August 23rd, 2:17 AM
The bastards always call me in the middle of the night. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for over two years, if I ever really did. I tell myself, like every other night, that I’m going to set my phone to silent before I go back to sleep, but I know that at this time, no matter what it’s about, the conversation is going to piss me off too much for me to remember to do it. I answer anyway.
“Alex? It’s Mark. I got a problem.”
“Make it fast or you’ll have a bigger one.”
I have to sit up in bed and put my feet on the ground to stay awake. This is business; it probably can’t wait. Mark is one of my highest ranking soldiers.
“We have a big problem with Bogdan.”
Mark might be high up, but it sure isn’t because of his smarts. I find my cigarettes on the nightstand, pull one out and put it in my mouth and start looking for my lighter.
“So, he’s not making payments, and he didn’t show up for his appointment. He’s not at his house, and now I’m showing up at the club, and there’s no one there.”
“And, I think he’s turning on you, man.”
“That’s it?” I jerk my head to look at the glaring red digits on the radio clock. “You wake me in the middle of the night to tell me that you don’t have him? That nothing is happening at the moment?”
Idiot. Of course, I should have expected it. I don’t need to find my lighter anymore; I know I’m angry enough to make the fire. I snap my fingers, and the flame appears between them. I manage to make it small enough not to burn the bed, this time. The smoke fills my lungs and cools me off just a little. He senses my anger; he doesn’t answer.
“Don’t call me in the middle of the night for shit I can handle in the morning. Now do your fucking job and find Bogdan, and call me when you have him.”
I hang up before he has a chance to babble like an ass, and I smoke, thinking, maybe if I calm down a little I’ll be able to go back to sleep, though there seems to be little chance of that anymore. There’s too much light, and I notice that the door to my room is opening. I reach for the gun in my nightstand drawer as I turn around, but it’s only Lori. I let go of the gun and stand as she walks in. She doesn’t seem to be wearing anything more than a tank top and underwear, and I stare; the backlighting silhouettes the curve of her breast through the white cloth as she leans on the doorframe.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Go back to bed.”
I rub my face. She walks closer, and the spell is broken. I can see the track marks on the inside of her arms, and it’s like a cold shower.
“You can’t sleep?”
“I’m fine. Go back to your room. What are you doing here, anyway?”
I walk past her and out the door. I have to get to a common area, or she’ll corner me again. She turns to follow me.
“I heard you talking. Is everything all right?”
This makes me mad again, and I go back to get my smokes. I have to dodge her one more time. She couldn’t have just heard me talk. I’m the only one that has a room on this floor, specifically because I get stupid phone calls from jackasses at all hours of the night. She must have been staking out my room again. Stalking me. I wonder why she’s so fixated on me. There’s tons of guys who don’t mind her drug habit and who’d like her just fine.
“It’s way too late. You know this place has a curfew.”
“You’re still up.”
I glare at her, as I bring another cigarette to my lips. I find the anger in me and make the fire again, holding it in my hand for a long time so she can see it before bringing it up to light my smoke with.
“I own the fucking place. Doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow Luke’s rules.”
She doesn’t follow me when I walk down the hall. People know better than to mess with me when I’m in that kind of a mood. I see light coming from under the door to Luke’s office, so I knock and let myself in without waiting for an answer. He looks up at me over his glasses. I know he’s only a couple of years older than me, probably not even twenty yet, but he still looks and acts like an old man.
“Alex. Can’t sleep?”
“Stupid phone call. Lori’s in my room again. Can you make her leave?”
He smiles at me in a way I’m not sure I like, and looks down at his papers again. He’s always working with papers at night. He sleeps even less than I do.
“You need me to throw a girl out of your room?”
“I don’t need you. You’re in charge of this place, and you’re in charge of these kids, and if you don’t make them respect your rules, I can find someone who will.”
He shakes his head like I’ve just told some kind of endearing joke. I know I don’t have to worry about disrespect from him, but he won’t let himself be bullied, either, and I like that about him. It’s why I wanted him to be in charge of this place.
“I’d like to see you try. No one is crazy enough to put up with the work load. Besides, you should give her a break. She likes you; she’s just not sure how to go about it. You know what she’s been through.”
I know, and he knows I know. It’s what we’ve all been through. I guess none of us react the same way, and I know that Lori got some of the worst of it, but that doesn’t mean I want to talk about it. I concentrate to extinguish the fire from the butt of the cigarette before I toss it in the wastebasket and roll over to go to sleep on Luke’s couch. He doesn’t say anything, of course, he just keeps on working. I’ve done this a hundred times before. I like his couch better than my room, even though I wish he’d redecorate. It still looks way too much like it did when Mikov ran the brothel.
August 23rd, 10:32 AM
When I wake up in the morning, I see by the tasteless golden clock that it’s past ten. Luke is gone, maybe to sleep or who knows what he does when everyone else sleeps, but the light is still on over his desk. I know he left it on for me, so I turn it off, because it’s bright outside and I’m the one paying the power bill now.
I hurry back to my room to find three missed alerts on my phone. None of them are from Mark, though I missed two calls from Mister Lupino. And no wonder, either, I was supposed to meet him an hour ago. I find a clean suit as I speed-dial his cell phone, and there is no ring before I hear his light Italian accent.
“You have reached the voice mail of Domenic Lupino. Please leave me a detailed message and I will get back to you as soon as possible.”
He must be meeting someone. I clear my throat to leave him a message that doesn’t sound like every cigarette I smoked for the past week.
“Hello, Mister Lupino, it’s Alex. I’m sorry I missed our meeting this morning, but I needed to take care of urgent business. I’ll call you again later to reschedule.”
Fuck that sounds stupid. I hit the red phone button and throw my cell on the bed. It bounces and crashes on the floor, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve smashed three phones this year already. I can afford new ones.
The mini-bar that Luke converted into a game room is pretty occupied. It’s raining outside, so a lot of the kids are playing foosball and pool. I think about saying hi before leaving, but then I notice that Lori’s there, she’s seen me, and she’s coming towards me, so I skip out.
I check the house to make sure I’m not followed. I see Lori lingering through the door, and I hurry away. I know she won’t follow me, she knows better than to get involved in my business; all the kids do.
The house is one of the nicest and biggest in the neighborhood. It’s in the heart of the Russian district, which is where all my business takes place. It works for me because I don’t know how to drive, which is the only reason I hang on to the house. I know most of the kids would like to be somewhere else, anyway.
I try Mark’s cell. It’s off too, and he doesn’t have voice mail. He’s probably asleep; most of my guys stay up all night and sleep during the day. I hang up and call Jimmy. I get voice mail, but the phone rings, so I know he’ll have heard it.
“Don’t leave me a message if you know what’s good for you.”
“Jimmy. It’s Alex. I’m going to Bogdan’s club and I need a ride. Call me back. Now.”
I hang up. I know I’ll have to call again, but with some luck, he’ll check the caller ID and call me before I have to. It’s just one or two miles to the club, so I start walking.
The parking lot is deserted, and I think I can see cardboard in the windows. This looks wrong; I know that this is a strip club, but it’s usually open 24/7. When I get to the door, though, there’s a piece of paper taped to it with the word ‘closed’ scribbled in black marker on it. I knock, hard enough to be heard.
“Anyone in there? Alex Winters here!”
There’s no answer. The glass doors have been covered in newspapers from the inside, and I can’t see. I yell.
“Hey! Open up!”
They might not be in there. But if they are, I can’t let them think I’ll just back off. I think about what to do, and my phone rings. I look at the caller ID before I answer.
“Jimmy! Good timing. You up?”
“I am now. Why you call me so early? You got any idea what time it is?”
“It’s almost noon. Get up and get your ass over here.”
“Where is ‘here’?”
“Bogdan’s club. They closed it up. I’m checking it out. Come pick me up.”
He grumbles, but he doesn’t say no outright, and I hang up so he doesn’t have the time to think about it. He’ll be there, even though it might take him a while. I put my phone in my pocket and turn my attention back to the building. I can’t just leave. If they are trying to dodge me, I have a huge problem. It wouldn’t be the first time, either. Ever since I took over the Borodinski group, almost two years ago, the smaller groups that have fallen under my control have been unpredictable, to say the least. Half the guys that swore to follow me have double-crossed me in some way, either by leaving town, trying to go independent or striking a deal with the Irish that control Old Town or the Chinese across the bridge. I thought Bogdan was solid business, since he also owned half the strip joints and pimps of the Russian district. He had seemed the least likely to jump ship, since his business depends on territory, but it seems like I was wrong there too.
The door is made of glass, and the parking lot is deserted. Should I break a window? It’s quicker than trying to pick a lock, but noisier. Jimmy is better at this than I am, but I have no idea how long he’s going to be, and I’m not going to be sitting in a deserted parking lot for half an hour with who knows how many Russians watching me from the comfort of their hideout.
I go around the back to the fire exit door. The back of the building faces a shipyard, so there are a lot less chances of being seen. I pick the lock like Jimmy showed me. I’m not really used to it, and it takes me a long time; when I break into places, it’s usually because I want the people inside to notice. After a while, though, I get the door open, and I walk in. The place is dark, and it smells like shit, puke, and rotting meat. I haven’t taken three steps in before I gotta cover my nose with my sleeve to keep myself from bringing up last night’s dinner. I search the wall for a light switch through my sleeve, and my fingers feel something wet through the cloth. When I turn on the light, I can see that it’s sticky, and red-brown. There’s a girl down the hall in front of me. I hurry to her, but I know it’s too late already.
She’s sprawled on her back, her skin is too white, and her eyes are wide open. There’s blood covering her neck and chest. I crouch next to her. Her neck is all mangled, like something wild attacked her. This wasn’t made by any weapon I recognize. I reach for the gun tucked in the back of my pants, retrieve it, and take the safety off. What’s going on here?
The bar itself is also empty, though, obviously, there was a struggle here. Some tables are overturned, the bottles behind the bar are broken, and the ground and stage are covered in glass, liquor, and blood. I survey the area carefully before stepping in, gun at the ready. There’s no one around I can see. I can barely see anything, in fact, because quite a few lights have been blown out, and the place is pretty dim. Movement catches my eye on the stage, and I point the gun. I lower it when I recognize the girl, though. She’s a dancer here. I think her name is Sultana, or Sveltana, or something like that. She’s walking out of the back stage area, slowly. She’s still wearing her stage outfit, which is to say a pink-sequent bikini, but she’s got blood on the lower side of her face, and down her throat. Is she smiling?
“What happened here?”
She’s definitely smiling now. She starts swaying from side to side, like she’s going to start dancing, like that, covered in blood, with bare feet over the shards of glass. She speaks dreamily, with the trace of a Russian accent I remember from the only time I ever talked to her.
“Little Alex Winters is here. Poor little Alex. What is he doing here? Does he suspect anything?”
She comes towards me, swaying her hips, running her hands down her body in a way that is supposed to be sexy, smearing the blood from her throat, and chest, and on the sides of her stomach. It’s not smooth; I can see that it leaves ridges between the places her fingers touched, so it has to have been there at least a little while. She rubs it over her breasts and leans towards me. I want to puke, and at the same time, I can’t take my eyes off of her. She brings her hands up to grab her breasts, leaving two bloody handprints there when she moves to put them on my face. Her hands are still bloody, and I recoil from her before she can touch me.
“What the hell is wrong with you? What’s going on? What happened?”
She smiles again. Her teeth look weird, like they’re sharper than they should be. That’s when I hear it. There are people moving about behind me. I turn around, raising the gun again. There are six of them, dressed mostly in black, surrounding me. I don’t know where they came from, I never heard them come. I find Bogdan in the middle, arms folded, grinning at me with the same too-sharp teeth that the girl has. His eyes are wrong. They’re much paler than I remember them being. I thought they were brown. They almost look white.
“The big man himself shows up. I hadn’t expected you so soon, Mr. Winters.”
I point my gun at him. He’s never showed me that much respect before. Something’s really wrong here.
“What the fuck is going on here, Bogdan?”
He keeps right on grinning, and comes even closer. He steps under one of the few unbroken neon lights and I see that his eyes are definitely not normal; they look almost like they’re glowing. His teeth aren’t just sharp; they’re long, too.
“We’ve… gone through a little change. But don’t worry; you will, too.”
The psycho makes as if he’s going to lunge at me, so I shoot him. I aim for the shoulder, and I can see by the change of his movements that I got him. He stops, touches his shoulder. There’s blood there, if only a little; it feels like there should be more. He moves his arm like he’s testing it. It should be feeling like hell now. Why isn’t he screaming? I know this should hurt; I’ve been shot before. But he doesn’t just not scream; he raises his head towards me, and the crazy fuck starts to laugh. The others laugh too. Why don’t they have their guns out? They must have heard about what I can do. Why aren’t they scared?
Bogdan steps towards me, hissing like a cat, his lips curled back to show his long, sharp teeth. Nothing human has teeth like that. I shoot him once more, and then another time. He just keeps coming. The back of my foot hits something, and I almost fall on the stage. I hadn’t even noticed I was backing up, but by the time I’ve realized it, arms are grabbing me, and I remember Svetlana, or whatever her name is, was standing behind me. I try to shake out of her grasp, but she’s strong, way stronger than anyone has the right to be, especially a girl that barely weighs a hundred pounds. She lifts me right off the floor at arm’s length and pulls me up on stage next to her. Bogdan leaps at me like some kind of wild cat, and I’m squeezed between them. The bitch tears through the sleeve of my arm and bites me, of all things. It hurts, not as bad as a gunshot, but worse than a punch. There’s no way to even lift my arm a little to shoot the gun at either of them. They’re way too strong; I can’t move, and there are five more out there, watching. There’s only one thing I can do.
I close my eyes, and it only takes a second for me to find the hate and the rage I need to fuel my power. I make the fear go away. Who cares if they’re not normal? Neither am I. I concentrate on the anger I feel toward them. About playing me. Making me break in here when they were inside. Trying to kill me. No one tries to kill me.
I don’t control the fire yet, at least not well, but when I find the rage, I know how to make it, as sure as I know how to breathe, talk, and walk. I let the fire wrap around my body, radiate from every part of my being, engulf me in flame completely. I know it won’t hurt me; it’s MY fire. Bogdan screams and gets up, and the girl lets go. I scramble to my feet. My clothes are smoking and ruined, and the Russians are circling me, glaring at me with a lot more suspicion than before. Now they’re scared. Good. I might still get out of this alive.
I take half a second to evaluate the situation. I’m on the right side of the stage, next to the main entrance and the glass doors that have been covered in newspapers. The back door I came through is unlocked, but there are four guys and a much longer distance between me and there. My firing arm is throbbing and useless, and I have to hold the gun in my left hand. I hold on to the rage, thinking about all the betrayals and double-crosses I’ve had to live through since I took over the Russians’ operation, and I lift my good arm. I don’t use the gun, though. I push the fire out of my hand and it unfurls in a wave toward the men between me and the front door. They scream and back away, and when I see that my path is clear, I run.
I’m almost at the door when one of them grabs me by the ankle. I always go down fighting, though, and I kick him in the face as I fall. Unfortunately, he looks like he barely feels it, and he doesn’t let go. Since I didn’t see where I was falling, my head hits the door with enough force to break the glass, tearing a whole sheet of newspaper off with it. I grab for the hole in the glass to hold on to as I feel the guy try to pull me back in, but suddenly he lets go and screams, like an animal. I turn to see. He’s covering his face, backing away from the light. Is he… smoking? It doesn’t matter. If they don’t like the light, I can use that. I use the newspaper to get up to my feet, tearing it from the door. The light pools all around me, and these weird fucks back away from it, covering their faces and hissing. I kick enough of the broken glass out of the door to make a hole big enough to let me through, and I jump outside.
I stagger away, gun still in hand, staring at the club. It doesn’t look like anything is wrong from out here, except for the newspaper and the broken glass door. Maybe I’m just having a nightmare. Are these… things what I think they are?
“What the shit happened to you, man?”
I jump and turn my gun on Jimmy. He’s smoking a cigarette, leaning on the hood of his car, arms crossed. He doesn’t react when I pull a gun on him, just raises an eyebrow. I realize I’m out in the open, and I quickly put the safety back on and tuck the gun away in my pants.
“Jimmy.” I take a second to catch my breath. “Hadn’t seen you. Get me out of here.”
He shrugs, and gets in on the driver’s side of the old green Corolla he’s driving today. I stare at the club before I follow, but I don’t want anyone to place me here, so I shake my head and sit down in the passenger’s side. Jimmy starts the car and pulls away, giving me one of his neutral looks that people think are so scary.
“So, where to, boss?”
“Take me back to the house.”
I lean forward to sigh, and blood rolls into my left eye. I wipe it off, and find my hand is covered in blood. Looking at my sleeve, I see it’s mostly burnt and stained already, so I use it to blot the blood from my forehead, examining myself in the side mirror.
My elastic came off in the fight, but I didn’t notice. Now my hair is wild, and the left side of it is completely matted with blood. There’s tiny cuts all over that side of my face, too, and my clothes are burnt all over. I look down at my right arm, and see that the inside of the elbow is all mangled, and bleeding all over my lap, onto the leather of Jimmy’s car. No wonder I’m dizzy. I sigh and pull out a cigarette, patting my pockets with my left hand to find a lighter. I don’t find one, of course, and I don’t have enough left in me to light it with my power. Jimmy just reaches in his coat pocket and tosses me his Zippo lighter. He smirks at me when I light the cigarette awkwardly with my left hand. The ugly scar that goes down the right side of his face makes his smile twisted and sardonic, even when he doesn’t mean it to be.
“You should probably try to stop that bleeding.”
“Yeah, sorry about your car, man.”
“It’s not the car.”
He holds out his hand to get his lighter back. I hand it over. I don’t know why he’s so attached to that stupid Zippo. I know it was his old man’s; but I also know his old man was a bastard who made his life miserable. He picks it up and pockets it, over his heart. He glances at my arm before putting his eyes back on the road.
“You’re bleeding out. You’re gonna pass out any time now. And I love you like a brother, but I ain’t playing nursemaid to nobody. Gimme a smoke.”
I throw my pack in his lap and I undo my belt, holding the cigarette between my lips as I keep smoking. It’s not something I usually do with my left hand, but I manage to pull it off. I tighten it around my right upper arm, and keep the wound higher than my shoulder. That should get me as far as the house.
Jimmy pulls over in the parking lot, and I can see a face pressed against the window of the entrance door. I take another drag on my cigarette and turn to the driver’s side.
“I’m not feeling so good after all. You wanna just go and get Luke? I’ll wait here.”
He gets out and slams the door, and I throw out the cigarette butt. I take another one from the pack, but Jimmy is gone with his lighter, and I have to wait for him to come back.
There’s a knock on the window, and I wake up. I don’t know if I passed out or if I fell asleep, but suddenly Luke is there, looking worried, and I barely have the time to catch myself before I fall out of the car as he opens the door.
“Holy shit, Alex! What happened to you? Come inside!”
“No. I’ll ask Jimmy to take me to his place.”
There are more faces pressed against the glass; I think I recognize Lucy and Kim. These kids have seen enough horrors to last them until they’re little old ladies, and I’m not going to add to them. Luke is lifting my arm, looking at it.
“You’re going to pass out before you get there. How much blood have you lost already? I’ll go get the first aid kit.”
I guess I have no choice; I trust Jimmy as much as anyone, but I realize how useless he’d be in any situation that would require him to take care of another human being. Luke, on the other hand, was born to care.
“Fine. Get me in the garage and go get the kit. But first go get them away from the windows. I don’t want them to see.”
He goes in through the front door. When the garage door pulls open, he’s stepping out of it with Jimmy, and it’s only a second later, it seems. Jimmy comes towards the car, and I think he’s going to help me walk, so I get ready to prove he doesn’t have to. Instead, he gets back in the driver’s seat and drives the car in the garage.
All I have to do is sit sideways on the passenger seat while Luke cuts away the sleeve of my shirt to fuss over my mangled inner arm. I lean my head on the headrest, because it’s getting hard to hold it up. I see Luke frowning at me over his glasses. He turns to Jimmy, and he’s trying to stay cool, but I can tell he’s really worried.
“Go get the orange juice in the fridge. Bring the whole pint. And ask Sarah if she has any chocolate.”
I sit up so I can make myself heard before Jimmy walks away; I’m going to need to change out of these bloody clothes before the kids see me.
“And get me a suit!”
Luke shoots me a look of annoyance, but Jimmy doesn’t even say anything before he goes, so I guess I must really look bad. It doesn’t feel like it should be this bad; I’ve had gunshot wounds that were truly terrible. This is just a little bite and a few little cuts. I didn’t lose enough blood to feel this light-headed. At least, I didn’t see enough blood to explain it. I think again about the way she bit me. The way Bogdan moved. Their eyes looked so wrong… I’m sure I haven’t seen enough movies in my life to make my imagination run wild. Could they really be what I think they are?
“Your cell phone is ringing.”
I hear it as soon as Luke mentions it. It’s Lupino’s ring tone, so I shove Luke aside to grab the phone out of my pocket.
Luke picks up where he left off, and I let him. So long as he doesn’t distract me, I don’t care.
“Alex? We missed you this morning.”
Shit. The meeting. I meant to call him again, and then things got… complicated.
“I know, Mister Lupino, I’m sorry.”
“Is everything all right?”
“Oh, yeah, you don’t have to worry, everything’s under control.”
“That is what I like to hear. Can I expect a visit sometime this afternoon?”
“Of course! When are you available?”
There is a sudden sting in my arm and I have to suck in my breath not to shout in pain and surprise. I glare down at Luke, but he’s not paying any attention; he’s squinting down at my arm, and he keeps sewing it up with black thread.
“Are you sure everything is all right?”
Great. He heard me.
“Everything’s fine. This afternoon?”
There is a pause. Lupino’s weird with me; he says he worries about all his guys, but sometimes I get the impression it’s different with me.
“This afternoon. At two. Meet me at the park.”
“Good day, Alex.”
“You too, Mister Lupino.”
I glare at Luke as I hit the red button. He doesn’t see me, but it still feels good.
“Couldn’t you have waited ‘til I got off the phone? That was Mister Lupino!”
He stops his sewing and looks at me over the top of his glasses in that old lady look he has when he’s annoyed.
“I don’t have to do it, you know. You can just go to a hospital.”
Jerk. He knows I can’t do that. I try and keep my cool.
“All I’m saying is, you could give me a warning when I’m on the phone.”
“Well, what I’m saying is, you could try to avoid situations in which you get hurt like that.”
“Fine! I’ll quit! And you guys can just go back to what you were doing before I took over this place!”
He doesn’t look back up at me, but he resumes his sewing. I think he looks hurt. I didn’t mean to snap at him, but he has to understand that the job comes with the territory, and if all these kids don’t want to go back to sucking cock for the Russian mob, that’s just what I have to do.
Jimmy comes back with a suit in a plastic bag, a carton of orange juice and a half-eaten chocolate bar, and hands me the edibles. He opens the carton, so I just bring it to my lips. I hate the stuff. I’d rather have a good coffee, but I’ve come to respect Luke’s medical advice. He reads a lot, and he’s got all these medical books. He’s better than a lot of doctors I’ve seen.
“There. Sorry I couldn’t give you any anesthetics, but I don’t have any.”
“Whatever. It’s cool.”
I have a pretty high pain threshold; this is nothing compared to the shit the man my mother made me with put me through. Besides, Luke should know; he’s the same.
Luke puts away his first aid stuff as I finish the last of the OJ. It is making me feel better.
“What are you going to do now?”
I check the time on my cell phone. It’s almost one. I can’t show up to meet Lupino looking like this.
“Gonna take a shower at Jimmy’s. Meeting Mister Lupino in a little over an hour.”
He starts squinting at the cuts on my face, and I start worrying about my schedule.
“Are these going to need stitches too?”
It takes him a little while to answer, but he seems pretty sure of himself when he does.
“Shouldn’t. Just be careful when you wash it. If it starts bleeding again, try applying some pressure, and if it doesn’t stop, call me. You should stop at the pharmacy and get some butterfly closures.”
I get my feet back inside the car. They feel way too heavy.
“All right. Jimmy, take me back to your place. I gotta go have a shower.”
He gets back in the driver’s seat, sighing.
“Yeah, I heard.”
I can see Luke’s worry in his eyes as we pull away, but I just haven’t got time to be reassuring anyone right now.
August 23rd, 1:56 PM
I hate being late. I’m not really late, I know, but I’m not early either, and I hate being tight when I’m meeting Lupino, especially if I have to look like some leftover side of beef from the butcher’s shop.
It took a hell of a lot of shampoo to get all the blood out of my hair, and it made two of the cuts in my scalp bleed again, so I had to stop that bleeding, and then wash more blood out of my hair. I don’t think I ever took a shower this long. At least, Jimmy’s apartment has a lot of hot water. Luke tells me I should cut off my hair, but I won’t do it. It was always my mom’s job, and since I left over two years ago, I haven’t been able to let someone else do it. Anyway, it doesn’t look so bad in a ponytail, which is the way I usually wear it, and I don’t care if Jimmy calls me princess.
The suit Jimmy picked isn’t bad, at least, light gray with a dark blue shirt and tie. I check myself in the side mirror before I get out of the car. In a way, it’s good Lupino wanted to meet so soon; my face has barely had time to swell, and it hasn’t really started to turn purple yet, just a meaty kind of red.
I smoke a last cigarette as I head through the park with Jimmy. I won’t have time to finish it, but I know Mister Lupino hates it when I smoke around him, so I smoke fast and walk slow; there’s no way I’m getting through this meeting without some nicotine in me.
I throw away my cigarette when I spot Jack. He’s sitting on the stone wall separating the clump of trees from the small stone terrace where the old men play chess, reading a book. Lupino is sitting at the table next to him, still in the middle of a match against a guy with a beard that seems only about forty, much too young to be there. I go stand next to Jack so he can recognize me. He looks up from his reading and nods at me with a smirk.
“You look like shit, Winters.”
“At least, for me, it’s an exception, which is more than I can say about you.”
His grin shows his teeth, but he doesn’t lift his eyes.
“Don’t get smart with me, kid. You’re not as hot as you think you are. Tell Blood Bath to stay where I can see him.”
I glance at Jimmy. I don’t know if he heard or not. He says he doesn’t mind the nickname, but I do. It’s not his fault he’s not right in the head.
Lupino is now shaking hands with his adversary. He’s won. He always wins. The man leaves, and Lupino turns his attention to me.
“Alex. Come. Sit.”
He gestures to the empty seat in front of him, and I sit. He replaces the pawns in front of him. I do the same with my side. I’m not that familiar with the game yet; I have to concentrate to make sure I’m putting the right figure in the right place. He takes the white men. He always does, but only with me. I’ve noticed he prefers being black, but he knows I don’t like to make the first move against him.
He has all his pieces placed, and the first pawn already moved by the time I’m done placing my side, and I’m already having to think before I even remember why I’m here, or what I look like. He stays quiet while I make my move. At least I can consider myself lucky that it’s just pawns at this point.
He doesn’t look down to see what I’ve done. He just smiles at me, and I suddenly remember why I’ve come. I pull the envelope out of my pocket. The money in it is singed, but I was able to change the envelope at Jimmy’s place, so it doesn’t look so bad. I pass it to him on the table, discreetly. He takes it from me just as inconspicuously, and pockets it while finally looking down at the board. His first knight comes out, and he looks back up. I don’t know if he’s trying to intimidate me; he knows I start having a hard time when the pieces that have names come out.
“What happened to you?”
I look up, just putting another one of my pawns out on the field to get rid of having to decide what to do. It’s bad enough I have to think of how to lie to a man I swore I’d always be honest with. I have no choice, though. I’m certainly not going to tell him I think one of my biggest earners was turned into a vampire and attacked me when I went to his club.
“Well… it’s just a small trouble. I’m taking care of it.”
He takes my first pawn with his knight. I didn’t even think to cover it. I hate the stupid way they move, in an L, like that makes any sense.
“It seems rather more like a large trouble.”
I rack my brains to try and come up with both a reassuring explanation and an intelligent next move. He hates it when I don’t make an effort, but how am I supposed to think when I’m being subjected to this? I see that I cleared a space for my bishop, and I move it out onto the field. I like bishops. They’re decisive. They only go the one way, but it’s sideways, sneaky-like, and it’s hard to see them come.
“It’s not. It just took me by surprise. I’ve got the situation under control.”
He moves another pawn, threatening my bishop. I wonder if he knew what I was going to do, or if he’s just so good that he doesn’t even need to think about it before he makes his move. I try to match him, and I move my knight so that it’ll protect my bishop’s current position.
“Good, good. Just remember that I like to be informed of everything that happens when it happens. And I am the only judge of what I need to know or not.”
He takes my bishop, though he knows he’ll lose his pawn. I guess I should have seen it coming. I get revenge by taking his pawn with my knight, and I see him smile to himself; the wrinkles around his eyes smile with him, showing years of good humor. I guess I did something stupid again.
“You don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff from me, Mister Lupino.”
He moves another pawn, and takes my knight with it. Why didn’t I see that coming, either? I must really be preoccupied.
“I think you are right. Still, I would hate to be disappointed in you.”
We play without speaking for a few more turns. His moves seem random, unrelated to mine, but once in a while it all suddenly makes sense, always too late for me to save my men. I lose three more pawns, one rook, and another knight, and I only manage to take one of his pawns and a bishop with me. I try to look at his eyes to make sure he believes me. I can’t decide. It’s important he does. Not just for work, though that counts for enough. Our business relationship is complicated; when I took over the Russian operation and managed to get all of their smaller groups under me, the other large groups started testing the strength of my new organization. Lupino made me an offer then that was very hard to refuse. I don’t have an official position within the family, though I am part of it. I was never made, but I report directly to Lupino, because the organization I added to his own was almost as large, if a little shaky.
Jimmy’s walking around the park, looking at the trees and the wall and walking too close to Jack, trying to get a rise out of him. It doesn’t work, of course; Jack is too much of a professional to get taken in by that.
I look back at the board. His remaining bishop is putting my king in a difficult position. His queen and rook are positioned so that I have no choice but to move in a certain direction. There are no other men I can put in the way. I move.
“I understand next Tuesday is your birthday.”
It takes me aback, and I have to think about it. My birthday is a vague concept, and the date is something I remember as clearly as most people remember their car’s serial number. It does seem about right, though. Mister Lupino would know; he’s got my permanent record. Birthdays aren’t something my mom did.
He moves his other rook in a position that seems random, so I know he’s planning something, and he’s got the next three moves figured. I frown at the board, trying to push down the images of cakes and wrapped presents and parties that my friends shared with me, when I was in school, ages ago. I pick up my king to move it, but when I look up at him, I see he’s shaking his head, one of his eyes closed and his lips pressed together in an expression I recognize well. I let go of the king, still watching him, and he raises his eyebrows, signaling towards my queen with his eyes. I scratch my head for a second, but then I see it. I move my queen across the board, taking the offending rook.
He has a nod and a proud little smile. I don’t know what he’s proud of. He’s the one that taught me to play, sure enough, but I’ve never beat him, even when he helps me out like this. He moves his knight to threaten my queen.
“And you will be turning sixteen?”
I look at Jimmy and Jack instinctively, but I think they know how young I really am. Still, it’s not something I like advertised. Lupino knows full well what age I’ll be, probably even better than I do. Why does he have to say it out loud?
“Do you have plans?”
Should I have plans? I don’t really know how these things are done. I suppose I should talk about it with Luke.
“…not as such.”
His eyes smile at me again, and they glance down at the board. I remember that it’s my move, and all I can see right now is that my queen is in danger, so I move it out of harm’s way.
“Good. Good. You will come have dinner at my home, yes?”
I hope I don’t look too dumb when I catch myself blinking at him. I’ve not been often to his home, since I first broke in there almost two years ago to accept his offer, and only in official functions when there were a lot of other guys there. It’s all right, though. My confusion seems to amuse him.
“Uh, yeah. I mean, yes, of course, it’ll be my pleasure.”
He keeps smiling as he nods once, and moves his queen to corner my king.
“Excellent. I am looking forward to it. Checkmate.”
I look down and see that he’s right. There’s nowhere left for my king to go, and the few men I have remaining on the board are all powerless against the attack. I reach over and tip my king, and Lupino offers me his hand. I take it, careful to shake it just hard enough not to hurt him. He’s getting old, after all.
“Good game, Alex. Your concentration seems to be improving.”
He starts replacing the men on the board. He takes the black ones, so I know our chat is done for the day. I place the white men in front of me, and I stand.
“Take care of yourself, my boy. And I will expect to be kept apprised of your situation.”
“Of course. Good bye, Mister Lupino.”
He nods, smiling with the wrinkles around his eyes again. Jack pretends not to notice me leaving, until I’m right next to him. He doesn’t look up when he talks to me, either.
“You might be invited, but your little friend Blood Bath stays out. That clear?”
I say nothing as I walk away. I’m going to do as he says, because it’s also what Lupino would want, but I can at least let him wonder about it. Jimmy heard, this time, and he takes a second to give Jack his toothy, twisted smile before following me. He knows his reputation, and he takes advantage of it whenever he can; young guys like us, it’s all we got, our reputation. Mine is for being able to do weird things with fire; Jimmy, well, he’s known for being one of the scariest, craziest bastards in this city. It’s completely justified, of course, on both counts. When he helped me take down the Borodinski group, he did things with his bare hands that most guys couldn’t bring themselves to do with a knife. But the kind of shit his dad put him through, and after him, the Russians he was sold to, that can make a guy crazy. I think Jimmy’s ok, considering.
“I didn’t know it was your birthday, man.”
I look at him. Him, too? I’d have thought it would have been the same as me.
“Well, I kinda forgot, myself.”
“We should have a party.”
Stupid parties. I concentrate on my frustration, and manage to light my cigarette with my fire. But if the guys want a party, they should have a party. They work better when they’re relaxed.
“Fine, have a party. Just don’t forget I already agreed to go eat with Mister Lupino.”
“Don’t worry. That old fart’ll be in bed by the time it starts. Besides, we don’t have to do it the same day.”
I stop and grab his shoulder with my left hand. I give him my meanest look; Jimmy Blood Bath doesn’t scare me.
“You don’t talk about Mister Lupino that way. Got it?”
He rolls his eyes and reaches in my pocket for the pack of cigarettes.
“Yeah, sure, whatever.”
He shakes his shoulder out of my grip. I let him, and follow him back to his car, grabbing my pack before he puts it in his pocket. He turns to look at me after he starts the car.
“So, you finally gonna tell me what happened at Bogdan’s?”
He takes his eyes off me to drive the car away from the side of the street and back towards the Russian district.
“These fucks attacked me.”
“What with, glass?”
I touch the inside of my right arm; the bandage is tight under the sleeve of my jacket. Jimmy’s crazy, but he’s not that kind of crazy. Would he believe me? Do I even believe me?
“It was just messed up.”
“Did you take them out?”
“Couldn’t. They took me by surprise.”
“Want me to look into it?”
It would normally be what he does, and a good idea, but I don’t want to send him there alone. He might be the meanest fighter I’ve ever met, but he’s just human.
“Maybe. It’ll be delicate.”
“I can do delicate.”
I sigh. It could be true, but I haven’t seen it yet. At the same time, I can only be as watchful as my men are.
“All right. Find out what happened to the other clubs he ran. But I want absolutely no confrontations. If he realizes you’re on to him, or if you encounter any situation that gets hot in any way, I want you out of there. Without waves. I mean it.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be discreet.”
I don’t know if it’s the blood loss, the dehydration, or the problem itself, but my head hurts like hell. I know Jimmy thinks that being discreet just means covering his tracks, but I hope he really doesn’t get involved. I need him, more than just for the rides; he’s one of the only men I have that I can trust.