Fire and Rain
My car drifted through traffic, barely faster than the others around me. I was in no hurry. I didn’t really want to see him anyway.
It was August 13th, exactly a month after my birthday, and I hadn’t even noticed until the day after. I told myself it was just one more year—who cares? Right. More like I had no one around to care. Dad hadn’t called this year, and I hadn’t called him. He’d probably been questioned or at least seen me on the news. I wasn’t worth his attention.
Speaking of attention, a black and white car was growing in the rearview, and flashing lights lit up as it began to tailgate me. I drifted my car over to the road’s shoulder without any conscious action. Look, a cop. Never seen one of those before.
Now a finger was tapping on my window. Again? Hadn’t I been here in February? What the fuck was their problem with me? The window came down and a voice said, “Could I see your license and registration, please?”
I turned on him and he flinched. I already knew I looked like shit. Then he was walking away, my documentation in hand, and I drummed my fingers on the wheel.
They would know who I was. They would have my information. They would put me in handcuffs again and put me in a goddamn cell and there was no way—
I climbed out of the car, leaving the door open. He spun around as I got close. He said, “Hold it right there. Please return to your vehicle!”
“Or you’ll what?” I said, and he reached for his belt. Pepper spray or gun? Didn’t matter. I was already in front of him. First punch right in the belly, under the ribs. Second in the face, and his head jerked as I clocked him.
I said, “Or you’ll shoot me? Arrest me? Put me in jail again?” He was a big guy. Slow, though. His blood smeared on my car’s side as I smashed his face into it.
“Is that it!?” My knuckles seethed and my chest was burning. He slumped against the car, held there by my hand clutching his collar. “Go ahead. Try.”
I took my ID and insurance from his limp hand. By the time I turned away, I’d already forgotten his face. He was still groaning, pawing along the tire for grip. I left him there and got back in the car. I started the engine. I put it in gear. And I heard him slide off as I drove forward.
My knuckles were bloody. My cheek stung where he’d gotten a hit in. And I had this horrible, crackling heat in my chest that made me shudder. It was going to burn me up, and that would be the end of everything.
“You gotta quit that shit, Barb,” Dick said. “I mean it. Do I have to cut you off?”
I rolled my eyes. I’d left my stash in the car tonight, just for him. “It’s fine, Dick. I know what I’m doing.”
“Yeah, and I know what you’re doing,” Dick said, and he loomed over me on the couch, hands on his hips, reminding me more of Dad than I found comfortable. “Crystal meth, Barb, really? You? That’s gonna fuck you up and it’s gonna fuck your work up. Where’d you even get it anyway?”
I wanted a smoke. A rare thought around Dick. I said, “Dealers. Moved in on Southside. It’s not cut and I trust them well enough. Now are we going to dinner or not?”
Dick sighed and plopped down on the couch next to me. No to dinner, then. Laying his chin in his hands, Dick said, “Dealers on my streets. The fuckin’ nerve. But with the cops out and about…”
I could sympathize with that. Ever since our hit on Silvers’s last place, the boys in blue had a bead on us, and they were systematically jabbing holes in our operations. An entire storehouse under our protection had been raided, everyone in handcuffs. Dick had kept me on the bench for weeks, lying low, and I had fuck all to do in the meantime except get high. I stared at the floor, at a blank spot between my feet, until Fumbles strolled into the room. Mindless of my troubles, he rubbed my leg with his face. I didn’t even have the energy to shove him away.
Dick said, “So you’re telling me that you go out at night and buy meth from dealers I don’t know, so you can get high away from home. Now, when the cops are crawling all over Ingram and you’re a fugitive, not to mention a lone woman meeting drug dealers at night.”
“Why do you care?” I said, and I turned on him, bumping Fumbles so that he scampered off. “Why do you care what I do for fun? I used to burn buildings for you, get in gunfights. When has my safety ever entered the equation?”
“Barbara, I care about you!” Dick said. “What kind of question is that? You’re my girlfriend, and I don’t wanna see you going off and doing some dumb fuck thing that’s gonna get you hurt or killed.” Dick looked angry, sure, but there was something else in his eyes. If I tried, I could let myself believe him. “That’s why I don’t want to see you using, and it’s why I don’t let you haul off to Albany after Silvers’s head!”
There was a hot, raw, sick feeling in me. My hands felt cold, and I realized they were clenched into bony fists. I said, “Back to this again? You didn’t seem to mind sending Viola.”
“Barb, don’t you start—”
I said, “You sent Vi off to die easily enough. Go spy on Silvers, babe! You’ll be fine, whatever! And now, when Silvers has fucked us over and brought cops down on us and killed Viola, now you’re concerned about someone.”
Dick said, “You’re not the same as her, Barb.”
A lump welled up in my throat. I knew I was in the wrong, but I didn’t give a fuck. I said, “So am I hearing that if I was in her place, if I had gotten caught instead of her, you’d have saved me?”
“What the fuck was I supposed to do!?” Dick said, leaping off the couch. “There was nothing!”
“You didn’t even try!” I said. My eyes were wet, and I fought to keep my voice steady. “You didn’t pull Vi out when we were about to attack Silvers’s warehouse, and you didn’t even consider taking her place!”
Dick said, “What do you want, Lenton? What do you want me to say? That—that I’d grant Silvers’s demand, cap myself on camera for her amusement, like that would save Vi? I loved her, Barb.”
I said, “So did I.”
“And I’m telling you there was nothing. Neither of us could have saved her.”
I’d gotten to my feet at some point, not sure when. I said, “I would take a bullet for you, Dick. I have. Viola did, too. But you wouldn’t do the same for her and me.”
Dick said nothing. He wiped his brow with shaking fingers and slumped into his seat. I looked toward the hallway where Fumbles was peering at us, as if peeking out of cover. I clicked my tongue and he ran up and into my outstretched arms.
“Wh-What?” Dick said. “Where are you going? What about dinner?” I was halfway to the door already. “Barb, wait!”
I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Dick.”
Dick said, “Listen, please. I can’t lose you, Barb. Not after all this.”
“Prove it, then,” I said, and I walked on, past the pretentious brass wall hangings and the painting of the woman with her weary stare. “Prove to me that I should stay.”
“What do you want!?” Dick said. “Fucking goddammit, Barbara! What the fuck do you want from me?”
I had an 8-ball waiting for me at home. I’d need it to get through tonight. Shifting Fumbles to open the door, I said, “I want a better answer than that.”
“Don’t t—don’t—don’t take another step, Barb,” Dick said. I spun around, and I’d never seen Dick so pale, so scared. He was falling apart, too. And there was a gun in his hand, his Beretta 81, trembling as he aimed at my face. I met Dick’s eyes and my heart broke. But I took hold of the doorknob and twisted.
“Barb, wait. Please!” Dick said. It was chilly tonight, and I realized I was leaving my coat. I had more at home.
I stepped through the doorway. Fumbles squirmed in my arms, and I held him tight as I shut the door behind me, leaving us both in the quiet, cold night.
Chris had been arrested, and I had to take over one of his stores. I put on a show of being pissed off, but I didn’t really care. I had nothing better to do at 2AM. I’d slept poorly since leaving Dick last week.
Tonight was warm enough that I only wore my jacket to hide the gun under my arm, and I stalked across cracked, faded parking spaces to the liquor store that hid our operation. A deal with the Baroness had come through and left us with a box of cash that needed distributing, and I was part of supervision and management. Boring work. But it was this or end up passed out on my floor. Again.
The door beeped a little melody at me as I stepped into the store. The cashier was a girl in her early twenties who glanced at me and muttered, “Just two more hours. Two more.” I walked right past her, turned toward the bathrooms, and pushed open a door marked Employees Only.
I stopped when a gun pointed into my face. I arched my eyebrows as the gun’s wielder, a skinny guy with a shaved head, said, “What the fuck? What the fuck are you doing here? Show me your hands!”
“Sit down,” I said. “If you can’t recognize your own supervisor, maybe I should get someone else to handle this job.” The little shit had knocked his chair over, and he stood near a table stacked with clean, loosely scattered bills. Across the table was a man whose eyes had gone wide as he saw me, but another guy was on a laptop in the corner with his back to me, uninterested in our stand-off.
The shaved-head kid’s arm wavered, and he showed his stained teeth in a sneer. Was he high? If he was high, I’d fire him myself. Even I knew not to smoke meth at work. As I stepped into the room toward a metal folding chair, the kid said, “D-Do-Don’t fuck with us! Who are you supposed to be?”
I said, “Barbara Lenton. Now sit down.” Maybe he thought I would hit him with the chair. I made a show of unfolding it and sitting down at the table. “Where were we?”
“Counting,” said the guy across the table. He was maybe my age, black, and he had a T-shirt on over thick muscled arms. He said, “We just got started. The cash goes into these envelopes based on the recipient’s share.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “What’s the total?” As I took my seat, the nervous kid stuffed his gun into his hoodie pocket and sank into his chair.
The more helpful of the two said, “Five-hundred Gs. And I’m Mike.”
“Hi, Mike,” I said. I glanced over the table, eying the brown paper sleeves already stuffed with bills. Then I remembered the guy in the corner, who hadn’t moved. I said, “Who is that over there?”
The man in the corner tapped a few more keys then turned to face me. James. I flinched, and he glared. I said, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Supervision.” James picked up his chair and dragged it across the bare concrete floor to the table.
“I’m supervision,” I said. “I was supposed to manage tonight. If you’re in charge, why the fuck am I here?”
James jabbed a sausage-like finger toward the table and said, “You’re here to work. I’m supervising you.”
I tried to imagine where I could hit James to really hurt him, besides his groin. I said, “That so? Well fuck you very much for the help.” Mike and the skinny guy glanced at him then at me, probably confused. “Did Dick put you up to this?”
“No,” James said, “I’m here on my own time. Gotta put up with so much of your shit that I figure I should make sure you don’t fuck this up, too. This is too much money to lose to a dumb mistake.”
I glared at James, and he held my gaze without blinking. Finally I sighed and looked down at the table. I had no energy to deal with him now. Under my breath I said, “You’re a dumb mistake.”
I got to work. Money. Counting. Every few minutes I glanced up at the guys or muttered instructions. Every third stack of bills or so had a few twenties crammed in, so we couldn’t just shove a stack in an envelope. We counted, sorted, and passed each envelope to James so he could check our work. Otherwise James worked on his laptop, but every few minutes he’d look up at me and narrow his eyes. By around four in the morning, I’d begun to consider shooting him.
I sealed what had to be our millionth envelope and crossed my arms. I said, “What do you get out of this, James? Why the fuck do you think I need a baby sitter?”
Without looking up, James said, “You and the boss are like children, that’s why. You’ve both been useless since the thing with Silvers began. Two of me couldn’t keep the both of you from fucking up. You still going out at night to buy meth?”
A vein throbbed in my forehead. Mike was still working, but he watched us from the corner of his eye. The skinny kid had gone stiff, hand tucked into his pocket. I said, “No, not really. Haven’t felt like it.” I had bought meth lately, but I actually budgeted it. Didn’t need an addiction on top of everything else. “Are you going to lecture me about being out past curfew?”
“Do you even know why you’re on this job?” James said, and I jumped as he clapped the laptop shut. “The police dragged Chris in to make him squeal on us. Whatever case they’ve built on us, I guarantee they’re moving it forward. You keep taking risks like that and you’ll bury us, Lenton.”
“We’re fine,” I said. I reached for another stack of bills, but only so I had something to clench in my fist. “We burned Silvers out of Ingram, you dipshit. We have a new partnership with the Baroness. Things could be calmer, sure…”
“Yeah, things are great, except for the fucking police!” James said. “They nabbed Chris and a bunch of our guys in the last month alone. Did you fucking forget they know your face? I’d almost think that you—” James grunted, opened his mouth, and shut it again. “Anyway. We don’t have Viola’s eyes on the inside anymore. We’re blind. And our business with the Baroness? That’s all of our business lately. Dick’s had to reel back operations, break promises, just to keep our people safe. We’ve lost ground in Ingram, and we’re not getting it back. Is—is this news to you, Lenton? Have you had your fucking head in the sand?”
I had nothing to say. I’d missed all of that. Too busy grieving and feeling like shit, I guess. I remembered the traffic officer I’d beaten a while back. Surely they’d caught me on his dash cam, and they’d be after me with a vengeance.
Yeah, things were bad.
While the truth slowly dawned on me, James looked almost pleased. He said, “So, someone’s got to be around to keep you and our limp-dick boss safe. Just think what would happen if even tonight’s job—”
A familiar melody played from afar, the liquor store’s door tune. All of us sat upright; the skinny guy sprang up so fast he knocked his chair over again. Outside our workroom door, I could hear indistinct voices. I met James’s eyes and said, “Was anyone else expected?”
Mike said, “No. It’s supposed to be just us four.”
“Fuck,” James said, already reaching for his gun.
I glanced toward the corner, planning my path to the back door. If this was a storage room, that door likely led to a loading dock. I said, “Mike, go on ahead. Hoodie boy, bag the money. Hurry. We can recount it later.”
Hands shaking, the skinny kid did as I said. From outside, the cashier said, “Hold on! You can’t go back there!” I heard no response, but I had no time to listen. I locked the door to the hall and edged back toward James, who’d drawn his revolver. We were red-handed, and we were out of time.