Every Breath You Take
I awoke, as I had on several mornings recently, in Dick’s bed. Dick and I traded little kisses as we got ready, and he made coffee for both of us while I texted Viola about lunch plans. Dick liked to play music while we ate, and so a gentle symphony played over the speakers while I scarfed down a Bacon, Egg, and Cheese, getting grease all over my hands. On our way out the door, Dick said, “I will never, ever, get used to the sight of you wearing a t-shirt, Barbara Lenton.”
“It’s warmer lately,” I said. “The suit gets stuffy.” I grabbed Dick’s tie and tugged him in for another kiss, making him squeak with surprise.
“Yeah, but still!” Dick said. “You wear suits. Most of our crew have only seen you in suits. You wear suits when you don’t even need to. This…” Dick ran a hand across my hip, lifting the hem of my t-shirt just a bit and touching my navel stud, another dumb decision from years past, with his thumb. “This remains a startling but welcome change.” I batted his hand away and he laughed.
“Hands off. You’ve got work to do,” I said. “We get handsy here and Bollocks is gonna ask questions.”
“No he isn’t,” Dick said. “See you this evening, Barb. Should be just a couple meetings then home early for me.”
I reluctantly pulled away from Dick and grabbed my keys from where they hung on the wall next to his. I said, “Call me if anything comes up. I’ll come running, t-shirt and jeans or not.”
“And if I call you for an emergency meeting?” Dick said, straightening his tie where I’d tugged it.
I rolled my eyes. “Then I’ve got a spare suit in my car. No one but you and Viola get to see me looking…”
“Comfortable?” Dick said.
“Casual,” I said. “See you for dinner tonight.”
“See you, sweetheart,” Dick said. He opened the door for me and the chill hit my bare arms immediately. As I hesitated, Dick edged past me toward his car in the driveway.
Glancing back at me, Dick said, “You, uh, you gonna put on a jacket?”
“No,” I said, glaring at him. “I’ll be inside all day anyway.”
“Good plan,” Dick said.
He spun toward me and walked right up, cupping my cheek for another kiss. I kissed him back, but he held us together, and my arms began to shiver. After far too long, I shoved him back and he broke out laughing. “Damn you, Garrett!” I said, frantically rubbing my prickled arms. “I hope your AC breaks down and you freeze to death!”
“You, too, babe!” Dick said, sauntering toward his car. “See you tonight!”
Grumbling and smiling at once, I slipped into my car and turned the heat up. That jerk. I’d have to find a way to get back at him, ideally before our usual truce during dinner tonight. Dick was an asshole as always, of course. So was I. How else would we be able to stand each other?
“You look chipper today,” Viola said, dropping into our booth across from me.
“No I don’t,” I said. “The cold just has me awake this morning, is all. You look downright cozy by comparison.”
Viola wore a stylish long-sleeve dress with an even more stylish long coat that she’d taken off and folded beside her. She looked like any of the normal, boring folks in the restaurant around us, except for maybe her dyed hair. Viola said, “Speaking of cozy, how’ve you been doing, Ms. Lenton? Your visits to Dick’s place are getting longer and longer these days.”
“Dick has my cat,” I said. Our eyes met, and I held my face still as Viola’s slowly morphed into a grin. Eventually I broke down and smiled, too. “Yeah, well, things are going well. Dick’s not quite so annoying as I thought, and he has good taste.”
“In?” Viola said.
I shrugged. “Movies, food, music. Girls.”
Both of us chuckled, but I gave Viola a curious look and said, “Is this weird for you? We kind of have a triangle between us three.”
“A closed triangle, even,” Viola said, and she smirked as I averted my eyes. “I think it’s cute. You’re happy, and my god, Dick won’t stop talking about you, even when I meet him for work.”
“Really?” I said.
“Really,” Viola said. “Like a kid with his first crush. It’s precious.”
I said, “Listen, Vi, if this ever gets uncomfortable for you or anything—”
“Then I’ll deal with it,” Viola said. “Come on, Barb. It’s not my business whether you’re dating or not!”
“Yeah, but I like having you around,” I said. “I don’t want to piss you off every time I talk about fancy dates and stolen kisses. I really mean it.”
“I know,” Viola said. “And thank you, Barb. I’m fine. Dick and I dated a couple years ago, but we’re old news now. He was an eager, ambitious boss quickly moving up in the world, and I was…” Viola sighed. “Lonely. Both of us learned from our relationship, but that was then, and this is now. Now my favorite grouchy arsonist is dating my favorite crime boss, and I get to tease both of you when you gush about each other. It’s great!”
“Oh good,” I said. “I was worried we’d stir up latent feelings of jealousy or frustration, but good to hear you find us entertaining.” Viola laughed, and I stuck my tongue out at her, trying not to laugh as well.
A waitress came up to our table with the food we’d ordered at the front booth: an Artisan Sicilian Club for Viola and a Mega Ultra Omelet for me. Our conversation went quiet as we ate, and I watched the door, eying the passersby outside through the glass windows. This gave me a unique and horrifying perspective on Detective Anthony Vargas climbing out of a parked car outside, so that I gasped and Viola twisted around in her seat to see.
Tony, followed by a bored-looking woman who was probably his partner, opened the front door of Grayson’s Grub and stepped inside. Tony’s gaze swept across the restaurant floor for a moment before landing on me, and his whole body flinched. His hand disappeared inside his jacket. His partner brushed off the waitress at the front booth, and both detectives drifted toward Viola and me, calmly and politely.
“Hey, Tony,” I said.
“Ms. Lenton,” Tony said, and his partner spun around to watch Tony’s back. Other patrons were peering at us now, and Grayson himself, balding and fat-cheeked, emerged from the kitchen to watch. Tony’s next attempt to speak died off as he realized the entire restaurant had gone quiet.
Feeling like I had to take initiative, I scooted toward the wall and patted the plush seat beside me. I said, “Come on, don’t just stand around. Sit with us.”
Tony said, “Ms. Lenton—”
“Barbara,” I said. “Good to see you, too.”
“Barbara,” Tony said. “You like this restaurant, don’t you? Detective Bao thought we might find you here again.” Tony tilted his head toward the other detective, who seemed busy glaring at everyone around us. “Barbara, I’d like you to come with us to the precinct. You’re under arrest for fleeing from police pursuit, felony reckless endangerment, and gang affiliation. Please, come with me and we can keep this civilized.”
Viola, caught off-guard and out of her element, glanced between Tony and me like a cat about to bolt. I steepled my fingers on the table and said, “Tony. Have you ever been to Grayson’s? Ever been inside? Maybe you can guess what kind of clientele this friendly street restaurant serves.”
Tony glanced around and noticed, probably for the first time, the glaring patrons reaching into jackets, pockets, purses, and waistbands. Tony’s eyes landed on Grayson, who raised his burly arms in an expression of peace, but I knew Grayson had a shotgun hidden behind the counter within arms’ reach. Tony glanced back at me and muttered, “All of this for you?”
“Not for me,” I said. “Grayson’s is a nice, cozy restaurant where anyone, from any crew, can come and be served. We have a bar or two in town that are the same way. The staff and patrons here like to watch out for each other, protect the peace and all. So if someone were to, say, draw a gun… everyone draws a gun.” I patted the seat next to me again. “Let’s not make a scene. Just sit down and chat with us. No one’s leaving in handcuffs, or in an ambulance, today. Come on, sit.”
Detective Bao had turned away from the patrons’ glares and now beckoned to Tony, shaking her head. Tony groaned and glanced at the offered seat again. Sensing his discomfort, I got up and sat by Viola instead, dragging my plate across the table with me. Tony and Bao sat in the now-vacated seat. The onlookers around us relaxed, though some of the less rough-looking patrons glanced around nervously, probably trying to puzzle out what the hell was going on.
I beckoned for Tony to speak, but he just stared at me, brow furrowed in a perpetual wince. When no one spoke, Detective Bao addressed Viola and said, “Could I ask you a few questions about the Blackbird Gang?”
“Am I under arrest?” Viola said.
Bao said, “No.”
“Then no,” Viola said. “I don’t answer questions.”
Bao shrugged. “Had to ask.”
Viola stared at Bao in befuddlement, but I met Tony’s eyes and smiled. I said, “Circumstances aside, it is kinda nice to see you again. We left off on the wrong foot last time.”
Tony said, “You rammed your car into mine.”
“Debatable,” I said. “That’s a matter for the courts. No, I mean before that, when I was in lockup and you comforted me. Thank you for that, Tony.”
“I stood up for you,” Tony said. “I made myself look like an idiot in front of Detective Glass and Sergeant Brown. You know Internal Affairs has me under a magnifying glass? They suspect I might have something going on with you, that I kept your secrets and ratted you out when things went bad. I don’t even want to imagine how they’ll treat this meeting today when I report it.”
“I know,” I said. “Sorry.” And I was. Tony’s jaw dropped, and Viola looked at me like I’d confessed to a judge. I said, “I’ve been in trouble lately and I lied to you a bit to get out of it. That was shitty of me. I bet you have pretty few suspects who apologize, huh?”
“Actually you’d be surprised,” Tony said. “Plenty of people are really torn up when we bring them in or they come to confess. It happens now and then, especially with kids. But it would be naïve of me to expect that from you, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Bao said, “Um, should I leave, Vargas? Is this supposed to be a private conversation?”
Tony said, “Would you even let us leave?”
I said, “What? What’s that supposed to mean? You aren’t hostages or anything. Go on if you want. I’m not stopping you. Just relax, you two.” As Bao reached out of sight, I added, “And no phones, please. Let’s keep this polite. No phones at the table.”
Bao glared at me but set her hands on the tabletop where I could see them. Tony sighed and shook his head. He said, “You take to this sort of role easily, Barbara. I should have guessed earlier by the way you act. You’re not even a little nervous about this Mexican standoff, are you?”
“No,” I said. “Wait, was that a joke? Are you—” I glanced at Bao. “Is he Mexican?” Bao nodded. I said, “Ha! Clever, Tony. You’re not nervous either, are you?”
“I—” Tony wiped his forehead. “That wasn’t intentional. I—this is fucked up, Barbara. You’re wanted in connection with a gang shooting. You could go to prison for the rest of your life. We can’t be buddy-buddy after that!”
“Why not?” I said. “Oh, is there a wife involved? Does she not want you talking to other women?”
Tony said, “What? Er, yes! And no, that’s not the problem! Barbara, this is stupid!”
Some of the patrons glanced our way again. “Voice down,” I said. “Look, Tony, you’re making a big deal of this. Whatever I’m suspected of doing, we can still have a goddamn civil conversation, right? I mean, sorry about your car, or rather, sorry you were in a car accident that I don’t know anything about.” Tony glared. “But come on, just calm down. It’s past noon now, but this place serves breakfast all day. You could eat and chat with us.”
“I’m on duty,” Tony said. “Detective Bao and me both. We came here to ask about you.”
“And you get to talk to me directly,” I said. “You could even say this is part of your investigation, huh?”
Viola gave me a wide-eyed look, like What the fuck are you doing? Bao and Tony met eyes for a moment, but Tony shook his head. He stood up from the booth, and Bao sighed before rising as well. Tony said, “No, I don’t think so. Barbara, if you ever want to talk about any potential gang associates, or bring anything to the IPD’s attention, feel free to call. But beyond that, I’d like to keep this entirely professional. You’ve embarrassed me enough already.”
“Tony,” I said, but Tony shook his head, pushing a business card across the table. That actually stung a bit; I could count my friends on one hand and it hurt to see Tony go.
“Just one question,” Tony said. “Barbara, what brought you to this point? Why are we having a tense conversation in a gang restaurant instead of, say, meeting at Olive Garden for a nice lunch? Why are you with them? You were a servicewoman, and an educated one at that. You could go anywhere.”
“I could have,” I said. “But I didn’t. Getting a job at a desk, taking shit from corporate fuckheads, getting paid less all my life because I have a vagina instead of a penis? I don’t think so. Clawing my way up in some company just to get laid off in a few years while the CEO gives himself another vacation? No. I’d go insane living a life like that. I’d rather put a gun in my mouth.”
Glancing at each other, Tony and Bao sank back into their seats. Tony said, “Okay, sure. So you see your life as just a choice between Dilbert or The Fast and the Furious?”
I said, “What the hell is Dilbert?”
“Nevermind,” Tony said. “Barbara, what’s the point? Is it the money? The thrill? What sent you down this path?”
“Mostly a series of dumb decisions,” I said. “I can admit that. But here I am, having a nice brunch with three friends—”
“Say what?” Bao said.
“—so I’d say things have turned out fine,” I said.
“Even though you’re a fugitive?” Tony said. “Having to hide among criminals and ex-convicts just to have a meal in public?”
I sat a little taller and leaned toward Tony a bit. “Wanna know a secret?” I said. “I’m the most content I’ve been in my entire life. I chose between a path that scrapes off individuality like it’s mold, and a path that lets me have some power and fun for the first time ever. Now, if I’d just wanted to swing a gun around, should I have joined the police force instead? Maybe. Could I have withstood years of traffic duty before I ever got a decent assignment? No. So here we are, Tony. We each make decisions that suit us best. Your path has been completely different from mine, yet both of us have ended up at this table in Grayson’s, and I’m the only one who’s got an omelet in front of me. So don’t be too judgy, huh? Try to keep an open mind.”
Tony’s jaw hung open and he stared at me, perhaps trying to tell how serious I was. Then he shook his head and stood again; Bao got up with him. Tony said, “So we’ve made our choices. Sure. Barbara, if we meet each other again, it’ll probably be because you’ve been arrested and you’re awaiting trial.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But at least then maybe you’ll chat with me instead of being so uncomfortable, huh?”
Bao rolled her eyes. Tony fixed me with a long, solemn stare. He opened his mouth to speak, but after a moment he shook his head and turned away. “Have a nice brunch, Barbara,” Tony said, and both detectives drifted toward the door, watched by almost everyone else in the restaurant.
When the detectives had gone and the door chimed shut behind them, I got up and sat across from Viola again. “That was ballsy,” she said. “We’re gonna have to leave carefully. They’ll be trying to identify your car, if they haven’t already.”
“Fine,” I said. “I can lose them in the city. It’ll keep their eyes off your car, too, unless they call for backup.”
“Nothing fazes you today, huh?” Viola said. “Jesus, Barbara! That was kind of a close call! You know that, right?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “But that was fun! You weren’t having fun?”
“I was having a heart attack,” Viola said. “Not really. But that detective knew you pretty well. Are you two old friends or something?”
I said, “No. We bumped into each other soon after I joined the Blackbirds. He’s just a nice guy who stuck his neck out for me a bit too far.”
“Uh-huh,” Viola said, and she finally reached for her sandwich, which had gone untouched this whole time. She added, “So, Barbara, that little speech you gave… how much of that was just bullshit?”
“Oh, like seventy percent!” I said. “I set things on fire for money, Viola. I’m not gonna pretend I have a good reason! I was struggling to keep a straight face the entire time.”
Viola laughed, and I chuckled with her. I stabbed a fork into my omelet; frustratingly, it had gone cold during our stand-off with Tony. I had a bite halfway to my lips when Viola said, “So… you really are content with the Blackbirds? All happy and cozy, more than you’ve ever been in your life?”
I said, “What? No. Shut up.” I stuffed a too-big bite of omelet in my mouth, pretending to glare at Viola. She laughed again, and we settled into our planned lunch, as if that whole nerve-racking debacle was just another day in the life.