Chapter 4: A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left

By Bryan Pedersen

dude, check out those tits! They’re great!”

I rolled my eyes.

“What?” he said.

“What did we talk about?”

He returned a blank look.

“About the way you speak.”

“Oh, right, right,” Jumble said, faint bits of recognition finally lighting his eyes. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, be better,” I told him. “Try again.”

“Okay,” he turned back to the stage and smiled. “Hey Wex, check out those tits. They’re great.”

“That’s better.”

And he wasn’t wrong, they were pretty nice.

But the music sucked. Of course it was a strip club so you couldn’t expect much in the way of sophistication. Big hair, bad manners, and crappy music were par for the course.

To be honest, in those days I hated the place. Between the guys doing blow in the men’s room and the lonely regulars up at the rail it wasn’t the sort of atmosphere to give your soul a boost.

But it’s where I met Jenya, so I can’t really complain.

***

Sitting at the restaurant bar, waiting for my order to arrive, I take a drink of my water. It usually doesn’t take this long, but there’s a loud party in the back room that must be slowing the kitchen down. So I take another drink.

From the room comes a clatter of spoons on glasses followed by some hoots and cheers, and I piece it together as some sort of wedding dinner. A rehearsal, a reception, something or another. I try not to give it any more thought and go back to waiting for our food.

Two orders of pad Thai, both with tofu. Not that I have anything against meat, but Jenya does, so I try to be considerate when I bring dinner over to her place. I’m starving and there’s a small bowl of tasty looking peanuts sitting within reach, but I can’t help thinking about all the fingers that have already scrounged about in there, so I stick to my water and waiting.

A steady stream of people shuffles by on their way to the restrooms up front, then back again. The younger ones cluster briefly at the bar to down some celebratory shots. My food better be here soon.

“Charlie? Charlie!”

Over my shoulder is a round faced guy about my age, and I’m pretty sure I know him. Or knew him. Because for the life of me I can’t remember if his name is Tim or Jim, or if I’m way far off.

“Hey!” I say, smiling like I’m glad to see him.

“How the hell are you, man?” He sticks out a soft, pillowy hand and I shake it. Even though I can’t recall his name, I do remember him. It’s been a while. “God, how long’s it been?” Tim maybe Jim says.

“I don’t know, fifteen, twenty years?”

“Shit, Charlie, we were just kids! Look at us now. When did we get so old?” He slaps his hand on my shoulder and my chair spins a little bit. He’s laughing and smiling so I grin along to be polite. “Guess what, man?” he says.

“What?”

“I’m getting married!”

“No.”

“Yes!”

“You lucky guy.”

“Man, you don’t know the half of it. Hey!” He slaps my shoulder again. “Come back here.”

“I can’t, I…”

“No, seriously, you gotta come back and meet Liz. The whole family’s here, Charlie. Oh, man, Mom’ll love seeing you again.”

I can’t do this. I actually hate this.

“Come on. It’ll only take a sec.”

But I can’t think of a good way out, so I nod.

“Great! That’s great. I’m going to hit the little boy’s room first then I’ll introduce you to everybody.” He steps back and smiles a little wider. “Wow, this is great. I am really glad you’re here, Charlie.”

“Yeah. Me too,” I say as sincerely as I can.

“Be right back,” he says and heads off to the restroom. Along the way he’s accosted by various acquaintances and well-wishers. He never stops beaming.

“Sir.” It’s the bartender over my shoulder. I turn as he sets down a plastic bag with our amazing smelling dinner inside.

“Thank you,” I say, and this time the joy on my face is real.

Grabbing the bag, I slip out the side door and into my car. It doesn’t take long to get to Jenya’s from here. The food will still be hot when I walk through her door.

As for Tim maybe Jim, it’s not that I want to be a jerk. He’s got plenty of other friends and family there, he’ll get over it quickly. But something about those sorts of encounters always rattles me, sets my nerves to vibrate. Basically, I’m lousy in those types of situations. Running into faces from the past, people that knew me from before, back when I was young, it makes for a tough talk. I struggle mightily with the seemingly easiest of questions:

How are you?

What have you been up to?

What do you do for a living?

***

“Be professional,” I told Jumble. “Remember, this is your job now.”

Positively star struck, the kid’s eyes were shiny marbles reflecting back the neon lights of the club. His hands pulled change from his pockets.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going up there,” he said, motioning to the stage with his chin.

“With what? Quarters? That’s not Ms. Pac Man you know.”

It was five years ago. A pleasant, late summer night, and I was close to losing my patience training my replacement.

“Shit. Wex, hey, loan me a few bucks, k?”

“Settle down.”

Jumble was definitely young for the job, but he’d been a little aimless after his dad’s death and Bobby wanted to give him something to do.

“Please, man?”

“Is this your first time seeing a naked lady?”

“No.” He stuffed the change back in his pockets. “Yes.”

“Chill out a bit. Loosen up.”

“But, but, but…”

“Relax, kid,” I said. “You’re better than this.”

“Yeah, but see, the thing is, I don’t think I am.”

“Then you better learn to fake it. Dominick’s on his way over.”

Barrel-chested, short, bald and always a little bit greasy, Dominick was built like a skeevy fireplug. A smiling proprietor who kept a steady stream of fresh talent on stage for his customers and a steady supply of fresh coke in the dressing room for his dancers, he kept everyone happy and needy.

Jumble and I, we didn’t bring the coke, another was in charge of that. Our job was to collect the bill.

“Wex! I hear you’re getting a better gig! Congratulations, son.” He stuck out a sweaty palm for me to shake and dragged us over to the bar. “Jinx, get this man some champagne.”

“That’s okay, Dom,” I said. “We won’t be here long.”

He smiled a sloppy smile and shook a pudgy finger at me. “You say that now, but I know better. Jinx!” He rattled off a name brand and year. Foreign to me, but probably meant to be impressive.

“Coming right up,” said the slender young girl behind the bar.

“See, you think you’re leaving soon, but what I know is that you’ve got a taste for the exotic,” he smiled like he won a prize. “And Misha is dancing tonight.”

Now I’m not the first guy to fall for a stripper. Certainly won’t be the last. It’s nothing to be proud of, but it happens.

Oh, and as for Misha? It’s not her real name. Neither is Jinx really Jinx. None of the names there are real. It’s a strip club after all; they’re not simply taking off clothes, they’re putting on fantasies.

So while Jumble went off with Dominick to collect the payment I sat at a darkened table center left of the stage and watched Misha dance into the light.

I won’t waste too much time describing her, it’d be gratuitous. Just know she’s all golden skin and soft curves, that the only things darker than her thick and silky hair are her eyes. Her moves up on stage were slow and artistic, always more sensual than obscene.

That’s enough.

When I sipped my glass down to nothing Jinx brought over another.

“You’ve got good taste,” she said.

“Wasn’t me. Dominick picked it out.”

“I know that, dummy.” She fell into the chair beside me. “I meant Misha.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“You ever talk to her?”

I shook my head.

“Her accent’s still pretty thick. She’s new here, from somewhere east, Russia I think. You gonna drink that?”

I looked at the glass she brought and shook my head again. “I’m good.”

“You mind?” She picked it up and drained half before I could answer. “Misha’s got a boyfriend, though. Tough, twitchy Russian guy.”

“So?”

“So he’s a creep.” She knocked back the rest of it, wiped her small mouth with the back of her hand. “And he beats on her some.”

“What’s that got what to do with me?”

The girl shrugged her shoulders. It made her tiny bikini top bounce. “Nothin’, if you don’t want it to. Somethin’ maybe. You decide.” She picked up the empty glass and stood. “Want another?”

“No.”

“Want to meet Misha?”

I didn’t know how to say no to that one.

***

One of the perks to Jenya’s apartment building is the private lot on the side. One of the perks of being Jenya’s friend is a pass to park there.

It’s a perk that applies to her clients, too.

Walking up to her building I see a man exit the front door heading toward the far end of the lot. He wraps his jacket tight as the cold wind makes itself known and his shuffling stride becomes quicker. Nothing unusual about any of it, but I stop to watch because even from this distance he looks familiar.

Upstairs, I pick at my food and every twenty or thirty minutes Jenya hops from her chair to her stereo, flipping and changing records. While the rest of the world has gone digital, Jenya went analog. It’s cute and quaint but I think she mainly prefers records to downloads because it gives her something tangible to hold on to.

Musically, she has a fondness for those nerdy and verbose artists, plays for us albums from The Decembrists, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens. While they sing she tells of her most recent business trip. After an hour or so of this my nerves have settled and the rest of my food has gone cold.

We make our way to her living room and Jenya turns over another record, slips away for a minute, and returns with two drinks. She hands me one and I try it. It’s golden and smooth, with a sour but pleasant aftertaste.

“Like it? It’s new.”

I take another sip and think about it. “I do. What’s this one?”

“F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

I drink again. My tongue is ready for the bit of sour now and that makes it better. I nod approvingly and she smiles. I would ask her what’s in it, but I learned long ago that she likes her little secrets.

“I felt it would go well toward balancing out the sweetness of our dinner.”

“It does. Good choice.” I sink a little deeper into the corner of her couch, take another drink and set the glass on the table beside me. “But I’d still prefer a Harper Lee.”

“Well, who wouldn’t?” She flashes a sharp smile that does amazing things to her cheeks. “Sorry, Charlie, but you only get one Harper Lee. Sure, it’s as perfect a thing as you’ll ever have, don’t take it personal, everybody only gets one shot at perfect.”

“So long as it’s nothing personal.”

“Of course it’s not. If anyone were to get a second Harper Lee…”

“Right.”

“But a second shot at perfect? That wouldn’t be fair.” Jenya curled up in the other corner of the couch, put one bare foot on the cushion in front of her and pulled her knee up close, stuck out her slender neck and rested her pointy chin there. “Now,” she said, her smiling face growing calm. “How are you?”

It’s a question that’s asked so many times it rarely gets taken seriously. It’s rarely meant seriously. Most people don’t really want to know how you’re doing, they’re just being polite. But when a good friend waits until a quiet moment a full hour into the small talk to ask it, you know they expect a real response.

It’s tough to answer because something inside me doesn’t want to complain. Or maybe I just don’t want to tell her what I did. But Jenya, she’s the sort of friend that not telling it to, well, that would be worse. Drink recipes are one sort of secret, but we’ve been through too much together to hide the big things.

“Is it the job?”

“Wow.” My eyebrows shoot up. “Not bad.”

But she doesn’t gloat. Her smile is all compassion. “You’re not the first guy to complain about his work to me.”

Jenya is one of the few people who know what I do. That really knows. Someone like me, you don’t make it too long if you don’t have at least one person you can spill to.

“I’ve been thinking about the old club you used to work at.”

“Dominick’s place?” She smiles wider and her eyes get a distant look to them. A second later she shakes it off and comes back. “Did I ever tell you that I used to dream of opening my own place one day?”

“Yes.”

“I was going to call it ‘The Winter of Our Discotheque.'”

“I know.”

“I know you know.” She wrinkles her nose at me. “I still like saying it, though.”

I reach for my glass and take another drink. “You remember the kid that replaced me there?”

“You mean Jumble?”

“Yeah.”

“Of course I remember Jumble. How is he? Does he still work with you?”

Like I said, it’s those small, simple questions that often turn out to be the hardest for me. But I suck it up and begin to tell her about what I did to the poor kid, because we all need someone we can talk to.

***

Jinx led me to a curtained off nook labeled The Executive Room and told me to have a seat, that Misha would be in shortly. It was all dim lighting and cushy velvet in there, and even though it looked clean it took me a second to be certain before I sat down.

There wasn’t as much anticipation on my part as you might think. Yes, I was harboring a pretty big and embarrassing school-boy crush on the dancer, but I was smart enough to recognize it as a purely physical fascination. I know that sounds shallow, but some people simply are beautiful enough to draw you in like that.

The only thing that kept me from going too far with the daydreams, from making too big of an ass of myself, was Stacy. We had gone out a couple of times at that point, had some wonderful all-day, all-night dates that were devoid of the usual early relationship jitters. Right from the very beginning with Stacy it was all light-heartedness and laughter. That’s still what I remember the most, the laughing.

After a song or two Misha came around the corner wearing the usual thong-and-a-smile uniform of her trade. It was obviously a professional smile, nothing too genuine, never reaching her eyes, but the rest of her was so very distracting it could make you forget there was a real person in there.

She stepped closer, leaned forward and placed a knee beside my leg. “You want I should dance for you?”

Even in the dim light of the club, from that close up I remember thinking that she had to have the smoothest skin I’ve ever seen. The golden hue of it alone was intoxicating. Stunning from her shoulders to her slender neck on up to the classic-film-beauty bone structure of her face, but that’s where I saw what Jinx was talking about. If you looked closely enough you could see makeup piled over her cheekbones, liberally applied to the swollen ridge around her eye. And beneath the foundation, barely peeking out, a still-blossoming purple bruise.

“No,” I said and broke the cardinal rule by placing my hand gently on her hip. “Please, sit.”

Confusion fluttered over her features but was quickly replaced by a working girl’s accommodating smile. She sat down next to me.

“I hear there’s a guy…” I wasn’t really sure how to approach this. There’s nothing messier than domestic issues, but I figured I’d go on and risk sounding like a nosy jackass to at least give her an option. “I mean, I hear you may be having trouble… with a boyfriend?”

“Trouble?” she said, no longer looking at me.

“Listen, I don’t want to… I just mean, if you need help, if he, if someone is hurting you, I can help.”

“You?” She didn’t sound terribly convinced.

“Well, yeah, me, or there’s these people I know.” It was far more awkward than I had anticipated.

“And you could help me, help with him?” She crossed her arms over her chest, looked as if it had suddenly gotten very cold. “Make me safe, yes?”

“Something like that.”

It was silent for awhile. I didn’t have anything else to say and she seemed like it was a hard offer to consider. I tried to wait like a gentleman, kept my eyes to myself.

After a few long minutes Misha turned back to me and said, “You wait at the bar. Yes? Wait until later.”

So I did. I sent Jumble back with the payment causing him to struggle between the excitement of completing the job on his own and the envy of leaving me to enjoy the view without him.

I waited for almost an hour, declining drink offers from Jinx and private dance offers from almost everyone else. When a pasty and freckled redhead jiggled over to me I was prepared to decline her, too, but she handed me a folded scrap of paper instead.

“From Misha,” she said, and drifted off.

In small, tentative looking script was written:

Back alley. Five minutes. Please.

I folded the paper back up and slipped it into my pocket. It made me wish I was the sort of person that was able to drink for courage or to steady nerves, but it never really worked that way for me. So I waited a few minutes then had Jinx show me where to go.

I paused for her to head back to the bar before I opened the back door, and in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have because when I stepped out into the alley it hit me like a brick to the head.

Literally. At least it felt like a brick.

***

When I finish telling Jenya about killing Jumble, she’s quiet. In the middle of my story the needle reached the end of the record and this time she didn’t bounce up to flip it over. The entire world is quiet.

“Are you okay?” she eventually asks.

The lack of music feels unnatural in here, and I’m tired of being unnerved, so I get up to change the record.

“Charlie?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I pick through the stack of albums she discarded earlier. “Better than some.”

Standing next to the record player is a tall curio cabinet. On shelves behind glass doors sit all sorts of trinkets and knick-knacks given to her over the past couple of years from her clients. She says they’re from friends but as far as I know that’s only true of the small, wooden, hand carved elephant on the top shelf; that one came from me. The rest, the bits of crystal and jewels, the postcards from faraway places and carefully polished antiques, they’ve all come from men that have paid her for her time and affection. She’s told me stories of the items displayed there, all without ever once revealing the names of the men behind the gifts.

When I gave her the tiny elephant years ago she smiled and said it was perfect. She said that our conversations were always too easy and now there would finally be an elephant in the room and that we would be all the more interesting for it. Jenya’s always been good at turning pleasantries and gratitude into genuine sounding flattery and revelation.

“Charlie,” she says as the music starts back up. “Come sit down.”

I return to the far end of the couch and she lets her bent leg stretch out. It seems casual and happenstance, but I think it’s intentional when her bare foot ends up resting against my thigh.

“Do you think you had a choice in it?” she asks.

“Same choice I always have.”

“Okay. Have you talked to anyone else about it yet?”

“No,” I say. “Wait. Yes. Frank.”

“That’s good.” She nods and I feel the movement travel down through her foot, up into my leg. “What did he say?”

There are packed bookcases arranged around the room, and that’s where my eyes go. “He said the usual, that I was doing my job. Said I didn’t have a choice outside of do or die.”

“Charlie,” she says, her foot still resting lightly against my leg. “It’s horrible what you have to do, and I feel terrible for Jumble, but as awful and as selfish as it is of me to say, I hope that in cases like that you always choose ‘do’.”

One song fades into another with the soft hiss of the record needle underscoring it all.

“What else did Frank say?”

Where to start? There were all sorts of random musings and dime-store philosophy imparted that day by my former mentor. “He said I should try helping people in my free time. That it might make me feel better about the rest of… about everything else.”

“Well, you help me.” A slight push from her foot makes me turn my head and see her gazing up at me, smiling playfully. “You brought me dinner tonight.”

“I think he had something more substantial in mind.”

“So did I.” She sits up and moves to the middle of the couch. “You’re always here when I need you. You are kinda my best friend.”

I shrug with a tilt of my head and look away again.

“Not enough?” Jenya pushes my arm lightly. “Don’t go underestimating the importance of a good friend, buddy.”

“I don’t.”

She nudges me again and each movement serves to bring her a little closer. When I turn her eyes are surprisingly close to mine and I’m startled as always to see how pure and dark and perfect they seem. They’re these two black orbs that can be obsidian hard, reflecting yourself and the world right back at you, and yet at other times they melt into deep tunnels that pull you into a gentle, forgiving void.

I look away, back to the curio cabinet in the distance over her shoulder. It reminds me of what she said when we spoke on the phone earlier. “Don’t you have a client coming over soon?”

Her head dips for a second, a soft flinch. “I can cancel if you’d like.”

“That wouldn’t really be fair to him.”

“We don’t have to care about that right now.”

“But it’s your job.”

“Yes, yes it is. It is my job of which I am the boss and I can and occasionally do cancel an appointment when it so fits my needs.”

“Jenya,” I place my hand on her knee.

“Yes?”

“I’m going to go.”

“Okay,” she lays her hand over mine and squeezes. “Let me get your coat.”

***

My fingers scratching at the dank asphalt of a rain-swept alley. A heavy boot hammering into my ribs. A throbbing, cold and wet, at the crown of my skull. Those are the sensations that dive-bombed me when I came to.

I’m sure I didn’t black out long, probably only long enough to fall to the ground. Not that I’m fortified by some remarkable constitution or an indomitable will, it was most likely the kicking that kept me from drifting too far off.

“So, you are mister tough-guy, yeah?” The thick Russian accent came from in front of me, and immediately after the boot slammed into my side again. At first it made everything seem more disjointed, like my senses weren’t communicating with each other properly. Then another kick, this one landing just below my ribs and stealing my breath and I understood that there must be two of them. Hopefully only two.

“You are mister likes to talk to other man’s woman?”

I tried to deflect the next kick before it got to me. The boot moved faster than my arm.

She’s thinking you maybe want to help her.”

The next kick I was able to partially deflect.

I’m thinking you maybe want to fuck her.”

Back there in the alley you could still hear the umph-umph-umph of the club’s bass pounding through the walls. Every umph-umph shook my bones, rattled my skull, made my eyes go all swimmy. It was only the boot cracking at my ribs that pulled my attention into a sort of focus.

“So tell us, mister hands and knees, what are you thinking now?”

And of course it was followed by another kick from his buddy. My right arm was there to shield most of it, but my right arm wasn’t too happy about it.

“Well?”

“Me?” I coughed and my ribs hated me for it. “I think your pal needs to stop.”

“Stop, yeah? Stop what? Stop this?”

Chalk it up to the predictable nature of violent men, but the whole world knew that foot was coming at me again. This time instead of trying to block it I opened my side to it, opened myself up so I could pull my arm back and hook that boot when it came in. When it did I snapped my arm down around his ankle and gave a quick jerk. The guy’s other foot must have slipped on the wet pavement because he nearly did a back flip. The first part of him to hit the ground was his head. It smacked hard and bounced off the pavement with a sound like a walnut being cracked.

For a moment everything stopped, only the thumping of the club continued. Then my night got worse.

“Chely?” Misha’s boyfriend sounded surprised. It soon turned to anger. “You fuck! I kill you myself for that you fuck!”

I believed him.

The man lying on the ground beside me had the handle of a gun sticking out of his waistband. Lunging for it sent my dizzy head swimming again. I reached it, ended up sprawled across the guy’s torso. He wasn’t moving yet.

The gun was heavy and I was weak, but I managed to point it at the big talker. His arm froze deep in the pocket of his leather trench coat, eyes locked on the gun in my hand pointed at his chest.

“Don’t,” I said. Stretched out on my side like that, all my weight fell on my banged-up ribs. Every breath sent a dozen jagged nails deep into my lungs. “Just, don’t.”

His face was long and gaunt, with a slim, greasy looking mustache rubbed over his top lip, and every few seconds a tiny spasm would pull at his left cheek, every third or fourth pulled hard enough to jerk his head to the side. Each time it did, my finger tightened a little more on the trigger.

“Fucking kill you,” he said.

“Just put it down. Put it down and—”

And that’s when the door opened behind him. It was Jinx, and I motioned frantically at her to go back inside. I started to say it, but the Russian was already jerking his arm free, trying to pull his gun hand around to fire it.

He beat me to it, too.

Two shots pounded the brick wall behind me, echoed like thunder down the alley, before I managed to squeeze the trigger and put him down.

It’s not that I was a professional at that point. He was, still is, the first person I ever shot. I’d say he was the first I’d ever killed but I later found out that honor went to his buddy on the ground beneath my broken ribs. What I still don’t know is why he missed and I didn’t. I guess sometimes it just happens that way.

Slowly, with pain at each juncture, I crawled to my feet and staggered over to him. There were still some small spasms shaking his body, each one jolting my nerves, but his eyes were closed and he seemed relatively calm. I kicked the gun out of his hand to be safe.

“No!”

The shrieking came from the doorway to the club. It was hard to hear anything above the pounding music from inside, but her howl was loud enough and pitched perfectly to stand out.

“Keep her inside,” I yelled at Jinx. Behind her Misha struggled to get out, to run to her dead boyfriend.

Jinx tried, fought with the taller girl, but rage always overpowers reason and soon the stripper clattered out into the alley. She wobbled on her platforms, wailing and falling to her knees beside her man.

I guess some would be surprised that she cried over him. But that’s the way people are. When someone dies, all you remember are the good things.

Still, her tears bothered me. All of it did. So I walked a little further away before I pulled my phone from my pocket. I called a number; it rang twice then was answered. After giving my boss a brief synopsis, nothing too incriminating over the phone, he told me to wait for a call. A minute later he called back to tell me someone was on the way.

Jinx was still standing in the doorway, door open partially behind her.

“Can you try not to let anyone else out here?” I said.

She nodded a quick, nervous little nod, but kept her eyes on the grieving dancer. “Hey, Wex,” Jinx said a second later.

I turned back and saw Misha glaring up at me. From deep down inside one of her boyfriend’s coat pockets she found a handle, and as she stood the handle clicked and grew a long, silver blade. I don’t know what she was saying, I could barely hear her, plus I think it was in Russian, but it grew more virulent the closer she came.

“Wex,” Jinx said, louder this time.

“Misha, stop.” I switched the gun to my left hand, pointed it at her, but she kept coming. “Don’t do this.”

She was almost yelling, raising her hand above her shoulder, blade pointed at me. I closed the gap between us in two quick steps, used my gun hand to block her from stabbing me while at the same time clocking her in the face with my right fist.

Blood burst from her nose and the knife clattered to the ground as she brought both hands up to her nose.

“Damn it,” I said. It’s amazing how quickly the best laid plans of strippers and bagmen can take you from kindly efforts to broken bones and blood. She stumbled back to her ex, curled up beside him, and proceeded to cry and bleed all over his cold shoulder.

I leaned back against the wall for support, soon found Jinx beside me.

“I told you to watch the door.”

“I locked it,” she said. “It’s locked now.”

We stood there and waited. It took ten minutes for anyone to show up. In those ten minutes of standing beside me Jinx didn’t say a thing, didn’t bug me or get fidgety or complain about it being cold. She stood there calm and quiet by my side, and we waited.

Then two cars emerged and parked at the open end of the alley, effectively sealing it off. Two stocky men emerged from one, the other let out a taller, slender man who through slow, steady movements and a few subtle gestures gave off all sorts of in-charge vibes.

“My, oh my, what a mess,” he said softly with a shake of his head when he got to us. “You’re Charles Wexler?”

I nodded.

“I’m Frank,” he said. “And who are you?”

“A friend,” Jinx said.

He measured her up quickly. “I’d say so. Well then, Charlie, how ’bout you tell me what happened here.”

It took a couple minutes and a few questions out of Frank for clarification purposes, but soon he nodded and said, “Wait right here,” and went to work.

Jinx and I watched as he took Misha by the shoulders. She protested and tried to fight him at first but he hushed her, took a handkerchief from his pocket to carefully wipe the blood from under her nose, and then ushered her to the backseat of his car.

“Is that your boss?” Jinx asked.

“I’m not really sure who that is.”

“So, I guess you won’t be coming to the club anymore, huh?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. That was probably coming to an end anyway. The kid with me tonight’s supposed to be my replacement.”

“Really? Isn’t he a little young?”

My skull pounded in protest when I turned my head to glance down at her standing beside me. Just a tiny thing in short shorts and a bikini top. “Aren’t you a little young?”

“I’m older than I used to be.”

“Is that why you don’t dance? Too young?”

“No, I’m old enough. Too gawkward.”

“Too what?”

“Gawkward. It’s a word I made up. It means geeky and awkward.”

I blinked, returned a blank look.

“What?” she sounded defiant. “I make up words sometimes.”

“That is kind of geeky.”

“Yeah,” she shrugged. “But I like words, so.”

After Frank had gotten the alley cleared out and convinced Jinx to go back inside he pulled me aside. “You’re going to need to lay low for a bit.”

“Okay.”

“When I say low, I mean you stay home. You eat at home, you sleep at home, you order out if you run out of food. Friends call, you don’t answer. You have a girlfriend?”

I thought of Stacy but didn’t say it.

“Right. If you like her you ignore her, at least for now. You stay home and you stay quiet and you wait. Sometime soon you’ll get a call and we’ll have a talk. Okay?”

“What’s soon?”

“Soon is however long it takes for someone to come get you. It’ll be a couple days, no more than five.” He rubbed the back of his head and looked down at where the bodies had been. “Tell me, Charlie, how many times have you done this before?”

“This?”

“You know,” he said, “killed someone.”

My mouth went dry, made it hard to say, “Never.”

“Hm. Interesting. Okay.” He rubbed the back of his head again. “So go home and wait. We’ll get you when it’s time.”

I did what he said. I went home that night to my shitty apartment and crawled into my rusty bathtub, washed the blood from my hair and soaked in it until the hot water ran out. I don’t know if it helped my ribs or my skull, but it was something to do.

The next morning I ached all over. My ribs felt wrong and my head hurt far worse than any hangover I’d ever nursed. The worst part was having to call Stacy to tell her not to come over that night like we had planned. I told her I had some late-summer flu bug that I didn’t want her catching. At least I didn’t have to fake sounding horrible. She said she understood and wished me well.

But that night at six o’clock my doorbell rang. I thought it would be one of Frank’s men, wondered if that guy would be coming to take me to a meeting or to kill me, or possibly both, but it wasn’t. It was Stacy.

Still in a crisp white men’s dress shirt and black pants, she hadn’t changed after her waitressing shift at the restaurant. She looked up at me with vulnerable almond eyes, a pharmacy bag in one hand and a thermos that smelled of chicken noodle soup in the other.

“Don’t say anything for a second, okay?” she said.

“Okay.”

“I know you said not to come over, and that’s cool, it is, but here’s the thing: if I’ve been coming on too strong and you’re not sick, you maybe need some time or space, I get it, I do. But please tell me because I really like you, and I don’t want to screw this up because I’ve screwed stuff up before and…”

It all came out in a rush before she got stuck, and I know she told me not to talk, but I did.

“It’s not you,” I told her.

Simply speaking made my ribs skewer my insides again. It must’ve been evident on my face because her expression shifted immediately.

“Are you okay?”

I shook my head. Even that hurt.

“Are you sick?”

I shook my head again.

“Do you want me to go?”

I couldn’t pull my eyes from hers. “No.”

“Okay. I won’t.”

I stepped back from the door and Stacy came inside. She set the bag and thermos down and closed the door behind her, then walked up to me and gently wrapped her arms around my shoulders. Leaning forward she rested her head against my neck.

We stood there like that, not speaking. Each breath I took dug into me just like before, but her hair falling against my chest made it seem not as bad.

Eventually her arms slid down my side. I twitched when she got to my ribs so she pulled them away, then found my hands with hers. Her head resting on my shoulder as our fingers intertwined, every piece fit together perfectly.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she whispered.

“No.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”

And for a little while there, it was.

***

A few days later Frank picked me up and drove me to meet Bobby. I sat gingerly, still sore but getting better, in a thick leather chair in front of his desk as he recounted back to me what happened in the alley that night. When he finished he asked me if he had it right and I said he did.

“Good god, son,” he said in the slight drawl he clings to. “You wanna know what I find simply amazing?”

“What’s that?”

“That you are even still alive. I should be talking to a ghost here.” He swiveled in his chair and steepled his fingers. Broad shouldered with a lantern jaw, I was certain Bobby could be physically intimidating when he wanted. Later on, many times over, he’d confirm it.

“Think about it, son. Two armed men jump you in an alley? Attack you before you can get a hold of your dick, and yet they’re the ones wind up dead from it? Kinda impressive.” He leaned forward and placed his elbows on his desk. I also learned that Bobby likes punctuating his statements with movement. “You know what that says to me?”

“I really don’t.”

“It says to me you’ve been underutilized. Oh, yes it does.” He grinned and leaned way back, kicking his boots up on the edge of his desk. Someone could get motion sickness watching him. “See, some people have trouble killing a man. Weakness, conscience, whatever. But others,” he cocked a finger at me and winked, “well, let’s just say these others, hell, they find that they got a knack for it.”

He went on to explain that they had taken care of the dead bodies and Misha for me. Said I wouldn’t have to worry about it coming back to haunt me and that they were glad to do it, but that to thank them for their efforts I was going to move into an altogether more specialized line of work. I do believe those were Bobby’s exact words for it.

It only took an hour, but it felt like a long day. Frank drove me back home afterward and before letting me out of his car he gave me some advice. “I take it you’ve got someone special in your life.”

I was quiet.

“And maybe you love her.”

Again I said nothing.

“Yeah. Well, here’s what you do: let her go.”

He paused for it to sink in. It didn’t take long.

“Get her away from you now, because Bobby may come on like a good ol’ boy, but, he can be a bastard. And he’s at his very worst when he’s got leverage on you. If you do love this girl, you have to trust me on this, you won’t ever, ever, want to see him use her as leverage.”

“Right.”

“I’m not messing around here, Charlie. It’ll get ugly at some point, it always does, and when it does you will hate yourself for what happens to her. You’ll blame yourself, and you won’t be wrong to do so.”

I stayed up all that night thinking about it, turning it over, hating myself already, and then the next day I went to Stacy’s, sat her down, and told her that this just wasn’t working for me. And I haven’t seen her since.

***

Standing by the door at Jenya’s apartment, waiting for her to bring me my coat, I can’t help but think back to all those things that pieced themselves together to bring me here tonight.

She comes around the corner holding my jacket out, but pulls it back as soon as I reach for it.

“What am I supposed to do? Say please? It’s my coat.”

“Last chance,” she says.

“I should go now so you’ll have time to get beautiful for whoever he is.”

Pshaw, I’ll still be the same gawkward little girl you’ve always known.”

“You’re not so gawkward anymore.”

“I am so!” She gasped and feigned injury. “You take that back.”

“Jen, really, I should go.”

“But you haven’t heard the whole offer yet.” She hugs my jacket close and with bright eyes says, “This being a one time only, special occasion situation. If you stick around tonight you can drown your sorrows in another Harper Lee.”

It is tempting.

“Jen.”

“Limited time offer.”

“You were right, what you said before. We only get one perfect.”

She doesn’t do anything at first, so I wait until she finally stretches out my coat to me. “Promise to keep yourself warm out there, okay?”

“I’ll try.”

“You wanna do lunch later this week?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “I do.”

“I’ll call and set something up,” she says.

“You do that.”

“I will.”

And I’m sure that she will. But for now I have to leave, have to head back out into the cold because there’s something in her eyes tonight, something eager and gentle in them that keeps reminding me of Jumble.

____________

To read previous chapters of this story, visit the Serials section of the Issues page.


Comments are closed.