said, “What? I can barely hear you. Barb, are you in public?”
“Yeah. Just a diner,” I said. “I can’t exactly hang out on the street.”
Dick said, “Fine. What did you say?”
“That apartment was in fine condition. Why burn it?”
Dick laughed into his phone. “The apartment was an old dump that needed renovation. It’s insured for fire damage. I’m more worried about sending a message to the ants than protecting the salad.”
“A message?” I said.
“Yeah, a big smoky message. You know I got a new reputation around town? I’m the fire starter. I’m the guy who fights everything with fire. Funny how names tend to crop up like that, huh?”
“Hah fucking hah,” I said. The old man was leaning out of his booth, glaring at me. I flipped him off. Piss off, old timer, this is a private conversation.
Dick said, “Anyway, the damage should be minimal. You only set fire to room 410, right? The room where those assholes slept?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The blaze might have grown a bit, though, before the fire department got there.”
“Good enough,” Dick said. “Nice work. Fixin’ to have lunch?”
“Breakfast,” I said. “Hold on.” My waitress had appeared with a steaming omelet on an oval plate. I held a hand over the phone’s mouthpiece and met her suspicious gaze. “Thank you,” I said.
She said, “Huh? I mean, uh, you betcha!”
As soon as the waitress was gone, I said, “Sorry. Food’s here.”
Dick said, “Then I’ll leave you to it. You have a nice day, Barb. Tell you what, take the rest of the day off. You did good work.”
“Thanks,” I said without meaning it. This meant more time to myself, time I didn’t need or want. The thought of my lackluster fire came to mind. What was wrong with me lately? Then a thought, an inkling, awoke in the thrice-damned dumb part of my brain.
I said, “Dick, wait.”
I swallowed. The omelet looked nice, but my stomach was tied in a knot. I felt like a teenage schoolgirl. “Can I see you tonight?”
Dick was silent for so long that I thought he’d hung up. Finally he said, “Huh. Not getting along with Viola?”
I said, “Viola’s an angel. No problems there. I want to see you. Is it a yes or no?”
“Wow, Lenton, so pushy. Makes me think I should be calling you Boss. And you know, it’s pretty goddamn sexy how—”
“Fuck it, then. See you,” I said. I meant to hang up, but my hand wouldn’t move.
“Wait! Yeah,” Dick said. Thank god. “I could see you tonight. How about you come over to my house? We can watch a movie.”
I said, “I’m not drinking anything.”
“Are you still hung up on that?”
“Well, as a matter of fact—” I stopped myself, wiped my forehead. Calm down, girl. “Sorry. I go in defensive and I’m gonna put a wet blanket on the whole evening.”
“So it’s a date, then?”
Dick said, “Great! I’ll see you at seven. Looking forward to it, babe.”
I felt my face flush. “That’s Barb.”
“I know what I said.”
“Fuck you, Garrett,” I said, but I smiled.
“You, too, sweetheart. See you tonight.” Then a pause, and Dick added, “What do you like on your sandwiches?”
Dick’s house seemed all new to me, but I think I just hadn’t been paying attention during my last visit. Now I wandered, killing time and feeling awkward. The painting over the hearth showed a beautiful black-haired woman wreathed in shadows, reclining in the dark. In contrast, the rest of the room was stark white, and the corners and windows were framed with Corinthian columns. With the brass wall hangings, it struck me as almost pretentious, but not quite.
I passed into another room and flipped the light on. This was a big room, too, maybe a dining room repurposed as a study. A desk sat on one side near a tall window, the blinds shut against the night. A grand piano sat in the corner, and I stared at it, trying to figure out if it was real. Dick, a pianist? I couldn’t believe it. I stopped in front of the piano and struck a C. The sound was as sweet and full as I’d ever heard. It shivered in the air, hanging, filling the silence. Not enough to make me nostalgic, but enough to tease.
Dick was in the kitchen getting wine and sandwiches. I had the room to myself. I sank onto the bench and stroked its cushion with my fingers. Rich red velvet, definitely the real thing. The keys were old friends beneath my fingers, and I took a deep breath as I touched them. Why not? I had to stretch to remember my lessons, but the notes sprang into my mind.
I began to play.
“Who do you think Elise was?” Dick said.
I flinched, skipped a note, and kept playing. “Pardon?” I said.
Dick was over my shoulder, stroking his chin, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He said, “Elise. Ever wonder who she was? Why the old guy thought to write a song about her?”
I said, “What the hell are you talking about?”
“That’s the song you’re playing. Für Elise. Beethoven. Right?”
“Go check Wikipedia if you care,” I said, letting the keys fall silent. It was a short piece anyway.
Dick said, “I didn’t know you played, Barbara.”
I said, “I don’t. Not really, not since high school.” Dad had always mistaken my talent for passion, but I only ever bothered to play during lessons. Now the memory made the notes sour to my ear. I said, “I didn’t know you played.”
“I don’t,” Dick said, and I chuckled. “Viola does.” He laughed at my surprise and crossed his arms. “I put together a bit of this place with her in mind.”
“You did?” I said, and I eyed the noble instrument in front of me, its ebony sheen free of dust. A piano this fine probably cost upward of twenty grand. “Viola told me you two were an item but it didn’t work out. How close were you?”
Dick faced away and gave a long sigh. Smooth, Barbara. Dick said, “Yeah. Well, I got way ahead of myself. I was young. Stupid. And she was beautiful.”
Is beautiful, I almost said. I stared at Dick, who still wouldn’t look at me. He said, “Come on, then. You’re sitting on my bench all comfy-like. Play something else.”
“Fine,” I said, and I laid my fingers on the keys again. I only knew a couple of songs by memory.
The right one came to mind. D flat major to start. The music that emerged brought me back to one of the few times I’d ever found a little peace for myself. My eyelids wavered. I could play some of the composition with my eyes closed, but I was no show-off.
When the opening motif repeated itself, Dick said, “Uh, I don’t recognize this one. Nice, though. Real calming.”
“You don’t even want to guess?” I said, smiling despite my apparent insistence on having a miserable time.
Dick said, “You got me. No idea.”
Without missing a note, I said, “Clair de Lune. Third movement of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. Some people think it’s easier to play in C major without the flats. I prefer it this way.”
“Uh-huh,” Dick said. “Tell me, Barb, do you know any songs that don’t put someone to sleep?” I rolled my eyes and kept playing. A few minutes in, my memory of the song began to fail me, and I missed a few notes. I stopped playing, letting the keys rest rather than embarrassing myself further.
When I looked up, Dick was staring down at me, any hint of scorn or boredom gone from his face. He reached his hand down and tilted my chin up with his hand. I closed my eyes, and he kissed me.
When we broke apart and I was flushed red, Dick said, “You’re gorgeous when you play. You know that? Come on. Let’s go eat.”
I took Dick’s hand and he led me into the kitchen. An impressive range of fresh deli meats, sliced cheese, sauces, and fresh vegetables on cutting boards covered the counters. I said, “You went all out. But sandwiches? I half expected Italian sausage and spaghetti.”
Dick said, “This ain’t the mafia and I ain’t Italian. Sometimes I go for simpler faire. But the most important part is fresh ingredients, whatever you’re making. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed here.”
“No doubt,” I said. I stepped up to the counter and chose slices from a loaf of bread, fresh and still warm. “Don’t mind if I do.” As I reached for the pastrami, I glanced at Dick and said, “Gonna put on a movie?”
“Nah. Thought we’d talk,” Dick said, and there was something nervous about his grin. “Is my company enough?”
“It’ll have to suffice,” I said. Dick’s face fell, but I laughed and elbowed his arm. “That’s fine, Dick. I could use a quiet evening. Got any Grey Poupon?”
Thirty minutes later, we were on the living room couch sipping white wine. Surrounding speakers were playing one of Bach’s concertos; maybe I’d put Dick in the mood for the classics. I’d been in high school the last time I heard this song.
“I can’t put it all together,” I said, glancing from the blank TV screen to the man next to me. “You have a grand piano but you make ham sandwiches. You pay me to burn buildings but you take me on cozy dates. Any time we go out, it’s run-down bars just as often as five-star restaurants. My illusions are all shattered, and I’ve given up on sorting through the pieces.”
“Ah,” Dick said, “but all is for the mystique of Richard Garrett, crime lord extraordinaire! Sorry to disappoint, Barb. I always wanna do things my way. I didn’t start out all bourgeois, after all.”
“You didn’t?” I said, thinking back to the shitty apartment where I’d spent the first ten years of my life. “What was it like? You’ve never spoken on how you grew up.”
“Ah, well, that’s old news,” Dick said. He set his glass down and slouched, smiling warmly and clasping his hands on his stomach.
I said, “Well, come on. Your mystique won’t hold out forever.”
“You wound me.” Dick chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll dish. I grew up here, in New York. Dad was a stockbroker and Mom stayed at home. Had an older brother, too.”
“Had?” I said.
“He died when I was eight,” Dick said. My guts twisted about, but Dick shrugged and looked off at nothing. “Things got busy in my teens, and I forgot about him somewhere along the line. See, my dad gets out of the Navy with ideas in his head, goes into stock broking. He’s good at it, too, and he gets us out of our apartment and into a nice house. Somewhere along the line, Dad starts making friends, and they start telling him things. Gets in bed with the Gambetti family, trading secrets for favors on both sides. Everyone make a buncha money. Everyone’s happy.”
The world of white-collar crime was so far beyond my knowledge that I felt embarrassed. I thought of Bollocks and wondered just what he’d gotten up to over the years. Dick said, “Somewhere along the line, there’s a bump in the road. Maybe someone gets greedy, someone wimps out, starts talking about going to the police. I dunno. When I’m seventeen, Carlo Gambetti kidnaps my father.”
A chill passed over me and I looked Dick in the face. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “You were only seventeen,” I said. He nodded. “And this was your first encounter with the mafia?”
“Yeah, and I hated them,” Dick said. “So did Mom when they threatened her away from the police. She needed Dad, couldn’t stand to lose him again after all his time at sea. The family knows Dad’s got a lot of money saved up, and they want it back.” Dick sighed and shook his head. “Dad didn’t have money. Too busy spending it, I guess, on making things nice for Mom and me. So we take out a debt, a big one. We put up the house and most everything inside as collateral.”
I was afraid to speak. I said, “Did you see your Dad again?”
“Yeah,” Dick said. “But he isn’t the same when he comes home. The family was worse than anything in the Navy. Dad fell apart after that, and Mom, well, she fell apart right along with him. Sure, I had family left. They were still together; we still had each other. But for a long time, I was alone.”
Dick climbed up from the couch. As I watched, he stretched his arms over his head and bent backward until his spine popped. Then he sighed and dropped back down again. He said, “The story gets better soon, I promise you.”
“Well, I’d hope so,” I said, and he laughed. If the story didn’t get better, Dick wouldn’t be here in his million dollar home telling it to me.
Dick said, “See, I’m on my own now with two broken parents and no money. I’ve got no skills, no college fund, no hopes. What the fuck was I supposed to do? I ran away from home. Got away from it all.”
Something flared up in me. How could Dick abandon his parents like that? Then I remembered that I hadn’t seen Mom in years, and Dad was probably under police investigation now. I kept my mouth shut.
Dick said, “It’s almost an unconscious act that I end up working for the Gambettis. I’m way, way down at the bottom. Shoe-shining, that sort of thing. But I put on a big smile, and before I know it doors are opening. Crime pays, Barb, as I’m sure you’ve seen for yourself. A few deliveries, a few busted kneecaps, and suddenly this broke kid is making fat stacks. And it’s fun. It’s really fun, especially when I move up in a few years and get a few people under my umbrella.”
I said, “You had fun working for the enemy?”
“You bet your sweet ass I did,” Dick said. “I never let myself see it as giving in. I knew why I was there.” Dick showed me a smile more crooked than his usual. “Soon I was running with my own crew and made men were throwing me anything I wanted. It’s amazing how far a smile and some clever words can get you. You oughta take that to heart.”
I felt the need to defend myself here. I said, “I don’t need to smile. I have gasoline.” That had sounded better in my head.
Dick laughed and reached out to lay his arm over my shoulder. I leaned in near him and he kissed my hair. He said, “Spoken like a true lady. Anyway. At this point I’ve made some friends. I meet James and he starts looking out for me on jobs. Wes does the heavy lifting and the hits. And we’d have blown everything we earned if I hadn’t met Baker. Bollocks. Instead he took what we made and turned it out, recruited even more friends.”
Recruited? I could see where this was going. Dick raised a fist and grinned. “Finally I’ve got a little kingdom of my own. Finally I’ve got something. Understand, I’m only low level in the family itself. But I’ve got lots of future Blackbirds all around me. Finally, Bollocks says, finally it’s a good time.”
Dick took a deep breath and looked my way. His hand clutched my shoulder. “I wait until the whole family’s in one place, at a funeral. One of the made men’s got a chapel, and they’re all there to pay respects. James and Wes put a big fucking bomb in the casket.” Dick raised his hand and mimed pushing a button. Then he clenched his fist and threw his fingers open again. Boom.
“So you’re telling me,” I said, “that you took out the Gambetti family without firing a single shot?”
“What? Oh, hell no,” Dick said. “I missed a bunch of them, of course. Too many crews and underbosses. One guy who was home sick? Carlo Gambetti.” Dick showed his teeth and held his hand up shaped like a gun. “A single shot, like you said. Right in the face, courtesy of yours truly. My very first kill.”
I was at a loss for words. I felt out of place, like I hardly deserved to be working for him after what he’d accomplished, though I knew that idea was stupid. Dick said, “After that, I got my crew together and began to take over. People on the inside, people paid off or loyal to me, helped me take… Barb?”
I’d spotted something past the couch, in the shadowed hallway that I assumed went to a bedroom. A pair of round marble eyes peered at me as a little shape emerged from the dark. He strutted up to me, looked me in the face, and mewed.
No. No way.
I held my arms open and Fumbles jumped into my lap. “You—” I stared at Dick as the cat began to purr. “How? Why?”
Dick said, “I, uh, I figured the cops would be on your apartment before we could really clear out. But I stopped by before them and took a look around. Imagine who I found.” Dick lifted his hand toward my lap, and Fumbles nuzzled it with his face. “He warmed right up, didn’t he? He could barely stand me until now.”
“He has his mom back,” I said. I stroked my cat’s forehead, scratched behind his ears, and tried not to cry. “Dick, thank you.”
“Any time, Barb,” Dick said. “Least I could do for such a valuable employee.”
Then Dick’s eyes went wide as I leaned over and kissed him. He made a little sound and touched my cheek. I had to force myself to break away.
The music turned to Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies and I stayed in place with my cat on my lap. The cops were far away and I had no one to kill, nothing to burn. I cuddled against Dick’s side feeling nicer than I’d ever felt in my entire life.
Bagatelle No. 25, Für Elise, by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Suite bergamasque 3rd movement, Clair de lune, by Claude Debussy.
Gymnopédies, by Erik Satie.