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"There was something seriously wrong with the world for which neither God nor His absence could be blamed."
—Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
Later, Jenn Lacie would spend a lot of time trying to pinpoint the exact moment.
There was a time before, she was sure of that. When she was free and young and, on a good day, maybe even breezy. Looking back was like looking at the cover of a travel brochure for a tropical getaway, some island destination featuring a smiling girl in a sundress and a straw hat, standing calf-deep in azure water. The kind of place she used to peddle but had never been.
And of course, there was the time after.
So it stood to reason that there had to be a moment when the one became the other. When blue skies bruised, the water turned cold, and the undertow took her.
Had it been when they first met Johnny Love, that night in the bar?
Maybe. Though it felt more like when she'd opened the door at four a.m., bleary in a white T-shirt and faded cotton bottoms. She'd known it was Alex before she looked through the peephole. But the tiny glass lens hadn't let her see his eyes, the mad energy in them. If she hadn't opened the door, would everything be different?
Sometimes, feeling harder on herself, she decided, no, the moment came after the four of them did things that could never be taken back. Not just when they decided; not even when she felt the pistol, the oily heaviness of it making something below her belly squirm, a strange but not entirely uncomfortable feeling. Like any birth, maybe her new life had come through blood and pain. Only it hadn't been an infant's cry that marked the moment. It had been a crack so loud it made her ears hum, a wet, spattering cough, and the man shuddering and staring as his eyes zeroed out.
But late at night, the sheets a sweaty tangle, her mind turning relentless carnival loops, she wondered if all of that was nonsense. Maybe there hadn't been a moment. Maybe that was just a lie she told herself to get through the day, the way some took Xanax and some drank scotch and some watched hour after numbing hour of sitcoms.
Maybe the problem hadn't come from outside. Hadn't been a single decision, a place where they could have gone left instead of right.
Maybe the road the four of them walked never had any forks to begin with.
Ian was aware of the cliché.That's what made it OK.
It was one thing to be the trader wearing a suit that belied your debt, sitting in the company men's room at almost eight at night, blasting coke from the hinge of your thumb, and believing you were Gordon Gekko. It was another to see it for the sordid little scene it was. As long as you knew that, you were still running the show.
Screw it, he thought, then bent forward and snorted hard.
It was good stuff, coating the inside of his skull with ice, a moment of brain freeze that released slow and sweet into a glorious warmth. He poured a bump for his other nostril—had to be democratic—and blew that one too. Then he leaned against the toilet tank, the porcelain cool and hard and kind of pleasant through the starched cotton of his oxford.
There we go. There it is.
His toe wanted to tap, but he fought the urge, glanced at his watch instead: 7:58 in the p.m. Almost there. He'd worked here for years, noticed it only subliminally at first. The kind of pattern the human brain catches a bit at a time. Part of him wanted to count the seconds down, but that would have been cheating.
When the air-conditioning shut off at 8:00 exactly, a sudden absence of sound that had measured the whole of his day, he smiled.
Silly, he knew. But if eighty percent of his waking life was going to be spent sitting in a gray corporate office—which, by the way, he didn't remember voting on, thanks very much—he'd seize his little triumphs where he could. He arrived most days before six, in time to hear the fans turn on, and worked the same day over and over in a blur of predatory action, the headset so much a part of his body that he sometimes forgot to take it off when he stood up from his desk, got jerked back by the cord. Maneuver after maneuver, each the one that might get him out from under, might return him to wunderkind status, the guy who had cracked Hudson-Pollom Biolabs and made a quick half-mil instead of the also-ran everyone was starting to suspect he might be. Lunch at his desk, stolen in bites. A bathroom break midmorning and midafternoon, two quick white blurs to keep his energy kicking. Staying after the phones went quiet to read the blogs, make his plans for tomorrow, and try, in an amiable, distracted way, to figure out how to make up what he'd lost.
And finally, the retreat here, to his porcelain palace, to blow a good-night kiss to work and start the evening properly.
He pinched his nostrils, then rattled the toilet-paper dispenser like he'd been using the john. There was no one in the bathroom, but habits were important for the day he didn't hear his boss come in. He flushed, stepped out, washed his hands, then checked himself in the mirror. Nose clean, tie straight. Ready for the world.
He smiled, made guns of his fists and shot the mirror, an intentionally cheesy joke meant only for himself—it seemed like most of his jokes were—and then headed for the door.
It was Thursday night, and his friends would be waiting. Alex behind the bar in a bleach-worn shirt, the cuffs spotted with old stains. Jenn sipping a vodka martini, never a cosmo, not since Sex and the City. Mitch rocking his stool on two legs, trying not to get caught looking sidelong at Jenn. The Thursday Night Crew. Thinking of them made him smile again. Funny how their unlikely foursome had remained friends when all the folks he'd grown up with, the ones who signed yearbooks and made pledges of eternity, had all fallen quietly away. Moved to New York or the suburbs, gotten married and had children. That might be sad if he let it.
But why would he? He was young, secretly high, and his friends were waiting.
When Mitch climbed on the bus, there was only one seat open, next to a black guy wearing a puffy Looney Tunes jacket and loose jeans, his leg thrown across the open seat. Mitch walked over, stood looking down at the guy. "Excuse me."
For a long moment, the man ignored him. Then, drawing the gesture out slow, he swiveled his head to look up at Mitch. His eyes pitched half open, a toothpick stuck to wet lips. Nothing in his expression at all. After a moment of staring, he turned back to the window. He didn't move his leg.
Asshole, Mitch thought and moved back a couple of rows, stood gripping the hand bar, swaying with the motion of the bus. His heels felt like someone was cranking wood screws into them, and the steady ache in his back that began around noon had stretched up to his shoulders and neck. Occupational hazard of spending all day standing up, smiling on cue as he opened and closed the heavy glass doors of the Continental Hotel.
It's only a couple of minutes. Not worth making a thing over.
He shifted from the edge of one foot to the edge of the other. The bus was warm, humid with body odor, and he was afraid some of it came from him. Nothing to do about it, just a day's worth of sun beating down on his jacket and tie, but he wished he could have showered.
After all, tonight was the night. He'd made up his mind that he was going to take the plunge with Jenn. If the right moment came up at least, when the guys weren't there. And probably best to get in a couple of drinks in to unwind from the day. Be loose. Loose was good. Like, "There's this new sake lounge we could check out, you know, laugh at the yuppies." Or was that too casual? He didn't want her to say it sounded great, why didn't they invite the others. Maybe more like, "It'd be really nice to get a chance to talk, just us." Though he didn't want to put her on the spot.
He ran lines until his stop, but couldn't find the right one. Maybe he'd wing it.
Rossi's was one of those identity-crisis places, a bar-slash-restaurant that drew families for dinner but an after-work crowd for drinks. Perched on a stretch of Lincoln that fell between more fashionable areas, the place had become their haunt in the last few years mostly because with Alex there, they could drink cheap. Funny, really; in a city filled with terrific bars, they chose to meet every week at a half-assed restaurant that they'd otherwise never have noticed.
After the heat of the bus, walking into the air-conditioning felt wonderful. Mitch nodded at the hostess, moved past the dining room, with its rich smell of bolognese and carbonara, and into the bar. The postwork crowd was thinning but not gone, men in business casual, women laughing, glasses filled with pink and green and pale yellow, specialty martinis made with syrups and liqueurs. He moved through them, looking toward their customary seats.
Dammit. Other than Alex pulling drinks, he was the first one there. He should have showered.
"That prick," Alex was saying as she walked up. "He should be, I don't know. Drawn and quartered."
"Who should?" Jenn smiled at him, careful not to hold it too long, then hugged Ian, the blades of his shoulders sharp through his shirt, then Mitch, still in his uniform, the jacket with the hotel logo slung over the back of his chair.
"Tasty," Alex said, "right on time, as usual." He smiled back at her, his eyes warm. Normally she wouldn't have liked the nickname, Tasty-sort-of-rhymes-with-Lacie, but he had a way of saying it that sounded warm instead of dirty. "Hot date?"
"Kickboxing class. Who should be drawn and quartered?"
"That Cayne guy."
"James Cayne. He was the CEO of Bear Stearns," Ian said. "It's a securities firm, the one the Fed just bailed out. They've had a lot of trouble lately. The whole subprime mortgage collapse? Started with their hedge funds."
"Apparently," Alex said, "while the company was tanking, he was playing in a bridge tournament. Guy's company is responsible for half of America losing their houses, he's playing cards."
"It's a little more complicated than that." Ian gave that sharp-edged grin. "There were market forces in play."
"Hi, Jenn," Mitch said.
"He should be killed," Alex said again, pouring a martini from a stainless steel shaker and setting it in front of her. He stabbed three olives with a toothpick shaped like a sword and balanced it across the top. "Line him and that Enron guy, Ken Lay, and the rest of them up against a wall and shoot them."
"Ken Lay is already dead. Heart attack."
"OK, well, everybody else from Enron."
Jenn said, "Bad day?" then laughed when all three of them nodded. "OK. Next round is on me."
Her mother found it strange, the way her closest friends were guys. She was always asking unsubtle questions about which one Jenn was dating. Hoping it would be Ian, whom she'd never met but had come to believe must be a nice boy, a judgment that had a lot to do with the fact that he worked as a trader.
Jenn had always gotten along fine with women. But her friends, especially as she'd gotten older, they tended to be guys. It wasn't that she was a tomboy or the perennial little sister or one of those women who talked sex all the time to keep the boys nearby. Somehow, though, as her twenties had slipped into her early thirties, it had gotten harder to have real girlfriends. The married ones retreated into couplehood. The single ones looked over her shoulder every time the door opened, checking the men at the bar, scoping shoes and ring fingers. Wondering if the guy walking in was the one for them, the one who would let them jettison this tedious phase, the single apartment and Christmas with the parents and the fear that they would end up owning cats. Ever hopeful that a cute stranger would spill coffee on them and have just the right line to follow it up. Romantic Comedy Syndrome.
Which was fine, and she wished them luck. They just made for lousy friends, whereas the boys kept things easy. Which was how she ended up here every week, all four of them at the end of the bar. She, Alex, Ian, and Mitch, the Thursday Night Drinking Club.
"Which game tonight?"
"Tonight," Ian said, "is clearly a Ready-Go night."
"I'm feeling hypothetical."
"I feel that way all the time," she said. "OK. In the spirit of the evening: If you had half a million dollars. Ready, go."
"Only half?" Ian cocked his eyebrow.
"I'd buy a house," Alex said. "Nothing fancy, just something with a spare bedroom for Cassie. I think she'd stay with me more often if she had a room of her own. In Lincoln Park so she could walk to the shops, the lake."
"Somebody hasn't looked at real-estate prices in a while," Ian said.
"A house in Lincoln Park for a half million?"
"No?" Alex looked genuinely wounded, as though the neighborhood pricing was all that was holding him back. "Huh. All right, a condo. Whatever. How about you?"
"I'd quit the firm. Work from home. Day trade. I could turn that into ten million in no time."
Alex snorted. "You'd be broke in a week."
Ian smiled that thin smile again. "Jenn?"
She sipped at her martini, pulled off an olive, chewed it slowly.
"Where would you go?" Mitch leaned forward.
"Everywhere. All the places I book trips for other people. Paris. St. Petersburg. The islands. I'd like to spend a while in the islands.
A little cabin on the beach, someplace with screens for walls, where you could hear the ocean day and night. Drink coconut drinks. Live in a bathing suit." It was strange hearing the words come out of her mouth, like this was a long-held fantasy. Truth was, she hadn't known what she was going to say until she'd started.
"Sounds nice," Mitch said.
"Sounds boring," Ian said. "I'd be out of my head in a week."
"Then you're not invited. Alex, Mitch, you guys want to come to the islands with me?"
"And leave all this?" Alex laughed and picked up a cloth, started buffing the bar. His sleeves were rolled to his elbows, and the muscles of his forearms were knotted ropes. "At this rate, in just twenty short years, I'll be full manager. At which point if one of you wanted to shoot me, I'd thank you for the favor."
"Why don't you quit?" Mitch said.
"Why don't you?"
"I—well, I mean, it's a job, right?"
Alex nodded slowly. "Yes. It's a job, all right." He glanced down the line, where a plump, tanned guy stood with finger crooked, a gaudy ring flashing on one finger. "Speaking of." He dropped the cloth and started away.
For a moment, silence fell. Then Ian raised his glass said, "Fuck work."
Laughing, they clinked glasses. Jenn leaned into the bar, feeling good, a little bit of that old energy swirling around, the kind she missed, the sense that the evening could go anywhere, that there were adventures yet to be had. Ian asked the next Ready-Go question: What was something they would never, ever, do? Ready, go— and she settled in, let the night flow.
Mitch wasn't drunk. Tipsy, OK, but not drunk. He'd had a couple of shots with Alex before the others arrived, and three or four beers since, a fair bit for two hours, but it had been a long day.
No, he wasn't drunk, so that wasn't why he was pissed off. Or it was only part of it. The real reason was that he'd finally caught his moment, and then the asshole had come over.
It was the guy Alex had gone to see. Mitch didn't recognize him but guessed he was some sort of a bigwig, because Alex had nodded a lot and then disappeared into the back room and hadn't returned. Which was perfect, because a few minutes later, Ian excused himself.
The guy was famous for long bathroom breaks—they had a running joke that he must be restocking the toilet rolls—and so it had been just him and Jenn.
They had made small talk for a couple of minutes, Mitch still polishing lines in his head. When the conversation dropped off, he'd finished his beer and leaned forward. Now or never.
"So, I was thinking." He wanted to meet her eyes but couldn't, stared at his empty beer glass instead. Spun it on the edge. "You know, it might be fun sometime—"
"Hello, beautiful." The voice that smooth tone of someone used to getting what he wanted. "How come I've never seen you in here before?"
Mitch had looked up to find the guy standing between him and Jenn, right between them, giving Mitch his back like he wasn't even there. A shiny silk shirt and sharp cologne.
Jenn said, "Maybe because you haven't been here before?" She turned slightly on her chair, legs crossed at the knee and then recrossed at the ankle, a tangle of dark jeans and soft leather boots.
"No, couldn't be that. Must be I've been in the office most of the time," the guy said. "I own the joint."
"Yeah?" She said it with a slight challenge, but Mitch couldn't help but notice that her arms weren't folded.
"That's right. This one, a couple others. Keeps me busy. But if I'd known you were out here, I wouldn't have worked so hard."
The guy held out a hand. "John Loverin. People call me Johnny Love."
She laughed. "You kidding me?"
"I know," he said and laughed too, the smug bastard. "What do they call you?"
Don't say Tasty. Please don't say Tasty.
"Jenn," she said. "And this is my friend Mitch."
"Oh, yeah?" The guy turned at the waist, gave a quick nod, then turned his back again. "Nice to meet you, Jenn."
Mitch cleared his throat, said, "Listen—"
"Let me get you a drink. On the house."
"Hey." The guy nodded to the bartender who was covering Alex. "Get the lady a—what is that, a martini? Get her a Grey Goose martini, would you? And a Glenlivet for me. Double."
Unbelievable. Mitch leaned back on his stool, tried to catch Jenn's eye. Ian would be back before long, and then Alex, and then it would be too late. He'd have to wait for next week. But damned if Jenn wasn't smiling. He thought it was her amused smile, like she was enjoying the show, but he couldn't be sure. "Hope I'm not being too forward. I'm a little jet-lagged still."
"Just got back from Cancun," Johnny said. "Why I'm so tan.
I like to go down there every couple of months, relax. You ever been?"
She shook her head, took an olive off the toothpick, a move Mitch always found hypnotic, the way she slid the toothpick into her mouth, lips tightening as she gripped the olive and drew it off.
The way her cheekbones flared as she chewed, carefully, like she wanted to squeeze out every drop of flavor.
"I gotta tell you, it's beautiful. Paradise."
"Isn't Cancun pretty much due south of here?"
"So how are you jet-lagged?"
He laughed at that. "You got me." Took a sip of his drink. "Flying can wear you out, though. And the airports, shoes off, belt off, arms out, stand, spin, hula dance. But I got this place down there, right on the beach, private, makes it worth the trouble."
"You own a house there?"
"Sure do. You should come down sometime. Check it out."
"Right. How about tomorrow? We could get married in the surf."
"Hey," he said, "no need to bust my balls. I've got two bedrooms. You could just relax, see if you like it."
All right. Enough. Mitch leaned forward and put his hand on the guy's shoulder. He didn't push, not exactly, but the booze made it maybe harder than he'd meant.
Johnny Love turned, set his drink down. He stared at Mitch.
"Something you want?"
"Yeah." He felt the blood in his forehead, anger plus a little liquid courage, and decided to go with it. "I'd like you to leave us alone."
"Hey—," Jenn started.
"It's OK," Johnny said over his shoulder, like he was protecting her. He straightened, ran his tongue against the inside of his lip.
"You got a problem?"
"I just told you."
Johnny stared, his eyes flicking up and down. Very slowly, he smiled, then gestured to Mitch's blazer, the pocket emblazoned with the hotel logo. "Nice outfit."
"You too." Asshole.
The man's eyes narrowed. He stared for a moment, then held up his left hand, flicked his thumb against his pinkie ring. Dice, a five and a two. "You see this? Platinum, ninety-five percent pure. Two and a half in flawless stones."
"These shoes are handmade in London. This shirt cost four hundred dollars."
"So fuck you." Johnny laughed. "Tell you what. I own a Laundromat over on Halsted. Why don't you come work for me? Least you wouldn't have to dress like a monkey."
"No, you listen. The lady and I are having a conversation. Why don't you mind your own business?"
Mitch glared. His hands were shaking with adrenaline, and he could hear his pulse. He slid off the stool, stood as tall as he could.
"What?" The guy smiled, showing bright white teeth. "You going to do something, busboy?"
"Johnny." Jenn stood, put a hand on the man's shoulder. "This is my friend. Come on."
"Jesus, I don't need—," Mitch started.
"Don't take that tone with her." The man leaned forward, eyes menacing.
"Everything OK?" Alex had reappeared behind the bar, his eyes panning back and forth, concerned. "This guy is a friend of mine, boss."
"Mitch didn't mean anything," Jenn said, from behind. "You just got off on the wrong foot."
The wrong foot? What the hell? Why was she talking that way, coming on like he'd been an asshole? Trying to save him? He didn't need that. He'd been trying to save her from this sleaze.
"Really, Johnny, he's a good guy," Alex said. "Good customer, too. Here every Thursday night. We all are."
The man stood straight, his eyes locked on Mitch's. The moment held for a long time. Then the guy nodded, said, "All right. You both vouch for him, I'll let him be." He turned to Alex. "But it's Mr. Loverin."
"Sure. Sorry, Mr. Loverin." Alex spread his hands.
Loverin turned to Jenn. "I apologize about this. You deserve better. Tell you what, why don't you come back sometime, I'll treat you to dinner, just you and me. Chef'll make up something special. What do you say?"
She hesitated, then put on a smile. "That sounds nice." Mitch knew her well enough to know the smile was fake, but still.
The man nodded, then said to Alex, "Her tab's on me." He snorted, then, jerking a thumb contemptuously over his shoulder, said, "His too." Mitch started to argue, but Alex caught his eye, gave him a warning look, then said, "That's nice of you, Mr. Loverin.
The man turned and walked away. Mitch watched him go, the guy actually strutting. There was silence for a moment, then Alex said, "What the hell?"
"What?" Mitch shrugged. "He came over, started being an asshole."
"You were kind of rude," Jenn said. "He was cheesy, but you started it."
"I started it?" He couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice. "What are you talking about?" Mitch shook his head. "I'd like to go get him, tell him to meet me outside."
"No, man. You don't do that." Alex took Mitch's glass, held it under the tap. "I know he looks silly, but he's serious."
"What do you mean, 'serious'?"
"I mean serious. Like, made-his-money-selling-drugs serious. He used to run crack back in the eighties. In a big way."
"Really?" Jenn said, a lilt in her voice.
"Really. He doesn't do it anymore, but he's still got connections. I been working here a long time, I've seen some shit."
"What kind of shit?"
"Italian guys coming in carrying briefcases, walking out empty-handed. That kind of shit. He's not somebody to mess with."
"How come you never told us about him?"
"I don't see him much. He owns a couple of places, leaves running them to the managers. He still comes in, but sits in his office, people coming to talk to him. Shady people."
"Whatever," Mitch said. "I'm not scared. He's a punk." He drained half his fresh beer in one go, the remnants of adrenaline and shame making his hands shake. "I'd still like to take him outside."
"No. What does that mean?"
"Just that"—Alex shrugged—"I mean, come on, man. You're not exactly a street fighter."
"You don't think I can take care of myself?"
"I don't mean anything." Alex exchanged a look with Jenn.
"Just relax, OK? Let it go."
Mitch stared at him, then at Jenn, her eyes locked on her glass. Was this what they thought of him? He wanted to yell, to throw his beer and storm off to find that scumbag ex-drug dealer. Bad enough to have a scene like that in front of Jenn. But then for Alex to basically call him a wimp? His forehead was hot, and he had a sick feeling in his gut, one he hated, the same one that he got every time he held the door for some rich asshole who didn't even bother to acknowledge he existed.
"Hey," Ian said, pulling out his seat, eyes bright and smile toothy. "What'd I miss?"
The night ended much earlier than Ian had in mind. The combination of a handful of drinks and the maintenance trip to the bathroom had him wide-awake, ready to roll. The place was more restaurant than bar, and it shut down at eleven; they'd hung out while Alex finished his closing duties, but the scene with the owner had apparently soured everybody's mood. Instead of their usual retreat to a back table to bullshit until one or two, Jenn had looked at her watch and suggested they wrap early. Mitch, even quieter than usual as he sat drinking with grim determination, had nodded, and then suddenly they were outside. Alex and Jenn lived in the same direction and split a cab north.
"You'll make sure he gets home?" Alex said, one hand against the roof of the car.
"I don't need a babysitter." Mitch ran the words together. Ian ignored him, said, "Sure," to Alex, then kissed Jenn on the cheek, closed the door, and thumped the trunk. He felt good, lucky. Maybe after he dropped Mitch off, he'd hop in his car, spin down to the game.
"Greasy little cheeseball." Mitch wobbled across the street.
"Sounds like a character. Sorry I missed him." He held up an arm for a cab that blew right past. "He really own the place?"
"Whatever." Mitch rubbed at his forehead. "So he has a lot of money. So what? That mean he gets to treat people that way?"
"I wonder how much he has." Ian waved again, and this time a cab glided to a stop beside them. They climbed in, and he gave the driver Mitch's address. "He was a drug dealer, huh?"
"I don't get it. How does money give you a-a-a permission slip to be a douche bag?"
"Makes sense that he would have restaurants." Ian ran his tongue over his gums, enjoying the faint numbness. "Cash businesses. The Laundromat, too. He probably bought into them quietly, has people run them, just watches his money grow. You almost have to admire him."
"Or hate him."
"Half of admiration is hatred, man."
"And Alex! What was that? What'd he mean about me not being able to take care of myself?" Mitch straightened. "I can handle myself. Everybody thinks I can't, but I can. Just like the people at the hotel. The guests. They give a tip, five measly bucks, treat you like they bought you. Like you're a slave." He hiccupped. "Yes, massa. I hold the door for you. Or worse, like you're invisible. Not a doorman, a door mat."
Ian turned to him. "You ever gamble?"
"You know, blackjack, roulette."
"You ought to. There's nothing like winning." Ian smiled. "Or really, even before that. It's the moment between when you set your chips on the table and the ball stops, the card drops. It's a crazy rush. This one time," he said, "I'm at the boats, playing blackjack, and I get two nines. So I split them. You know what that means? You put down more money and play them like separate hands. So I get the next card, and it's a nine. So I split again. Next card? A nine. Can you believe it? Split again. It was incredible. I could have gone on all night, the dealer just putting down nines and me putting down chips."
For a moment, Mitch was quiet. Then he said, "Even the game, the question game."
"Your question game. The one Jenn asked, what would you do with half a million dollars."
"What about it?"
"Nobody asked me. Alex wants a house for his daughter, you want to quit your job, Jenn wants to travel. But nobody asked me."
"So what would you do with it?"
Mitch opened his mouth, closed it. Held his hands out, then said, "That's not the point. The point is that nobody asked me. Like I'm invisible."
"Well, I'm asking now. What would you do?"
"I don't know," Mitch said. "I'm tired. And drunk." He paused.
"So what happened?"
"With the nines."
"Oh. Dealer had a three and an eight, drew a ten. Twenty-one."
"So you lost all of them?"
"Yeah, but that's not the important thing." Ian wanted a bump or another drink, could feel the liquidity of his buzz fading—and the problems teeming behind it ready to jump him if he let them. "What's important is that there was that moment, see, where I could have won them all. And every time he put down a nine, that moment stretched, got bigger. And the payday with it."
"But you lost."
"So there wasn't a payday. You just lost four times bigger."
Ian laughed. "Yeah, well." He looked out the window, watched the closed shops and open bars, the people on the sidewalks. No place like Chicago in the summer, every window open, laughter and music spilling onto the streets. He liked the feeling of riding past it, a pane of glass between him and the rest of the world, but all of it right there, close enough to touch if he wanted to reach out. He glanced at the cabbie. A lot of them were Middle Eastern, too strict, but this was a black dude, middle-aged, wearing a Kangol. Hell, what was the worst that would happen? Ian reached into his pocket, took out the amber vial. Without letting himself think too much, he shook a little pile onto the back of his hand and snorted quick, like he had the sniffles. The driver glanced in the rearview mirror, and Ian held his gaze until the guy looked away.
Mitch said, "Was that—"
"Yeah." Ian turned to look at him, gave a shrug and a sideways smile.
"You do a lot of it?"
"Every now and then. You want some?"
Mitch shook his head.
"You sure? Cheer you up."
"No," he said, and leaned his head against the window, closed his eyes. "No, it won't."
"How about coming gambling with me?"
"Jesus, no. Indiana?"
"Not the riverboats. I know a private game. We can be there in twenty minutes."
Mitch shook his head. "I'm going home."
"Come on, man. Don't be like that," Ian said.
"You know, you can't win if you don't bet."
"Can't lose, either."
Jenn turned on the faucet, let the water run. It took forever to warm up in Alex's place. She straightened and looked at herself in the mirror, finger-combed her hair behind her ears. She'd always wanted a pixie cut, something short and sexy, but never quite had the guts.
When the water was hot, she cupped her hands under the faucet and splashed it on her face. Alex only had bar soap, not the facial scrub she liked, but one of the rules of their whatever-this-was was that they wouldn't leave things at each other's places. He said that it was because he didn't want his daughter to notice it when she came over, start asking questions, but she suspected it was more that he wanted to be perfectly clear that they weren't dating.
She found him in the kitchen, still naked, rummaging in the fridge. He had a great body: gym-built muscles that were iron-hard but not flashy or ridiculous, black tribal tattoos around his biceps, nice legs, just enough chest hair. "Beer?" he asked.
He came out with a couple of Sierra Nevadas, popped the tops, and passed her one. She leaned against the counter, the Formica cool against her bare skin. He opened the drawer, took out his reserve cigarettes, lit up. "Weird scene tonight."
She nodded. "That guy's a trip."
"He's an asshole."
"Well, yeah. Didn't take much to spot that."
"What really happened?"
She ticked a fingernail against the label, peeling the edge up. "I think he was about to ask me out."
He took a long pull of beer. "You know, if he ever does, I don't want to stand between—"
She shook her head. "I've caught him looking, but I don't think it's anything serious." The post-sex glow was fading and leaving in its place a familiar sadness. "Is he dangerous? Your boss?"
"Nah. I mean, he knows people. But he's kind of a blowhard. One of those guys who used to be scary and isn't anymore, not unless you provoke him. I just said that stuff to keep Mitch from doing anything stupid." He shrugged. "I love the guy, but he's not Holyfield. His idea of a good punch is left chin to right fist, you know?"
Men and their alpha politics. The feeling in her chest grew worse, coupled with a hint of panic that she'd been getting lately. Like she was in the wrong place. "Do you ever feel," she hesitated, "like you missed something?"
"I miss my daughter." He took another hit off his cigarette, then threw it in the sink half-smoked. "All the time I'm not with her."
"That's sweet, but not what I mean. I'm talking about something abstract. Like"—she took a sip of beer—"it used to be that when I went out on a Saturday night, I'd have this lightness inside, this openness. The night could go anywhere. I could meet somebody incredible, or dance in a fountain, or have a conversation that would blow my mind. Have something really amazing happen, an adventure. Something that mattered. Life felt . . . imminent. You ever feel that?"
He nodded, said nothing.
"I don't get that much anymore. Now I just go out, I come home, I go to work and book trips to places I've never been, probably won't ever go. There's no meaning to any of it. Those days are gone, and nothing that amazing happened, and now I'm out of time. All there is left to do is wait to turn into my mother."
"Would that be so bad?"
"Have you met my mother?"
He laughed. Dropped his empty beer in the trash and opened the fridge for another. "You know, when I was twenty, I had it all figured out. Finish college, go to law school, get a job in the city. Then Trish got pregnant." He paused. "I wanted her to have an abortion. But she said she couldn't live with herself. So I did the"—he made air quotes—"right thing. Quit school, married her, started bartending. Told myself I could take classes on the weekends."
"But you didn't."
He shook his head. "But it was OK, because Cassie was born. Best thing I've ever done. Only thing, really. The moment I saw her, all red and wrinkly and screaming . . . I don't know. That angsty feeling you were talking about, it went away. Just went away."
"You still see your ex?"
"Trish? Every time I pick Cassie up. She's remarried, a guy who works in the Loop, does something corporate. He's OK."
"What about her?"
"She"—he hesitated—"She doesn't think much of me these days."
They fell silent. Jenn could hear the hum of the overhead lights.
Alex was staring at his beer bottle. They'd been sleeping together on the sly for more than a year, a secret in a group that supposedly didn't have any, and yet this was the most intimate conversation they'd had. All the games the four of them played, the way they kept the world at bay with them, it wasn't just the world that was excluded, she realized. They'd also held themselves in reserve from one another.
All she'd wanted from life was adventure, something that mattered, that was exciting and maybe a little bit dangerous and had rewards to match. And yet here she stood, naked in the kitchen of a guy she knew well and yet not at all. A fuck-buddy. She wasn't taking risks or reaching for anything. She was just killing time.
"You know what?" Jenn finished her beer. "I think I'm going to go."
Alex looked up, surprised. "Yeah?"
"I've got things to do in the morning. You know." She dropped her bottle in the trash, went to the bedroom. Stuffed her panties and bra in her purse, pulled on her jeans and shirt, then sat on the edge of the bed to wrestle with her boots. The covers were still tangled from sex, and she had a flash of Alex beneath her, arching upward as she rode him, her knees astride his hips, sweat running between her breasts, her head thrown back. For a moment she hesitated, but that feeling was still there, frustration and faint panic and, yeah, a little bit of self-loathing, too. She finished zipping her boots.
At the door, she went with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Have fun with Cassie tomorrow."
"Thanks. The four of us still on for breakfast on Saturday?"
"Sure," she said, "whatever."
"Hey." He stood framed in the doorway, still naked. "You OK?"
"I'm fine." Then she turned and went down the stairs to hail a cab.
THE HEALTH CLUB WAS SWANK, one of those places yuppies paid big money to not use. Not the good doctor, though. Bennett had been watching for a while now, and apart from one very interesting weakness, the doc was about as exciting as oatmeal. Up in the morning, coffee with the wife—through the windows she looked like she'd once been pretty—then the gym. Thirty on the treadmill, thirty in the pool, a massage, a shower, and off he went.
Bennett liked people who kept a routine. Sure as a poker tell, it meant they had some part of their lives where they varied, went a little crazy. Everybody needed something to hold back the press of days. Dieters binged, teetotalers threw down punch at the Christmas party, faithful husbands got blown by flirty sales associates on business trips. Screwing up was wired into the DNA.
And thank God for it. Man had to make a living.
He walked in the front door of the gym, offered his pass to the pretty boy behind the counter, who said, "Your guest membership expires tomorrow. What do you say—ready to make a better you? Should I get the enrollment forms ready?"
"I'll think about it," Bennett said, then headed for the pool.
Four lanes, half-Olympic length, under bright fluorescent lighting.
A fat woman in a bathing cap did a slow breaststroke, her expression painfully earnest. Beside her, the doc cut through the water with a nice clean crawl, four strokes to a breath, flip-turns at the end of the lane. He wore goggles and a Speedo, and managed three laps to every one of the woman's. Bennett stood behind the glass and watched, chlorine in his nostrils.
After ten minutes, the doc pulled himself out of the water. He stood on the edge and stretched, then headed for the exit. The lady's eyes tracked his retreating back, something like hunger in them. Bennett held the door open.
"Thanks," the doc said.
Bennett stood for a few more minutes, watching the woman swim. There was something about her that touched him. She had to know that she was never going to change, that next year, and the year after, she would still be here, still be fat, still be swimming her clumsy breaststroke before showering and going home alone. And yet here she was, water weights on, plugging away. Human drama, right in front of him. Broke the heart.
He walked down the hall to the massage rooms. A hatchet-faced girl with big hands was heading for a closed door.
"Excuse me," Bennett said.
"I know this is odd, but I work with the doctor. There's been an incident at the lab. I need to speak to him right now. It's urgent."
She hesitated, then said, "Well, I suppose I—"
"Thanks," he said, one hand on the door handle. She stood there for a moment, and he said, "Sorry, but as I'm sure you know, our work is sensitive."
"Umm . . ."
"I appreciate it." Then he stepped into the room and shut the door behind him.
The doc lay on his belly on the massage table, a towel across his ass. Candles glowed from a Zen stone arrangement in the corner, and soft music came from somewhere. Swank.
"Cindi," the doc said to the floor. "Afraid you've got your work cut out for you. My shoulder's killing me. I think I pulled something."
"That's one way to put it," Bennett said.
The man's head whipped around, and he planted his hands on the table, came partway up, then hesitated, seeming to realize he was naked under the towel. "What—"
"Easy, Doc." Bennett strolled around the edge of the table. "Don't want to aggravate that shoulder."
"You filling in for Cindi?" His eyes narrow, but no fear in them. The kind of guy who saw the whole world as the help.
"Let's talk about who you are."
"Who I am? I'm sorry, I don't understand—"
"You're a senior chemist at K&S Laboratories. You guys have a couple of steady contracts supplying medium-sized pharmaceutical companies with organofluorine compounds. Word is you're likely to be running the place in a couple of years. Some folks might say it's because you married the boss's daughter, but I don't credit that. Best I can tell, you're a talented scientist."
The man's face went through a series of expressions, his eyebrows raising, then lowering, nostrils flaring, mouth falling slightly open. He looked like he'd been trying to tell a joke but at the last second forgot the punch line.
"You also have a bit of a naughty streak, don't you?" Bennett squatted to lower himself eye to eye.
The guy began to push himself up, saying, "I don't know who you are or what—"
Bennett broke his nose.
"Unnuhhuh!" The man's eyes went wide with shock, hands flying to cup his face, propping himself on his elbows.
"Hurts, right? They say that in a fight, you should strike with an open hand, aiming the heel of your palm into your opponent's nose. Disorienting as hell, the world spins, the pain slows them down. Plus, if you keep your hand at the right angle, a lot of times your fingers will go into their eyes. Why I went with a closed fist that time."
Blood was flowing between the man's fingers—another benefit to a good nose punch, it looked dramatic—and the fear was in him now, that arrogant assumption of control gone. He scrambled backward on the table, the towel slipping off to reveal his bare white ass.
"Sit still, Doc." Bennett stood and took the Smith from behind his back.
The man froze halfway up, flaccid penis dangling, looking for all the world like he was about to take it doggy-style.
"Good boy." Bennett reached into his pocket with his left hand, pulled out a handful of pages. He tossed the folded stack on the massage table. "Take a look."
For a moment, the man just stared, that prey gaze they all got when you put the screws to them. Then he reached out with a trembling hand and unfolded the papers. First a gasp, then a low moan that dragged on as he moved from photograph to photograph.
"Walking the wild side, huh? Obviously, black-and-white can't really demonstrate the full-color glory of the originals. But I think you get the point."
The man's hands were shaking and his face had gone pale. "Where did you…;?"
"You're too smart to ask things you already know the answer to. I'm sure you haven't forgotten your little adventure. So why don't you use that big brain of yours and come up with a better question? There's really only one."
The doctor stared at him, then at the pictures. Slowly he eased himself to a seated position, one hand on his nose, the other covering himself. Helpless to stop his whole world slipping away. Bennett had found that a flair for the dramatic was useful in his line of work. The man wouldn't have been nearly so cowed sitting behind his desk, wearing a cashmere sweater and tailored slacks. There was a moment of silence, and then, staring at his feet, the man said, "How much do you want?"
"Right neighborhood, wrong address."
"Don't want money."
"Nothing that will take much time or effort. Just want you to cook me up a little something." Bennett pulled another piece of paper from his pocket and held it out. Did it purposefully, wondering which hand the guy would use to take it. After a second, the doctor let go of his nose to grab the paper. Better to let blood run down his face from a broken nose than to expose his cock. Bennett chuckled. "Now, you know what that is?"
The man focused on the page, his eyes growing wide.
"I'll take that as a yes. You make that for me, you got my word, I'll delete the originals. They aren't really my taste anyway. Though if you like, I'll be happy to send you copies first, give you a little souvenir."
"I . . . you know what this is?"
Bennett sighed, then leaned in and flicked the man's broken nose with his middle finger. The guy yelped, dropped the page.
"You think I'd be asking if I didn't?"
"I don't know how to make it."
"You're a smart guy. I'm sure you'll figure it out. And you have one heck of a chemistry set at your disposal. A lab like yours, deals with pharmaceutical companies, you probably have most of what you need in stock, right?"
Looking like it hurt, the man nodded.
"Good. You've got three days."
"Three days, that's not enough—"
"There you go again." Bennett tapped the Smith against the table. "Talking without thinking."
The man swallowed, said nothing.
"Better. Now"—Bennett stood—"I've got your cell number. I'll be in touch. If I were you, I'd get to work." He slid the gun back into his belt, started for the door. "By the way, I think the lovely you were swimming beside might have a crush on you. Just between us, eh, brother?" He winked, then stepped out, leaving the man naked and bleeding.
An excellent performance. Hitting the right tone was key. He strolled down the hall, feeling good. He was almost to the stairs when the masseuse stopped him.
"Right as rain," he said. "But you know what, hon? I've got a feeling the doctor's going to skip his massage."