“Speak of the devil,” I said as we backed toward our exit.
Clutching the laptop to his chest, James said, “Can it. They don’t know we’re here yet.”
The doorknob shook. Another voice, right on the other side of the door, said, “Unlock it.” I made out the sound of keys fumbling, then dropping to the floor. Muttered apologies and more fumbling. Maybe the poor cashier was on our side.
I reached the exit and glanced back to find the skinny kid fumbling with a duffel bag only half-full of cash. At least one stack had split open, scattering bills onto the floor. I said, “What’s the matter with you? Hurry!”
Finally the doorknob clicked, and I watched with my heart in my throat as it slowly opened. A voice said, “Don’t worry. Once we have our look around, we—”
James fired his pistol and the door’s edge burst into wood chips. In the hall, a woman in a suit was clutching at her waist, but another shot from James took her in the leg and made her scream. The woman staggered into the door, knocking it wide open, and James shot her in the chest twice, so that she slumped facedown. No SWAT team here, just a pair of detectives; the other one scrambled for cover behind the doorframe. The cashier had dashed out of sight, hopefully out the front door.
“Lenton,” James whispered, “move up. See if you can flush him out.”
“Are you shitting me?” I said. “I don’t have a vest. I’d get myself killed.” I tried to envision driving the detective out in the open without taking a bullet myself, and no safe options came to mind.
The skinny kid in the hoodie had most of the money stuffed into the bag, though he was panicking, scattering more bills as he scampered to snatch up the rest. Waving my arm, I said, “Get out of here! We’ll handle this.” The kid was white in the face as he hefted up the duffel bag and ran for the back door.
The cop in the hall was talking into his radio. “—the liquor store on northwest Hudson and Brewster. Repeat, officer down at the liquor store on northwest Hudson and Brewster! Please send backup!” I felt my throat tighten up. That was Tony Vargas’s voice.
James glared at me, jerking his gun toward the hall door. When I shook my head frantically, he sighed and clenched his teeth, then crept toward the doorway. He disappeared around the doorframe, and a shot went off. Then another. And Tony howled with pain.
What was I supposed to do? I hadn’t even drawn my gun. James filled the doorframe again, dragging Tony by the collar behind him, and James flung Tony into the back room toward me. Tony was clutching his stomach, suede coat wet with blood, but his eyes went wide as he saw me. He said, “Barbara Lenton?”
I said, “Fuck. Oh fuck. James, why in god’s name did you do that? You shot a cop! We could have just run!”
James stood over Tony, who stared up at the revolver aimed at his forehead. James said, “I couldn’t let him see my face. Too late now.” James glanced toward the supine woman he’d shot first: Detective Bao, who lay at the center of a growing crimson puddle. James said, “That one’s dead. But they know we’re here now.” James kicked Tony’s side, and Tony screamed. “He nicked my shoulder, too.”
I said, “I don’t shoot cops!” Why was this happening? What had I done wrong? “You can’t do this, James!”
“Yes I can,” James said. “Unless you do it first.”
Tony said, “Barbara, I’ve—I’ve been looking for you.”
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” I said without thinking. “You weren’t supposed to be here, Tony.”
James spat onto the floor and bared his teeth at me. “Lenton, right now I don’t give a fuck what you have to say! We have more cops coming and I’m not wasting time.” He pulled back the hammer of his revolver.
“James, listen,” I said. “This is Anthony Vargas. He’s a decent cop and he stuck up for me a few times. You don’t have to do this.” Tony watched me as I spoke, his eyes bloodshot.
“You stupid bitch,” James said. “Yes I do.”
“No,” I said. “No!”
James fired. Tony’s head jerked and his face hit the floor. Some inhuman sound came up from my lungs and I was on James, screaming and punching. His fist slammed into my cheek and all I saw was spots of white.
James knelt down and dragged his fingers across the floor, snatching up bills. He said, “Stay here and end up in prison for all I care!” Then James stepped over me and stomped toward the back door. I’d fallen face to face with Tony; I could see where part of his skull had caved in.
“God dammit,” I said. “God fucking dammit!” I got up and screamed and pounded on the concrete floor until my knuckles split and my throat burned. I had tears running down my cheeks and a fire in my gut, something raw and vicious. I gave Tony one last long look. Then I staggered across the room and out the back door.
Dick said, “Goddammit, James! I told you we were trying to keep a low profile. I told you! Instead you kill two cops in a fucking public business? Why the fuck do we even bother hiding?”
Dick’s hideout was just about empty today, and his voice boomed from the workroom. I was listening in the hall, hidden from both of them.
James said, “The detective saw my face. Lenton can tell you about that. Or did she leave it out?”
Dick said, “Barb told me all I needed to hear. She told me you took the first shots instead of leaving with the money.” I smiled, glad to have Dick’s support. Then the image of him pointing a gun at me floated into mind and my smile vanished.
James said, “The money was still loose on the table, some on the floor. You expect me to abandon our one big score this month?” Then James paused. “Lenton, if you’re going to listen, get in here.”
I winced, weighing the consequences of me joining this conversation. I didn’t want to get hit again. Ah, fuck it.
I stepped into the room to find Dick and James standing almost, but not quite, in each other’s faces. Dick’s jaw dropped as he saw my black eye, and I avoided his gaze. Instead I glared at James and said, “Yeah, we stayed behind to get the cash. But when that skinny kid had it in the bag, you should have run off. Instead, you opened fire in a public store, with a civilian in the other room.”
James said, “You didn’t even help me. We could have knocked the cops out together, avoided this mess.”
“Bullshit!” I said. “You murdered a cop in cold blood. Executed him, when I told you not to.”
“Fuck you and your conscience, Lenton!” James said. “I’ve never been to jail, never even been arrested. I aim to fucking keep it that way, and if you think—”
“Enough!” Dick said. He slid beside me and I resisted the urge to step away. Dick said, “I’m with Barb. You fucked up, James. We’re trying to lay low, and you’ve pulled down hell on us. There won’t be a fucking end to the cops now, and that’s on you. Christ, James, what the fuck was it for? And what the fuck did you do to Barbara’s face?”
James was red from forehead to neck, but his eyes slowly took on a look of clarity that made my skin crawl. He said, “You’re taking her side. So is it ‘I’m with Barb’ or ‘Barb’s with me’? Which one?”
I said, “What the fuck difference does it make?”
“What indeed,” James said. He tossed up his hands and let them drop. “So that happened. Some cops are dead. We got the money and no one’s been arrested. What do you want to do about it?”
“What I’m gonna do,” Dick said, jabbing his finger at James, “is some fucking damage control. We’re cutting back ops everywhere, even more than before. Most of our guys aren’t even gonna see the light of day until this storm clears. And James, goddammit, why’d you have to do this? If you hadn’t been with me at the start—” Dick sighed and turned his back to us. Suddenly James’s glare seemed a lot more nerve-wracking.
James said, “We’re not done, Dick. We still have infrastructure. People who owe us. We’re not out.”
Dick was silent for a time. Then he said, “Barbara, Wes, and the people I can trust to do their jobs are gonna keep working. You just sit tight somewhere comfortable. I don’t want you on the street now.” James opened his mouth, but Dick said, “And don’t you say a fucking thing to me, James. You’re lucky I have a place for you here after this. Get the fuck out.”
The two men stood a foot apart, James looming over Dick, while my hand crept into my jacket for the gun. Just in case. Finally James jerked away and lumbered out the door.
When he was gone, Dick heaved an incredible sigh. “Sorry,” he said, “sorry.” Dick staggered toward a chair and slumped into it, laying his head in his hands. “We’re knee deep in shit and I’ve got you working around him.” I glanced away, uncomfortable with seeing Dick like this, hearing the waver in his voice. “I’m sorry about your cop friend.”
I said, “Tony was—” Then I stopped. I hardly wanted to be near Dick, but I needed to be near someone. I sat in a chair across from him. “Tony was kind to me. Sweet. Polite, even after he learned what I was. I knew he was on our case, that maybe he was even closing in, but…” I could see Tony in my mind, smiling, chuckling as I teased him. “Fuck. Fuck this mess we’re in.”
“Uh-huh,” Dick said. “But I’m glad you got out okay. The streets aren’t safe for us now, you least of all.”
“But these are my streets,” I said. I’d grown up in Ingram, walked to school past the smoky alleyways and panhandlers and dealers at the corners. “I’m not a princess, Dick. I couldn’t stand to give up and hide now. I don’t have it in me to quit.”
“Atta girl,” Dick said. He smiled at me, but I just looked away, and he sighed. “I care for you, Barb. You know that, right?”
“I know,” I said. “But you’ve got a shitty way of showing it.”
“I’m not—” Dick gave a weak laugh and looked up at nothing. “I’m not good people. I’ve done dirty stuff to get this far and now it’s blowing up in my face.”
“You’re just as fucked up as me,” I said.
Dick met my eyes. My face was beginning to heat up; he gulped and said, “We’re perfect for each other, huh?”
I said, “I don’t know what we are.” I wondered yet again what I was doing at Dick’s side, staying throughout all this pain, now flirting with him when we both felt like shit. I got up and made for the door.
Dick said, “I care, Barb. I care for you. I just want you to know—”
A song began to play from Dick’s direction. Clair de Lune on acoustic guitar? Dick sighed as he fished out his phone, then said, “What’s up, Bollocks?”
I stopped at the doorway, curious, and drummed my nails on the wall as I waited. Dick’s jaw dropped. He said, “No. No way. You sure?”
“Okay,” Dick said. “Good eye. It’s just me and Barb in here now. We’ll clear out before anyone arrives. Okay. Bye.” Dick snapped his phone shut and looked up at me. “We gotta go, Barb.”
“What did Smith say?” I said.
Dick was already on his feet, fishing in a desk drawer. He tossed a hand towel my way and took out one for himself. Dick said, “Listen. Don’t panic. Some guys in plainclothes are watching the building’s front door, right outside.
“Fuck,” I said. Who else could it be but the police? And how did they keep finding us? This bunker was supposed to be a secret.
Dick said, “We’ve gotta go. Will you help me wipe down surfaces?” He began to brush the towel along his desk. “No clue what the cops have on us, but we need to get gone, and there are enough fingerprints in this hideout to bury all of us. We hurry, we can wipe down everything in a few minutes.”
“Got it,” I said, and I attacked the wall where I’d just put my hand. “If we’re going, I need to pick up a couple of bags in the lounge. We can take the elevator up a few floors then go down the fire escape.”
“You got your gun?” Dick said, and I nodded. “Good. Wait, fuck. We’ve got a shit-ton of illegal guns in the armory!”
This was getting complicated. I said, “Anything we can carry out?”
“Maybe a few small arms,” Dick said. “But we’ve got armor and rifles and boxes of grenades in there.” Dick wiped his forehead, then a chair against the wall. “Maybe I should call in some people. Fuck! How the fuck did they find us here?”
“We don’t for sure that it’s the cops,” I said, though even I knew that was false hope. “Dick. I could just torch the place. Take everything and all the prints with it.”
“No,” Dick said. “Simmer down, Barb. More fires, more shit breaking, is the last thing we need now. We’ve gotta lay low. I have another safehouse waiting. We leave the armory locked up tight for now.”
I had no better idea. I doubted I had the materiel to destroy a concrete bunker, even from inside. I said, “Okay, you’re right. Let’s hurry this up. Don’t run off without me.”
“I won’t.” Dick flashed a white smile, and for a second, maybe less, he was his old self again. “I need you protecting me, after all.”
That made me feel warm, but it was like a match flame in snowfall. I kept on wiping, trying to clean everywhere a hand might have touched. The office, the meeting room, the firing range, the doors… I wiped and ground my teeth and stewed at the pointlessness of it all. Every step of the way, no matter what I did, things were going from bad to worse.
Tonight we met in an apartment where we had to keep our voices down because the old lady next door was sleeping. James was the last one in; he glowered at everyone as he took up a spot by the door. Bollocks, Wes, Chris, two guys in suits, and a guy dressed like a wino were stuffed into the living room with me. Dick was on the couch, looking over us and fidgeting as he counted heads. I could sympathize. There were only a few of us left free and working.
“So here’s what’s up,” Dick said. “I know we’re down a few guys and the digs are shitty, but we’re back on our feet. Ah, fuck it. Back up.” Dick laughed and shook his head as he stood. “That’s shitty, starting out all negative. You all know where we stand and what we’ve been through. And yet we’re still in business.”
Dick began to pace through the living room, and I yanked my foot away before it got stepped on. Dick said, “Here’s what’s up: the Baroness is calling in her first favor. We’ve done good biz with her so far, but we owed her after she helped with that big hit. Well, right now she needs about the same thing.”
“With Silvers?” Wes said. “That what you’re saying?”
Dick said, “Yeah. Silvers is on the Baroness’s case now. Can you believe it?” Dick chuckled and shook his head. “Tenacious bitch. All that bouncing around in Ingram, and she’s still got energy to spare. She’s set up shop in Garrison now, and lemme tell you, the Baroness fucking hates that.”
I said, “What do we do about it? Our war with Silvers is supposed to be over.” Dick gave me a cold look, and I matched it. Silvers had murdered Viola, sure, but that wasn’t worth restarting our war.
Dick said, “We’re only on the hook for this one hit, just one job. Y’all listening? For some reason Vonnie has her people just a couple minutes from the Baroness’s condo, in a place called the Danbury building. Now, the Baroness could send the police in, but as with everything under her umbrella, she wants this handled quietly.”
I said, “We’re ‘quietly’?”
Dick said, “Well, we’re quieter than a SWAT team. The Baroness works with the police in Garrison, but she can’t just use them as her private assassins. And she doesn’t have much in the way of guns or muscle because she runs her city just fine without ‘em. Meanwhile, we owe her, and proper dealing now is our gateway to more business later.”
“Makes sense,” said one of the suits. He’d never gone into battle with us and I hadn’t bothered to learn his name.
Dick said, “So we’re her first choice. We’re well-armed and we have experience against the kind of men Silvers hires. We go in there, boom, one hard strike to clear out the nest. We get paid, we get the fuck out of town before the story hits the news, and the debt’s clear.”
I said, “You make it sound simple.” I could count on one hand the number of operations that hadn’t gotten fucked up somehow.
“Simple enough,” Dick said. “So whadaya say? You killers up for one last run?”
Wes said, “We get to play it cool after this?”
“Yeah,” Dick said.
Dick said, “So Bollocks’s putting together the details and discussing ramifications with our friends. Right?”
“Yes sir,” Bollocks said. “The Baroness has been open about the situation and forthcoming with relevant intel.”
Dick said, “Knew I could count on her.” Having paced a lap around the room, Dick paused in front of the couch. “Any questions, comments, concerns?”
“Do I have to set anything on fire?” I said, and a few guys laughed.
“Nah,” Dick said. “After this, though, you can take a vacation. Alright, people, September 5th! Two Fridays from now. Save the date. Now get outta here.”
People began to file out the door, already muttering to each other in eager tones. I wasn’t feeling it, though. I lingered, and Dick caught my eyes as I stepped up to him. James was the last out; he gave us a long scowl and disappeared out the door. Dick rolled his eyes and said, “What’s up, Barb?”
“I don’t like this,” I said. “Leaving town for work is fine when the heat’s coming down on us. But finding more trouble in another city is just stupid.”
“Why do you say that?” Dick said. He sat on the couch, but I hesitated to join him. He probably wanted us to get back together, and even talking casually with him was a step in the wrong direction. I stayed standing and Dick frowned.
I said, “We’ve always had the home field advantage in Ingram. Spies, safe houses, chop shops. Silvers was the invader and we were defending home territory.” Dick had his fingers steepled and his chin sitting on his hands as he listened. “But this time we’re overextending our reach, which is pretty shaky in the first place. If this fucks up, we have nowhere to hide and no easy avenue of escape. We’re dealing with unfamiliar police, too, and even if they’re told to stay away, they could be trouble. Even without all of that, I dislike the idea of mercenary work for another kingpin.” Queenpin? Whatever. “Especially when it’s out of town.”
“Hm.” Dick closed his eyes and sighed through his nose. “Good points. Why didn’t you bring this up five minutes ago?”
I said, “I didn’t want anyone arguing with me.” Dick laughed, and I tried not to smile.
“Smarmy little thing,” Dick said. “You make a pretty interesting woman, Barb.”
I said, “Uh-huh. Pretty or interesting?”
“Why not both?” he said. He laughed and I chuckled with him, but I had to stop. I’d gotten sidetracked.
I said, “We’ve been on a slope, Dick, going downhill. Just about every job, every altercation, has involved more chaos than the last. First we were arsonists, and now we’re cop killers. Our luck has been really fucking bad, and another gang war is no way to improve it.”
“I know,” Dick said. “It’s risky, and we may just be setting ourselves up for disaster. But we need the work right now, and all news says the job is solid. In, bang, out. The Baroness has been an ally to us in a time where allies are hard to come by.”
So his mind was made up. Fine. I said, “You have a lot of respect for her.”
Dick said, “Well, being around you has me looking at all these badass women differently.”
“So that’s all there is to it,” Dick said. “I settle my debts, Barb. One last hit and we’re on equal footing with the Baroness. We can lay low, lick our wounds, bathe in our giant money vaults.”
“You’re not bullshitting?” I said, and I finally sat beside him. “We do this, we take care of business with Silvers, and we can finally sit and rest?”
“Barb,” Dick said, and I held still as he slung an arm around my waist, “have I ever lied to you?”
“No,” I said, though I wasn’t sure. Dick didn’t deserve the benefit of my doubt, and I wondered why I was willing to give it. He leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek; my face flushed and I looked away.
“Okay,” I said. I got up and straightened my jacket again. “I’m in.”
As I stepped toward the door, Dick said, “Do you regret this? Joining my crew, joining me? You’ve had every chance to get out, every reason, and you’ve stayed.”
Did I regret this? Did I regret letting Tony die, being complicit in Glass’s murder, burning down god knows how many buildings, shooting gangsters and getting shot myself, gaining and losing a best friend, gaining and losing a boyfriend? Did I?
“No,” I said, “not really. I mean, individual choices, the murders, the deaths, yeah. Yeah, I regret that. I’ve done shit I hated myself for. But before I met you, I had no direction at all. I can’t imagine what else I would have done.”
Dick said, “If you could go back and change things so we never met, you wouldn’t?”
“No,” I said. Dick made a sound in his throat, but I was already walking away. “Goodbye, Dick.”
“Seeya, Barb. Have a nice night.”