Straight from the Heart
White. Ceiling. Hospital. Fuck. I tried to sit up, and the pain was like another bullet in my gut. My chest burned incessantly, from my collar down to my navel. My arm was in a sling, but I couldn’t even feel it, just an arm-shaped field of agony. The rest of me was hidden under a blanket and a hospital gown. I pawed around with my spare hand until I found a button, and I sighed with relief as a nurse came.
The morphine tingled on its way in. The nurse waited until my eyes could focus on his, then said, “You’ve been shot, Ms. Lenton. It’s an achievement that you’re still with us. How do you feel?”
“Mm,” I said. “Has anyone come to visit?”
He said, “A man was here two hours ago. He told me to call when you were awake. Want me to?”
I nodded. Apparently my voice would be coming and going.
The nurse added, “Would you like anything? Some water, perhaps?” I nodded again. He gave me a tiny smile as he stepped out through the door.
So I was safe here, more or less. At least I wasn’t handcuffed to the bed. I went limp and let the morphine do its work. All I could really do was wait.
Bollocks said, “I still don’t fully understand the travesty of our last assault.” I sat up, bearing the pain, as he offered me a glass of water. “James’s betrayal confounds me, and it’s cast doubt on my understanding of who our enemies are. The men and equipment we faced were far above Silvers’s usual stock.”
I said, “I should have seen it coming. I was stupid. James had been looking at Dick and me funny for months. I knew he hated me; I hadn’t guessed he’d come to hate Dick, too.”
“Me neither,” Bollocks said, and rested his chin in his hand. I’d never seen Bollocks sulk, but that was certainly what it looked like. He said, “I am doing my best on damage control, Barbara. But the evening of that bloodbath, the police hit our hideout. I escaped their raid and immediately came to your assistance.”
A question stuck in my head, but I already knew the answer. I said, “You keep saying I, not we. Where’s Dick?”
Bollocks’s eyes closed. I said, “Fuck. So they got him. James planted a trap with Silvers and they caught him in it. But I bet James didn’t figure on biting it inside the apartment building. I made sure of that.” Then this horrible thought hit me. I said, “Tell me James stayed down. Did they find his body?”
“The building collapsed on itself,” Bollocks said. “Firefighters couldn’t save it, but I can surmise that plenty of Silvers’s troops escaped. Ours… ours, not so much.”
“I shot James in the neck,” I said. I could almost feel the gun jumping in my hand. “No way he got up after that.”
Bollocks said, “Perhaps you aren’t hearing me, Barbara. Everyone who went into that building is either dead or has been arrested, except for you. Wes is dead, and Silvers has kidnapped Dick. James’s survival is the least of our worries.”
My mind was fogging over, the morphine making me sleepy. I said, “Who’s left? Who and what do we still have?”
Sitting up, Bollocks said, “My accounting and legal departments are fine. Most of our businesses are intact. A few owe us protection, though we have no staff to collect it. Most of our rank and file are safe in hiding for now. But…”
“But?” I said.
Bollocks said, “One of my ledgers is missing. It logs certain pay distribution for the rank and file, percentages for the officers, bonuses for merit. I have a suspicion that James took it.”
“Did you see him with it?” I said. Was my name in that book? That thing could condemn all of us.
Bollocks said, “No, but I have never once left it lying around. I can only assume James took it. In that case, it could be at his home, or with Silvers…”
I said, “Or with the police?”
“God help us.” Bollocks pushed the chair away and began to pace before my bed. “Everything is falling apart.”
“I know how you feel,” I said.
Bollocks spun to face me and said, “No, you don’t. I fought to establish our hold on this city, Barbara. I was by Dick’s side since the beginning. Every failure we’ve suffered is as much my responsibility as his.”
I had nothing to say. I hated to see Bollocks like this; I stared at the ceiling instead. The hospital room was so bland and sterile. This was a terrible place to die. I said, “I’m useless like this. Sorry.” I could barely hear my voice anymore. “I should be out helping you.”
Bollocks said, “Barbara, you were shot six times. Once in your left shoulder, four times in the chest, a shotgun to the arm. I am amazed you’ve survived. You have no reason to apologize.”
Dad appeared before me, a vision or a dream. I should call him. I said, “I’m unbreakable.”
“It seems that way.” Bollocks looked down at me and showed a rare fond look; maybe he thought I was falling asleep. I was. He said, “Stay put and rest well, Barbara. You deserve it. You’ve given nothing but your best so far.”
“No,” I said, and my eyes shut against my will. “Should have done better.”
“What’s left of Chris’s team has been arrested,” Bollocks said. “The police got them from their apartments.”
I said, “In bed? In the shower, shit like that?” Bollocks nodded. “Great. Do we have any muscle left?”
Bollocks said, “A few guys on the street. But I’ve lost touch with Wes and Viola’s staff, and…” Bollocks rubbed his eyes, and I noticed new dark circles beneath them. “We have no more eyes on the police force. I don’t even know for sure when one of ours is arrested. I have to wait for calls or follow the news.”
As an idea struck me, I said, “How about Dick’s properties? I know we had a few places left, legal or not. Anywhere we could hide people?”
Bollocks shook his head. “Dick’s assets have been frozen pending investigation. The hotels, apartments, and such are registered under his name as legal businesses, so I can only assume they’re being monitored or searched. As for the other properties, I have no idea what James revealed, so I must assume the worst. So—uh, how are you?”
“Fine,” I said. “The stitches in my arm are acting up. It hurts like a mo—it hurts, but I’ve been walking around a bit and stretching my legs. They’ll probably discharge me soon.” The hospital bed was near-redundant at this point. I’d be pacing around right now if not for the pain. I was mobile and I wanted to get moving.
Bollocks said, “In the meantime, you have no place to live. Is that correct?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I just assumed I’d hide out at a shitty motel or something. I’ve got the money for it. Wait, the cops couldn’t have found my account, right?”
“Relax,” Bollocks said, his old confidence brimming in his eyes. “Your funds and mine are hidden behind a web of loopholes and false names. I know I’ve succeeded in that regard. But your plan for a motel stay won’t be necessary.”
I said, “How so?”
Bollocks said, “I’ll have the hospital allow you to stay for observation. This facility is privately owned and has no official connection to our organization, but the staff here are on our side. You’ll be safe here.”
I slumped my head onto the blank wall and closed my eyes. A longer hospital stay. Joy. Sterile rooms and cold halls and the dispassionate eyes of doctors who’d seen me at my weakest. I said, “You don’t have to do that. I can take care of myself. Really.”
“Barbara,” Bollocks said. “You are of the inner circle, and you were dear to our boss. I daresay you are my sole remaining friend in Dick’s organization.” My jaw dropped, though Bollocks didn’t react. “You’re also a fugitive, and you’re injured. Your arm is in a sling. If I can take steps to keep you safe and off the street, I will. Please, let me.”
I couldn’t bear to refuse him now. I said, “Okay. But let me help. Give me something to do, anything.” I doubted I could offer much help, though; not unless he needed the hospital on fire, and I wouldn’t do that anyway.
Bollocks showed a little smile, finally. He said, “Alright. I’ll bring you a laptop. I want you to monitor local news sources and follow the investigation as best as you can. Watch out for names from our organization whether deceased, free, or arrested. Call me if you discover any developments. Will you do this?”
“Hell yes,” I said. “Thank you. I was going insane just lying here. I can call on a few of our friends, too. Maybe we can turn this around.”
Bollocks’s face darkened, and he held my eyes for a moment. I sighed and said, “Well, it was worth a shot.”
“The police blame James for the destruction of the Danbury building, strangely enough,” I said. I had the laptop open now, but I was just skimming random articles. “He’s being investigated in connection with Dick.”
Bollocks said, “I wonder what hand Silvers has in this flawed media coverage. Is the news reporting the incident as simple gang violence?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe Silvers burned James once he was dead and only useful as a scapegoat. Or maybe she was going to betray him from the start. How are things on your end? Did you find anything about Dick?”
“No,” Bollocks said. “If Dick had escaped, he would have contacted me. If he had been arrested, he would have contact me. I can only assume you’ve found nothing on him either.”
My throat felt dry. I’d been mentally avoiding the thought of Dick, of what he might be enduring right now. I said, “No. Either Silvers caught him, or—” A wave of nausea hit me and I slumped onto my pillow. I almost wanted to ask Bollocks to leave. Bollocks was silent while I took several deep breaths. I said, “Anyway. What else is new?”
Instead of answering, Bollocks got up and strolled around my hospital bed to the room’s lone window. From the bed, you could only see a few shabby apartments outside. Bollocks clasped his hands behind his back as he looked out over the city. He said, “The police came to investigate my house last night.”
My last remaining hope turned to ash. I said, “Did they find anything?”
Bollocks said, “No. But they didn’t need to. This is the first time my name has come up in any investigation, ever.” Bollocks turned and leaned against the wall, head down. “I can only surmise the police have something damning on me. Our operations have been dismantled left and right, and now I, too, have come under the eye of the law.”
I said, “I’m so, so sorry, Smith.”
“How are you healing?” Bollocks said, and the emotion disappeared from his face. “The doctor mentioned there was some bone damage in your shoulder?”
I said, “Yeah, technically my humerus. It’s the only spot James’s bullet got past my armor. My forearm is stitched, my ribs are mending, but the arm… ah, fuck, it’s fine. The bone is fine.” I tapped the sling that currently held my left arm. “I’ll heal. I’m more worried about you.”
Smith shook his head. He said, “I prepared for this years ago. I have a spotless record and a team of lawyers paid from my own accounts. My family’s livelihood has been guaranteed with money the police cannot possibly trace back to me.”
I said, “So you’ll be fine?”
Smith said, “So I’ll be as prepared as possible for what may come. I am not afraid of prison.” His hands clenched at his sides. “And you have nothing to fear. Organizations like the Blackbirds depend on solidarity in the face of threats, like prosecution. I will not betray your confidence, Barbara.”
“Fuck,” I said. “Fuck this! Fuck James and Silvers and the police. Fuck them for coming after you, of all people.”
Smith showed a sad smile. I’d seen that expression on him more in the last three weeks than in the rest of the year I’d known him. How the fuck could I call him Bollocks when he was breaking down like this? Smith said, “I cannot fight the tide against me now, Barbara. I can only sink or swim. At least you can still escape.”
A screensaver had come over my laptop, but I ignored it. I said, “You could run, too. Just disappear. I wish you would.”
“No. That is not my way.” Smith took three long steps toward the door. “I need to go, Barbara. Several of our arrested allies have been well-compensated to keep silent; I need to check accounts and ensure their debt is repaid. I still have work to do.”
“Okay,” I said. If I could have grabbed Smith and kept him from leaving, I probably would have. Instead I said, “Stay safe.”
“You, too,” Smith said. He waved once, opened the door, and passed through.
I never saw him again after that.