By: Antwan Crump
I wake up to the sound glass shattering and a stampede of footsteps charging on the floor beneath us. Back and forth they tumble–multiplying with every stumbled oscillation to either side of the bar.
A fight, I think. It’s got to be. One of the assholes down there must’ve forgotten to pay or welched on a bet. They seem stagnant enough but these things don’t end well.
I don’t stress it. Not yet. No point and I’m not involved. Besides, I’m still on the clock. Gotta’ stay focused.
I untether my arm from around Contessa–slowly, as not to wake her. I’ll need her momentarily, but for now, it’s best that she sleeps. I roll to the opposing side of the bed. I don’t get up. First, I need my medicine.
Back in our heyday, Contessa became more than just a warm hole for me to dive into. Much more. She was my best friend. My confidant. My weakness. My strength. My doctor.
I blindly reach under the steel sleigh bed that her girls use for top-dollar Johns. There’s always liquor here. Whether it be a bottle, a glass, or a flask I’ll find it.
The last thing a dame needs after a transaction is a hungover client. Worse yet, a hangover themselves. Contessa doesn’t allow her girls drink on the job. Then again, Contessa doesn’t follow her own rules. She’s out like a fucking light.
My knuckles drag against the damp wooden panels until the outside of my index finger hits something cold. I lean over the bed a bit more and tap on it twice with my fingernail.
Low clink. The bottle’s nearly full. I’d scream “Eureka” if it felt lucky. The feeling is less luck, more well-informed expectation. Like a cocky bloodhound with a good scent.
I lace my fingers around the groove of the bottle and begin my retraction back onto the mattress. Contessa rolls over–instinctively. Even asleep, she’s trained to keep an eye on her mark. I’m a John, more or less. Emotions aside, we’re both here on business.
There’s no cap on the bottle. I sit up on the bed and press my nose to its rim. Two quick sniffs. The first to ease my nausea. The second to check the contents. “Shit,” I mumble into the bottle.
It was moonshine. Not anymore.
Now, it’s just some watered down arsenic.
A.) Someone wants Contessa dead.
B.) Contessa wants me dead.
No time to be offended. I’m getting close.
I swing my legs to the side of the mattress, careful not to shift my weight too fast. The quickest way to wake someone is to imitate the sensation of falling. The slightest dip could have me and my would be killer in an awkward conversation. I could do without the loud lies and sullen pleas for understanding.
I stand to my feet, wearing only my birthday suit, and some dried fluids that I don’t regret. My slacks are right here beside me. I’ll put them on once the room stops spinning. Boxers will do for now–piss stains and all.
Ahead of me is a small dresser with a lit candle in a dish. Beside that is a large chifferobe. Fancy, but I’m not impressed. On the other side is a window that looks out to the street. The roads are glistening. Rains have steadied, haven’t stopped. Good to know.
I start with the dresser– a bottle of bullshit in one hand and one eye bouncing between Contessa and the door behind me. Moon’s still high. I’ve got time to be particular.
Three drawers on the damn thing. Must be foreign. I start with the bottom, like a good boy scout. Nothing but love notes and lingerie.
The second drawer is just as fruitless. Handcuffs, chains, a ball-gag big enough to choke a bull, and a wax candle fashioned to look like a penis. Based on the smell, it was something for the John’s. Not her. Not important.
One drawer left.
I hear the unmistakable harangue of a gun cock behind me. My gun. Not you, Lucy, I think.
“Hands off the drawer, Luke!” Contessa barks in that sultry way that only she can. It’d be a turn on if she wasn’t pointing a gun at me. Who am I kidding? I love it.
“I said, HANDS OFF!” Her voice dampens to shrill. Now she’s begging me for insubordination. “I’m not toying with you, darling. Back away from the dresser and come back to bed.”
“Back to bed?” I grin. “Plan on winning me over after you threaten my life with my own gun?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time, Luke. Please don’t make me…”
I snap…sure to keep my eyes on the dresser. “I’m not making you do anything, Tess. You’re the one with the gun.”
“And, I’m not afraid to use it. Don’t try me, Luke. This is bigger than anything we’ve got.”
“I don’t disagree.” I lift the bottle to my lips “Mind skipping a step and telling me what I’m about to die for?”
I hear the springs of the mattress bend. She’s disengaged. Can’t be sure Lucy isn’t still shot-ready though. I’ve trained her well. Tess, not so much.
My free hand pulls the drawer open.
“Luke…I…” She’s too flustered to notice. Therein lies the trouble with romance. Therein lies why we never would’ve worked.
She’s an ace in the field. But, like most broads, she crumbles in the locker room. Nimble and malcontent. Ready for instruction. I didn’t get to her first. She’s someone else’s now. Just as well, I suppose. I’m sorry, Contessa. I can’t use you.
I look down at the drawer and notice something familiar. A check from Albert Green, made out to a man by the name of Le’Shiff. It’s endorsed. Shitty handwriting. Very shitty. Familiar…Extremely. God damn it, Tess. What have you gotten yourself mixed up in?
“Tell me about him,” I grumble to her like we’ve never met. Like she isn’t gorgeous. Like my seed isn’t dripping onto her legs as we banter. “You need to tell me everything.”
She lowers Lucy down to the bed.
The tumbles and tussling beneath my feet pound hard enough to shake the walls. The marches upstairs will start soon. We’re running out of time.
“Contessa!” I turn to her. Bottle at the ready. “Tell me! Now!”
“I’m sorry, Luke.” She whines. Appreciated. But, I’ve got no patience to be a shrink.
“Tess…” I try calmer.
She lifts Lucy to her head. I don’t flinch. It doesn’t have my focus. By the rumbles outside of the door, I’ll have a good seven or eight bozos to take care of in a minute. “Tess… tell me.”
For the first time in our storied history, I see Contessa’s eyes water and believe the tears. She spills like an open wound. Come on, Contessa, I think. Out with it already.
Three fists bang against the door. “Come on out, pretty lady. We got somethin’ special for ya’.” They’re not clients. They’re not friendlies.
…We’ve got thirty seconds.
“Tess!” I shout. Lucy’s lips quiver up and against the side of Contessa’s head.
“We could just run, Luke.” She pleads. “You and I against the world, darling.” Her makeup runs down the curve of her cheek. “Like it was meant to be…” She’s broken.
“I’ve got business first.”
“Then, you’ve got nothing.” Contessa takes a deep breath in and pulls the trigger. The snap of Lucy’s hammer slings and sends a metallic echo singing through the room.
There’s no blast.
There’re no bullets.
“Wouldn’t have pinned you as the weak one,” I say and make my way toward the door while she deals with her own bad call.
She screams and throws Lucy–butt first–against the wall. I pick Lucy up and check her for bruises.
Both of them are.
“Fire-escape still stable?”
“Barely,” She answers.
“Go…” She wraps the bedsheet around herself and heads for the window. The banging starts again. Doorknob’s about to give. I look behind me to make sure that Contessa’s in the clear. She moves fast for a dead woman.
I turn my head to the door and tip the bottle. I make sure that the wood is nice and soaked. I take a step back and grab my coat on the way to the window. It’s just beside the dresser.
I make sure that the candle’s in arm’s reach and finally take that sip I’ve been craving. I crane my tongue to keep the poison from soaking into my gums. I toss the bottle and wait.
The door gives way.
I grab the candle and spit out a stream of fire. The first guy might burn to death. I’ ve just bought a distraction from the others. Either way, they’ll need to brave the inferno before they get within throttling reach of me.
By then, I’ll be long gone. I nab the check–along with some other miscellaneous papers from the drawer. I shove them in my coat pocket and dive head first out of the window.
The fire escape shakes, but it holds. “Tess!” I call as I make my descent down the final prong of the rusty grate. “Tess!” I call again. There’s no answer.
My feet hit the pavement just in time for the sirens to catch me red-handed. Behind me, the rest of the building starts to catch fire and burn straight to the gates of hell.
My hands raise to the sky to meet the rain as the lead cars bumper brakes at the skin of my nose.
Contessa’s nowhere to be found.
Boeing exits his vehicle, followed shortly by a dozen rookies with murder in their eye.
No sense in fighting.
I’m caught fair and square.
“On the ground!” They don’t bother reading me my rights…I know them.
The building snaps and crumbles under its own weight and the onslaught of the fire. I’m cuffed and detained in the back seat of Boeing’s Ford.
“What the hell happened here, Luke!” Boeing’s angry. If I was him, I would be too.
Capone’s…was a nice place.
“I can’t save your ass this time…”
Looks like I’ll be getting some shut-eye.
Luke Benson will return in…
Episode #6: Catch and Release