About Another Wrinkle (Added Content from Artistic Decline)
Artistic Decline: A Novel
Chapter 1: The Angel and the Caveman
Ben Billings pulled back the Sunday Dallas Morning News with a snap. He was seated at the breakfast table and had a perfect line of sight to the front door. A quick look at the Rolex adorning his tanned wrist offered added ammunition. Scattering inky pages to the floor, he stood with bluster and leaned forward. “You have some nerve, woman. Maybe just move in with the guy!”
“What time is it?” she asked, sliding down the thick mahogany door as it thumped shut. Her enormous handbag was close enough to enlist into pillow service. She buried her sunglass-covered face in the cavernous opening, dreaming of a way to burrow out a little corner space inside. It’s like a small city in here, she thought.
He was in the foyer now. “That’s all you have to say? It’s as if you don’t even care about my feelings. Don’t do this to me, Tabby.”
“Are you done?” she mumbled, rolling off the purse and onto the carpet, flat, limbs sprawled out.
“Ah,” he crooned. “You’re like a person that makes a snow angel. Wouldn’t that be something—if you were the sort of person with a heart that made snow angels?”
She answered with a middle finger from one of her wings. “Had enough fun, Benji? Am I in a Tennessee Williams play? Are you wearing shorts? Hairy legs. Sooo frigging hairy.”
Ben was looming, arms akimbo. She held out her other wing for him to help her up, but he remained in place. “Take it back.”
“The thing about your legs? Can’t. It’s like living with a caveman. The caveman. The super hairy one that scares all the other cavemen away. Because of all the hair.”
Her jabs sent a psychosomatic urge to scratch his itchy shins, but he fought the sensation, finally grabbing her outstretched hand. As he pulled her slender body vertical, her forehead came to rest on his shoulder. “Be gentle, Benji Bear.”
“Benji Bear,” he whispered into her tousled blonde hair. “That’s insulting. Several levels insulting. Me and dogs everywhere, shocked and aghast.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, drooling down his favorite summer brunch shirt.
“Long one, huh?” he asked, thinking about changing shirts. “Did you—”
“It was a job. You don’t get to ask about the nuts and bolts.”
“Nuts and bolts? Seriously, Tabitha. You’re giving Benji Bear an upset stomach with these reckless descriptors. He may have to vomit.”
“Speaking of that,” she said, slinging the capacious handbag over her shoulder, leaving half the contents strewn on the floor. “I’ve got good news.”
He watched her struggle up the stairs in the previous night’s heels with a hand cupped over her mouth. “Vomit is good news?” he asked. “Suppose. Right circumstances...”
She stopped at the landing, gathering enough of herself. “Golf club.”
“I know—we’re going to be late.” He tapped the crystal face of his watch twice for added impact. “Their brunch is good enough to make me say brunch minus my customary ironic contempt.”
Tabitha tried to expand on her statement, but the feeling of impending sickness drove her to the half-bath near the top of the stairs.
Ben looked again at his shirt and hummed a song to drown out the sound of the retching. It sounded violent enough to initiate a bubble of concern in his soul parts. He brushed it aside. “Can’t get too caught up in your role, Tabby,” he whispered, strolling back to kitchen for another cup of coffee. By the sound of things, it was going to be a bit. “Can’t get too caught up,” he repeated, trying to remember who bequeathed to him that particular nugget of wisdom.
Picking up the sports page to read about the latest travails of the Cowboys, he felt vibrating in his shorts from an incoming call. Reading the screen, he let out a tension-filled breath and straightened his posture. “Hey, darling,” he whispered, looking up at the ceiling. “One second,” he said, pulling his head away from the phone to listen for Tabby. Awesome. Still puking. “What’s going on, Senna?” Ben asked, walking hurriedly to the kitchen backdoor.
“Baby. I want you to come over so bad. The thought of you turns me on.”
Stepping out into the cool fall air, Ben went a little weak in his hairy knees. Senna Lassiter was in her mid-twenties and hot as hell. She was from some of the oldest money in Texas, finishing up her law degree at SMU just a few miles down the road. That way she’d have a CV good enough to justify decent placement in her family’s corporation. Serving a year as a corporate functionary would just about do “the trick.” She’d meet a smart man from their business or one of an equal caliber. The smart man would be attractive and dutiful. “One who walks the path.” The smart man would work out in the mornings and have tepid sex with her once a month after the first year of marriage. She’d of course quit her job as the kids came. Probably a boy and girl, with stupid names like Bristol or Bree or Birch or whatever bullshit was in fashion. This was the pre-determined story of her life. She recited it almost line for line each time they met to “hang out.” Ben found her soliloquies tedious and self-indulgent, but there was something in the fact that the girl was smart enough to know the life-traps and smart enough to know she was too cowardly to avoid them. Mostly, she was hot. Ben met her at a little concert at some pretentious bar on Greenville—a section of town for rich kids in their twenties and forty-five-year-old sad sacks with long graying beards.
“Sweetheart, I think I’m going to be a little tied up today. Really close to finishing the modifications to my boat.”
“My big strong adventurer. Does that mean the funding came in?”
“Adventurer,” he answered, applying just enough self-deprecation to sound charming to the landlocked future lawyer. “The funding—still trying to tie that last bit down.”
“You think it’d be easier.”
“Yeah,” he said, plopping down in a squishy deck chair, already tired of the ruse. The night they met he could tell by her jewelry and her clothes that she came from money. This appraisal prompted him into a story about sailing solo around the world to raise cash and awareness for some disease or another. Win her heart. Win some shekels from her trust fund.
And maybe a few other things.
“People just don’t care about Leishmaniasis like they used to.”
“I thought it was Crohn’s,” said young Senna.
“Of course it’s Crohn’s,” he said, eyes wide and palm tapping his head. “That was a test. You passed. Such a great listener.”
“Hey, they’re telling me I’ve got to go. Something about a gaff or a bilge. Talk later, babe.”
Ben ended the call during her goodbye and deleted it from the phone’s history. No need, really. Just a reflex.
“This damn thing sticks.” Tabby’s voice was muffled as she tried to push the backdoor open.
“Give it a good shoulder!”
She finally plunged out onto the patio of their smallish backyard. “Can’t you fix that?”
He fired off a glare menacing enough not to be taken seriously. “Looking better already,” he said. She really did. Tabitha Johns was nothing if not resilient. Most attractive women her age would’ve given themselves over to two or three marriages or two or three plastic surgeries. Not her. She still had her dreams and wanted to enter into them unshorn. For a few more years, at least.
“Thank you, Ben.”
“Got all the puke out?”
“Yeah. And now I don’t have to purge on purpose.”
“A capital start to the day. Every time I think you’ve finally done yourself in, you shine back up like a new penny.”
“You’re too kind,” she added, throwing out a playful hand his way.
“Really. Like an easy to clean ashtray.”
“That last one I’ll let go because I’m in a good mood.”
“Brunch?” Ben asked.
“No. I mean yes. But no. What I was saying earlier. The good news. I think we found the big one.”
“That guy from last night? You’ve been working on him for weeks. He’s got a few million liquid at best.”
“Not him. Someone he’s working with. Or for. Something like that.”
“You got a name?”
Ben took a sip of coffee, trying not to react. “The Dina Santorelli.”
“Yes, Benji. The one you’re thinking of.”
“She’s like in the top fifty richest people in the world.”
“Number thirty, as of this month. And getting richer all the time.”
“It’s too dangerous, Johnsy. Even if this mope you’ve been stringing along has the premium information, the profile is huge. We’d be targets the rest of our lives.”
Tabitha looked at Ben as he sank into his lumpy seat. He was tapping the cell phone through the fabric of his shorts. “You talk to the college girl today?”
“You old sailor you.”
“At least my play is realistic.”
Tabby leaned forward and began speaking with her fists clenched up by her chin. “Yes, it could be dangerous. But our walkaway money isn’t going to come from some Lupus scam.”
“Leishmaniasis. Or Crohn’s. That’s— it doesn’t matter.”
“God. Listening to you right there made me sad. Think about it. You write up the playbook. We put on an epic performance. We’ll be in the Mediterranean in a few months, living the real life.”
She was putting on a good show, and her nothing ventured nothing gained point had merit. Still. “Pulling a job on someone like this—we could die.”
“What are we doing here?” she said, looking around at the dormant grass and the untended bushes.
“See? Your wit is coming back already.”
Ben Billings was no stranger to moments like this. Someone coming at him with the full court press, explaining how things were going to be better from now on. Dreams. Glory.
“What are you thinking?” she asked, watching him puzzle through.
“I’m thinking about step one. What is it?”
“The golf club.”
“Brunch?” he asked.
“No. The golf—just put on some pants. We’ll talk in the car.”
“Did you use Listerine? Because that was some serious yacking.”
“Get those legs moving, simian.”
Chapter 2: Make Like Kang
The ride to Evan Henk’s house was brief. Tabby Johns had a heavy foot, and they basically lived in the same neighborhood. Highland Park. One of richest zip codes in the country. Spreading out in affluent natural habitats was usually a sound methodology for making inroads to money; Ben had found an older woman who spent most of her time living overseas, offering to take care of the house they were currently living in. It needed a lot of work and it wasn’t that spacious, but the location alone meant the property was worth four million. And they lived on the outskirts.
Evan Henk’s place was palatial and immaculate, smack in the middle of the community, next door to asshole investment bankers and dodgy corporate lawyers at the top of their dirty games. “I don’t like this street,” Ben said, buttoning his sport coat as he stepped out of the car. “If Hitler wanted to live somewhere near downtown Dallas, he’d pick this exact spot.”
“Just Hitler? You don’t think Stalin and Mao would dig the locale? Seems dictatorial and inclusive at the same time. I just love it.”
“You’re either jealous or just an ass,” Tabitha said, checking her makeup before opening the door. “Oh yeah. Both. Sorry. Slipped my mind.”
As they walked up the snakelike redbrick path, Ben shrugged in a particularly pouty way.
“Don’t do the hurt child.”
“What? Some of the stuff you say—it can get pretty nasty. Times I even think you mean it.”
“I do mean it. You’re a criminal and extremely judgmental. How does that even work?”
“You’ve lost me.”
“That’s for damn sure,” Tabitha said, ringing the doorbell while waving at the camera angled down at them with an overactive smile.
A buzzing sound went off and the heavy door opened slow and steady. No greeter to be seen. “Yeah,” Ben said, “that’s not creepy at all.”
“Come on in,” said a squelched voice from an intercom underneath the camera. “I’m toward the back of the house. Just go by the den and the library and make a right at the sitting room. Oh, and a left at the parlor.”
Tabby slipped her arm through Ben’s as they stepped inside. Everything was polished and shiny, from the ceramic floors to the chandeliers. The taste was eclectic. It was the house of a man who’d taken decorating advice from at least four girlfriends from different countries. The entrance had a bright flair. The remnants of hooking up with a Latina. The dining room was functional and minimalistic, most likely on the advice from someone tall named Ingrid. The artwork was impressionistic. Either a French chick or a chick that wished she was. There was strange, plucky music coming from somewhere. It sounded Chinese to Ben.
These were the things he pondered as they made their way through Evan Henk’s mansion. “A parlor, a library and a sitting room,” Ben whispered, still scanning every inch of the cross-cultural hodgepodge. “Guy thinks he’s in BBC series, but lacks the class to pull it off.”
The music got louder as they neared the back. Tabby raised her perfect eyebrows at the massive heated pool in the backyard before coming to a fretful stop. “Wait a second. Is that the score?”
Before the words could dissolve, he knew what she was talking about. His carefully-tanned face went white as a sheet. “Oh my God. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“We can’t just go.”
“He’s watching it. And the sound is like—on!”
“Hey you two!” said Evan Henk, bursting through a set of double doors in a brilliantly white karate gi. He bowed to Ben and gave a Tabitha a quick kiss on the cheek. His smile was full of commitment and as bright as the stupid outfit adorning his short, stocky body.
“Are you watching Dynasty of Danger in there?” Ben asked hesitantly, looking over Evan Henry’s brown bald head toward the source of the sound. “In a karate outfit? That’s—”
“I’m not watching it,” Henk said, playfully stopping a punch short of Billings’ midsection. “I mean I’ve seen it. Way in the way back of the day. Hahahmm.” His laugh was singularly strange. The first part was fake. The second part sounded like he was moaning from some secret satisfaction. “The Kang and I were training in the media room and had it going in the background. Wow. What an astonishing piece of crap. Hahahmm.”
Evan Henk was referring to the film that had served to sink the once burgeoning careers of Benjamin Billings and Tabitha Shaw. With the hottest writer and director in Hollywood, a massive budget, and two quickly beautiful and talented leads on their way to the top, what could possibly go wrong?
Turns out, quite a bit.
Riding the success of their previous projects, the vaunted writer/director duo spent most of preproduction, production, and postproduction drunk and high. The script included a treasure hunt in Manchuria, an incessantly helpful monkey, and a blind Buddhist guide. The studio’s blank check only worsened the stacking problems, adding fuel to a conflagration of epic proportions. The rough cut was racially and artistically offensive in every way possible. The final edits made it even worse. The distributor sent it straight to video and wrote off the loss, only releasing it in Canada. The few copies that got out mostly ended up in Alberta truck stop bins, purchased by the occasional drunk mistaking it for an adult film of one sort or another.
After Dynasty, Ben and Tabby’s careers in showbiz well and truly dried up. Her agent ran for the hills. She lost her record deal within a year. Ben’s father, who was also his agent, died six months after the movie flopped, mostly from guilt over his son’s botched prospects. The song publishing deal he was signed to got bought out and three other scripts in development were shown the scrap heap.
And so they stuck together, two dejected casualties of the Hollywood thresher. They found some solace on the stage. Off Broadway, in the way that Neptune is Off Earth. After a few years and a few more crushed hopes, they chucked it when a new character entered their lives. Someone who taught them other ways of converting talent to money.
“So, for inspiration or something?” Tabby asked, pointing at the screen.
Dynasty did have some fight scenes.
“Oh,” she said, put off by the way Evan Henk could ask a question and do his stunted laugh thing at the same time. “I was wondering why you had the film playing.”
“Not for inspiration, my dear. I only wanted to study up on my new partners during my workout. Two birds. Hahahmm. Two birds. That’s funny.”
“New partners?” Ben asked, looking sternly at Tabitha.
“She didn’t tell you much, did she?” asked Evan Henk, dabbing his right eye with the lapel of his gi while daintily poking Ben in the chest.
“We really didn’t have much time, Evan. Mostly, Benjamin has been complaining about brunch.”
“I’m starving,” Ben said, trying to forget about the poking.
“We’ll be off to the club in a few shakes. First, let’s go back. I don’t want to sweat on this rug. It’s precious to me.”
As they followed their squatty host into his media room, they saw their own youthful faces on the backside screen, bigger than life.
Ben put on his sunglasses and closed his eyes.
Tabby looked down at the floor.
In the middle of the room stood a stiff-faced Japanese man standing on a large training mat. “This is Kang,” said Evan Henk.
“Hello,” Kang grunted, bowing in an inhumanly fast manner. “You two. Movie. Interesting.” Ben almost opened his eyes out of sheer wonderment. Kang spoke perfect English. Breaking his thoughts into little staccato bursts was a bit. A transparent, strangely self-degrading bit.
“That’s enough, Kang. Training session’s over today. Pack it up.”
Another bow and the sensei was moving like divine wind. His shit was packed and he was out the back door with the quietude of an expert in B&E.
“He’s quick,” Tabby said, truly impressed, tamping down the urge to use the word ninja.
“Oh yeah, hahahmm. Quigley is a force of nature. He also has other skills.” Henk was standing in the spot just occupied by Kang, holding the remote up to his deeply dimpled chin.
“Wait a minute,” Ben interjected, squinting as he pulled down his aviators. His posture was indicative of a man longing for death. “Kang’s first name is Quigley? And can you turn off the damn movie?”
“Boy, Tabitha. He’s surlier than you let on. Handsome enough. But just a real firebrand.”
“I think we’re done here.” Billings tapped Tabby on the arm and did a motion to make like Kang.
“You’ve been done a long time, cowboy,” said Henk, hitting the pause button. The image of a monkey sitting on Billings’ shoulders as Ben rode an elephant was frozen in the background behind their host. “A long time.”
“All right, Evan. Is this you trying to get me riled up? Not going to work, pal. I’m a professional.”
Tabby put a hand over her eyes. It was hard to hear a grown man talk about professionalism with a scene like that paused on the screen.
“Tell me, Benjamin. Did you do many of the stunts for this film? Any stunts at all?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Just looked liked you might have some training. Think you can take me?”
“I don’t know much, Henk, but I know I don’t want to take you anywhere.”
“Afraid there’s no choice, my boy. I want to fight the hero of Dynasty of Danger. It’s been a burning desire of mine since I saw it for thirty cents on hotel pay-per-view in the late 90s. Hahahmm.”
“We’re gone. Have fun playing with yourself, Cobra Kai.”
“Shame. The payment will have to come from our lovely Tabby. Maybe a toe. Perhaps a whole foot. What do you think, hun?”
Billings sank into himself, fully apprehending the quick turn into seriousness. Tabitha must’ve tried some sort of short con on Henk and gotten caught. This was a penance call. The compulsory kind. That said, he couldn’t appear to acquiesce. He needed more information. A look at Tabby’s frightened face told him just about what he needed to know, but the boundaries needed another shove. This wasn’t their first tight spot. There was a process.
“Sorry, Benji.” Tabitha was clutching her purse like it was a stuffed animal that could protect her from life’s evils. If he hadn’t been furious, Ben might’ve found it endearing.
“You’re not talking to me. The time to talk would’ve been an hour ago.”
“Enough,” said Evan Henk, snapping his fingers above his head. Two large men in lose suits and half-turtlenecks filled up the doorway to the media room. They looked exactly like men a guy like Henk would hire. Desperate and on enough steroids to pretty much roll with anything. Ben had seen them on shitty security details during his career; the types that always asked if there was any “stunt work” available.
Ben stepped inches away from Henk’s bare feet and pointed at his eye, trying to explain without words that their host’s condition was rearing its head. “You want to fight, that’s fine. But afterward, we’re gone. Whatever Tabitha took—”
The next thing to come out of Billings’ mouth was a hideous moan. Evan Henk delivered a straight, stiff punch to his gut, causing him to double over. Ben found himself with an arm wrapped around his pitched-over neck. The pressure was unbearable.
As he flailed his arms in a pathetic attempt to wrest himself free, the world began to fog over. He could hear Tabby faintly in the background, apologizing for getting him into this.
“I—hate—you—Tabitha,” he managed, now on the precipice of Charon and the River Styx. He’d played Charon in a tonally schizophrenic musical comedy about the underworld of Greek mythology. His last two acts in life: expressing exasperated contempt for Tabby and thinking about another project that he never should’ve been involved in. Seemed just about right.
“He’ll do it, Evan,” Tabby cried, beating on the two bodyguards with balled fists. “If you kill him, I won’t give it back. You hear me! If Ben dies, you can go ahead and kill me!”
Henk kept Ben’s neck cinched in the crook of his arm and looked over at Tabby. He wore the face of a man making a decision of ultimate unimportance—the kind of mug a person pulls while looking at a drive-thru menu…
“Good good,” he chirped, releasing Ben and allowing him to collapse to the floor. The short man grabbed the remote and turned off the television before helping Billings to his feet. “You’ll get your breath. It may hurt to talk for a few days, but you’ll be fine.”
“Thanks for the concern,” Ben whispered in the grating tones of a throat cancer patient.
“I wanted you both to understand that I’m not to be trifled with. And that you are now firmly in my debt.”
“Here,” Tabby said, pulling a simple gold necklace with a single small diamond from her purse. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. It’s probably not even worth that much.”
Evan put an arm on Ben’s shoulder and gave it a few pats, as if that would help restore his breathing to normal. “She’s quite something, your Tabitha.”
“She’s not mine.”
“She says the same about you. Funny arrangement you two have.”
“Yeah. Frigging hilarious,” Ben offered, rubbing his neck while walking over to his partner. He didn’t like how close the two bodyguards were hovering over her. Billings took the necklace and tossed it at Henk. “There you go. Something sentimental?” Ben asked, nodding at the jewelry now dangling in its owners hand.
“I told her this belonged to my departed mother,” Henk said, letting the piece swing in the fashion of a hypnotist. “And with no compunction, she took it. The fake she made wasn’t the caliber that could fool.”
“He showed it to me at a party last week. He leaves it out. I made the copy and swapped them out yesterday. Apparently it didn’t go unnoticed.”
Ben spent a moment giving her a caustic look, but no more. “Tell us what we’re really doing here.”
“It’s not enough to want recompense for my lost possessions?”
“That necklace wasn’t your mother’s,” Tabby said. “The second you showed it to me, I knew that story was a lie.”
“Is that so?”
“It’s so. And I figured if you were a liar, I might as well take the stupid little thing.”
“Wow. Hahahmm—amazing the way your mind works. Is there a hint a logic in your line, my dear?”
“She thought you were a joke,” Ben brayed, wanting more than anything to scrape their way to the bottom of the matter. “And I don’t blame her.”
“I need smart people. That’s what I told Tabitha. Smart people don’t steal from each other on the verge of a job.”
“Honor,” Ben whispered. “Thieves…”
“Hahahmm. Let’s be off to the club. Once you two get it for me, they’ll be no hard feelings. We can go forward as partners.”
The giant bodyguards made a little space for them to squeeze through as Ben asked, “Get what for him?”
“I don’t know what that means. That’s where we’re going.”
“No, Benji. That silly old pitching wedge that sits in the middle of the trophy case. The one in the main hall. He wants us to steal it.”
“It’s the middle of the frigging day. That thing is surrounded by rich bastards. It’s like Excalibur for the unimaginative.”
Henk was following close behind as they weaved their way back to the foyer through the aesthetic dissonance. “That’s not my problem. You’ve got two hours to get me that wedge—if not, Karl and Ken will find a nice housing development to bury you under. They’re experts with a backhoe.”
Tabitha came close to slipping as her heel caught in the grout between two Spanish tiles. Ben hooked her arm and the pair walked carefully to the car. “We’ll meet you there,” Billings said, stretching his throbbing neck and opening the door for Tabitha.
“Tell them to seat you at my regular table. I just need to change.”
“Really?” Ben croaked, waving with all the ostentation he could summon. “Not gonna roll up like Karate Kid?”
Chapter 3: Club
“I hate hanging around these people,” Billings said. They were seated at a corner table. An overproduction of flowers was impinging their place settings. The room was large with a white ornamental ceiling that was impractically and imposingly high. It did something to the acoustics; seemed as though Ben and Tabitha were privy to pieces of every conversation in the room.
“You hang around these people for a living,” Tabby said, taking in the menu.
“Thus the hatred. Joint smells like inbreeding and over-perfumed matriarchs.”
“But you love the brunch.”
“And now that’s even ruined,” he said, angrier than he intended. Tabby shutting down was the signal of his transgression. “I’m sorry, Tabs.”
“Then just accept that I was baiting him,” she whispered into his ear. “And it worked.”
Billings turned from the pictures he was examining on his cell phone, snapped surreptitiously while taking a few lazy laps in the trophy room. “This thing looks old as shit. I don’t know how you’re gonna find a copy. Should’ve stopped at an antique store or something.”
“I’ve got my tools. And I’m sure we’ll make do. There’s bound to be a million wedges laying around this place. Just make sure you’ve got your end.”
“Yeah,” Ben said, returning to the images. “And he was baiting you.”
Tabby smacked the end of the linen covered table with the end of her fingers. It was the strongest form of protest she could apply in the stuffy environment without drawing onlookers. The argument had gone back and forth and no progress had been made. The theft of the necklace was simply a test, according to Tabitha. A way to discern the skill level and criminal aptitude of Evan Henk, once she’d sniffed him out as a thief. According to Ben, she had sniffed nothing and had simply got caught stealing by someone she never suspected of being anything other than a rich douche with criminal aspirations. Billings based this on Henk’s ability to spot Tabby’s fake necklace. She was no slouch at copies and forgeries—the little maniac was talented or had someone in his employ with a top-notch eye.
“I don’t think I want you to join me in the Mediterranean,” she said. “I can’t be made to countenance your attitude any longer.”
“Fine with me. While you’re living the good life, I’ll be happy to spend my time not getting choked out by hairy-armed bowling balls.”
“Serves you right for not taking care of yourself.”
“Says the aristocrat who spent half the morning yacking out her guts and the other half not giving me all the facts.”
The truth was somewhere between them, but Tabby knew they weren’t about to get their arms around it. She had been making a play with Evan Henk, but perhaps proper research hadn’t been done. She had moved too quickly to the mark. Amateurish work at best—at worst, something to earn a quick death. Tabby and Ben didn’t have many rules, but running games on each other was verboten. If they had a prime directive, she had skirted the edge. Perhaps stepped over. Tabitha blamed her lack of caution on a lack of practice more than anything else, but that wouldn’t sound any better to her partner. Simpler just to move on. Get done what needed doing. “Here he comes,” she said, peering over her menu at the figure of Evan Henk. He was taller now but not enough to matter, wearing shiny shoes with huge heels. Tabby had a fleeting memory of the time she hung out with Tom Cruise. “Text me those pictures. Ten minutes.” She held out two fingers for Ben to see. He nodded and stood up from the table in unison with her.
“Am I that revolting?” Henk asked, holding out his hands for a hug that wasn’t coming. Tabitha walked around him and out of the dining area, graceful but loaded with purpose.
“Probably better she didn’t answer you,” Billings said, hand covering his mouth as he retook his chair. Henk followed, sitting directly across. “And she’s working.”
“This is exciting, hahahmm.”
Ben smacked his lips like he’d swallowed something unsavory. “A few quick things. Then I’m off.”
“Who’s your inside guy here, and why do you want this thing so bad?”
“To answer your question—”
“You got thirty seconds to answer both questions,” Ben said, checking his watch. “No speeches.”
“I play a lot,” Henk said, leaving the playfulness out of his voice and demeanor. “Being a fan of the game, I asked two of the trustees if I could have a look at the club. They wouldn’t let me.”
“Doesn’t seem like a big deal.”
“Later that day I heard them laughing about the presumptuous little blackie as they chomped on their cigars. Seems they didn’t know I was in the next row of lockers.”
“Okay,” Billings nodded, looking again at his watch and then up at Henk’s leaky eye. “Sorry that kind of shit still goes on.”
“Well, redress should help balm my heart.”
“You talk weird. Text me the number of your man. It’s going to get busy around here. He needs to be at the ready.”
Tabitha made the handoff to Ben five minutes later near the stairs leading to the trophy room. He watched as she made the long walk across the ornate carpet, swaying her hips just in case anybody’s attention hadn’t been captured. He leaned against the wall and smiled. She ordered a mimosa and sat down with the piano player on his bench. A whisper in his ear and he changed the tune to a mid-tempo version of “Blue Skies,” Ella Fitzgerald style. Heads turned when she hit the first note. The three or four conversations taking place in the trophy room came to a halt as everyone not near the bar area migrated. Billings rolled his eyes and smiled a wry smile—Tabby was damn good, but she could be a little showy. He made a note to criticize her for scatting too much during the first instrumental break while he glided to the metal door next to the trophy case. With the swipe of a keycard he was inside a long hallway as fluorescently white as a psychiatric ward. Access panels to the display went down the length of the corridor, but he’d counted the amount of panels from out front in order to know where to access wedge. With his little lock-picking kit it was only a matter of seconds before the backside was open. He took a quick look at Tabitha’s fake and said a silent prayer, exchanging it by setting it gently in little felt holsters where the original had been.
Billings almost had a heart attack as he turned toward the door. The blood rushed from his face and he almost dropped the antique.
“How’s it going back here?”
Closing the case, he walked toward the questioner. Senna Lassiter was standing by the door with a mischievous little look on her unspeakably gorgeous face.
“Senna!” Ben whisper-screamed. “What’s up with the cameras?! And why are you standing there?!”
“Mr. Billings,” she said, strutting forward as he put an oversized putter cover on the wedge, “you are way too tense. I thought this was your milieu.” The young law student took the clip from her dirty blonde hair and let it fan out and dance over her slender shoulders. “Shouldn’t there be a coolness vibe going on here? Sort of a James Bond thing?”
Ben checked his watch and held up his keycard. “Thanks for this. Now, one more time. The cameras?”
“They’ve been off for twenty minutes. Paul—the head of security—he faked some sort of computer thing that started to really get boring—I thought he was going to get fresh there for a second.”
“Didn’t you promise him sex?” Ben asked, finishing up with the club by sticking it down the side of his pants. Senna moved closer and put both her hands on his chest. She smelled good enough to make him dizzy. Between her beauty and an oscillating blood sugar level brought on by the delayed brunch, his calm had all but left.
“You obviously haven’t met Paul. He’s sweet and all, but it’s not like I’m going to do it. You on the other hand.”
“I need you out of here. Henk could be watching. You can’t be seen. This is dangerous stuff.”
“You don’t know shit. This is a job. You talked your way into it. See it through.”
“Don’t have to get nasty.”
“I’m not mommy or daddy. People get killed in this line. Now go quiet and keep your head down. We’ll meet up later.”
She pushed him where her hands had been resting. “Your girlfriend’s putting on quite a show out here. She’s pretty I guess—if you like old.”
“Yeah,” Ben said, pushing the club’s grip down into the outside of his shoe. His walk to the parking lot would be awkward and robotic. That’s what the cane was for. Tabitha had brought it along with the fake wedge. No one would question a guy walking funny with a cane, no matter how strange the gait.
He put his ear up to the door. Tabitha was doing an Alicia Keys tune now. He imagined her out there, leaning on the piano man’s shoulder, enrapturing all the blue bloods with her warm voice and relaxed posture. She could make it look easy. A trait of all really good performers. Song or stage, just another kind of con—the lie was in hiding all the work.
He sent a text to the number Henk had sent him: It’s time. Go ahead.
Nothing to do but wait. He listened to little hints of the song as the seconds rolled by like hours, making sure the club was secure against his leg and in his shoe.
Finally, the little lights near the corridor’s ceiling starting flashing. A voice came over the intercom instructing everyone that there was a fire in the kitchen and to exit the building as soon as possible.
A text from Tabby: Outside.
She was holding the sides of her jacket out as he slipped out the door. The people walking by didn’t notice a thing. He took her left hand with his right so she would be near his “bad leg” and started forward, using the cane on his unencumbered side. They were slower than most people, but the crowd being mostly older and mostly liquored, the pace of the group wasn’t exactly breakneck. “Everything okay?” he asked, leaning close as he adjusted to the metal trying to punch a hole through his pant leg.
“So far so good,” she said, helping him down the stairs and through the foyer, out past the covered valet area. Turning back toward the building she asked, “Is that real smoke?”
Tabby would receive an answer. Evan Henk’s two thugs were blocking their way, as they did when she tried leaving Henk’s media room. “We’ll take the item,” said the one named Karl. Of the pair, he had less gray hair and a slightly thicker neck. He held out his fat hand and made a motion with his sausage fingers to give the wedge over.
“We were just on the way to meet him,” Tabby said, trying to inch away from the burning building. “And you guys didn’t have to actually light the joint on fire. An alarm would’ve sufficed. We really liked to brunch there.”
“Fine,” Ben said, reaching into his pants. Karl and Ken got red-faced and jumpy, reaching down by their waists. “Easy. You want the damn thing, here you go.” Ben handed the wedge to Ken. He ripped off the leather cover and examined it. “Hey, chief. How about you hold up our stolen merchandise to the sun. Just in case the exterior cameras don’t get a clear shot of your conspicuously square head.”
“It really is quite square,” Tabby added.
Karl gave his partner an elbow and the two were off into the crowd, no doubt pleased with their contribution.
“I’m going to get the car.”
“Thanks, Johnsy. I’d come along but you know.”
“Don’t utter another word,” she said, moving toward the parking lot. “I’m willing to wait a few ticks for a cripple.”
“Your goodness knows no bounds,” he said, fairly unsure it went unheard. Old rich people were bustling and distraught, now that it was clear that their precious meeting place was turning to ash. Billings put his head down, limping after his partner.
A beep came from the car. He saw Tabitha’s hand shoot out from the window, waving him on. He got in with the slow deliberation of a man in chronic pain. “Where’d you get this?” he asked, gripping his tight leather seat.
“I think his name was Ted. He left the keys next to his bag on the driving range.”
“I complimented his swing.”
“My apologies. Lucky Ted.”
She fired up the sporty Mercedes coupe and checked the rearview camera. The lot was clearing out, minus a few men in sweaters and women with runny makeup. “Come here,” she said, pulling Ben by the back of the head. The kiss was hard and wet, including a lot of unnecessary head movement. The timing caught Ben off. It had a hint of that awkward demonstrability mastered back in the days of black and white. Tabby always got excited after a score. “I hope that wasn’t premature,” she said, releasing him with a sultry breath. “You got it?” Her eyes moved down as the question escaped her messy lips.
Billings patted the cane. None of the trust-funders had noticed its unusual shape and size. Who looks at a cane? About as many people who want to deal with a guy who limps. That’s why it was the perfect hiding place for the real wedge. During the handoff, Tabitha had given him two fakes. One for the display case, and one for Henk and his henchmen.
“Much fun as this is.”
“I know,” she said, dropping the transmission into reverse. “We celebrate when living’s a sure bet.”
“I don’t always say the same thing,” Billings mumbled, once more patting the cane.
“Simmer. But seriously. You do need to write some new lines.”
Chapter 4: Talents and Problems
Only ten minutes later, the hype of the job had flaked off. Their fifteen-minute ride to an eastside body shop had Ben feeling less than ecstatic. He leaned against the passenger door, talking furtively into the phone wedged between his face and right shoulder. “Davy, he’s not backing out. Don’t tell me the guy’s backing out.”
Tabitha checked her rearview and switched lanes like she was on the circuit. “Are you hoping I can’t hear you?” she asked, purposely too loud for the little cabin of the luxury coupe. “Because I can hear you. Really well. Hello, Davy,” she announced, tilting her head toward Ben. “What’s the problem? You two morons figuring out another way to screw things up?”
Ben put a hand over the phone and whispered, “Don’t be a jerk.”
“Because I didn’t think that was possible,” she continued, louder now. “After all these years, it didn’t seem like a feasible scenario—supposed professionals finding new creative methods to sabotage a deal. Uncanny. Completely take back that kiss, by the way.”
“She kissed you, bro dog?” Davy asked Ben, confirming that the old hand over the phone thing lacked its intended efficacy.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ben mumbled, going full fetal in the bucket seat.
After a strange period of quiet from Davy: “Anyway, hustle sauce. The buyer’s totally backing out. I put in calls to my competition—none of them want anything to do with it. I’m offering mad commish and these jabrones still won’t play. I’ll keep plowing fields. Maybe get the extract on what’s the h is going on.”
“Okay. I’ll call you back after we hunker down a bit. We’re on the way to Lars. There in—” Billings cut himself off, looking over at Tabitha. She held out three fingers from the hand-stitched steering wheel cover. “Three minutes, Davy. Call you after.”
Tabitha made another lane adjustment and kept silent. A time-tested way of soliciting information from Ben during a bout of emasculation and failure. “There goes our market,” he muttered.
“We needed that,” she said, calmly exiting I-30 to turn south.
“Yeah, but a preset buyer’s a luxury.”
“A luxury that we needed. So not really a luxury. Definitions, Benji.”
“There’s got to be someone we can unload the thing on. Davy must be off his meds. He was acting strangely normal.”
“I’m going to talk,” Tabby said, adopting an ironically lighthearted tone. “We just stole a three-million-dollar golf club, contested over by Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, known to reside in the same exact place for over half a century.”
“Look,” Ben started.
“And the only way the club is worth three million is if there’s an asshole out there willing to pay for it and keep it to himself, just so he can.” Tabby was almost laughing now. “So, after a month of setting up this score, we have a club that neither of us give a shit about, worth nothing—excuse me—worth however many years we get if we’re caught.” Her grip was tight on the wheel. As she slowed and willfully shifted into a lower gear, Ben thought of ways to avoid her mounting ire.
Tabitha glided off the road into what looked like an abandoned car repair shop.
Ben gathered himself what little he could and said, “We’ll figure something out.”
“Heard it before,” she said, slowly pulling into one of the carports as a tall corrugated metal door rolled up. A short man with olive skin and a slight build dressed in greasy gray overalls waved them on, smiling warmly underneath a thick mustache.
Ben rolled down his window and waved back. “Hey there, Lars.”
“Hello my friends,” he answered, almost bouncing as he spoke. “This car. It’s very nice. The Germans make beautiful things. Almost as good as Italians.”
As they exited the vehicle, the door came back down. The garage was as spacious as it was grimy. There were no other cars inside. Wooden tables were everywhere, cluttered with little pieces of metal and wiring. “Lars,” Tabby said, making a face one makes when looking at a new puppy. “My beautiful man. How are things here?” They embraced with a kiss on each cheek and a cautious hug to avoid getting grease on Tabitha’s finery.
“You look most lovely in silk. And I—I am good. Many projects. Every single table in here is another project. Exciting things.”
Ben watched the exchange of pleasantries from the hood of the car, arms crossed. He didn’t mind the familiarity his partner displayed with their old friend, but he wasn’t in a good mood. “Are you trying to imitate a Mario Brother?” he asked, loud enough to be unmistakably rude. “The mustache?”
“Why with the tone and the attitude and the comments and the face?” Lars asked, managing to maintain a lighthearted aspect.
Ben caught a chiding expression from Tabby and hung his head. “I’m sorry, my friend. That wasn’t cool.” He walked toward Lars, arms opened. “The tone and attitude and the whatever else I was doing, nothing but apologies.” Tabitha backed away and allowed the men to shake hands. “Not good enough,” he said, pulling the smaller man in for a hearty embrace. “Never mind the grease,” he said, rubbing his cheek on Lars’ oily hair while throwing a sarcastic gaze at Tabitha. He was showing off for her, ostentatious about his affection for their friend. All bullshit aside, though, he loved the guy. It was hard not to.
Lars Ramona had been an unwavering companion over the years. Born poor as dirt in a corner of Italy they don’t put in postcards, he somehow managed to find his way to Hollywood around the time Ben and Tabitha were making their initial foray into the fetid fold. Before he could speak a word of English, he was working for major studios, designing props for movies and any sort of gadget a stunt might require. If a snot-nosed director needed an effect or some other brand of “movie magic,” he’d explain it to someone who knew Italian and that guy would explain it to Lars. After all that song and dance, Lars would design something better than the snot-nose could’ve ever conceived. After all that song and dance, the director would be hailed as a visionary by some snot-nosed critic or snot-nose geriatric with a trophy. Ramona didn’t care about trophies, except maybe for the World Cup. He was getting paid well enough to live in Hollywood; the place that churned out everything he’d ever seen with subtitles back in Italy. He found his love for films after resurrecting a decaying and discarded TV using only a few rusty tools. When it first came back to life, a dubbed version of Die Hard was playing. The young man’s life was decided right there, using his skills to call down a magical signal into an abandoned box, watching men shooting at each other while finding the time to remain pithy and charismatic. His calling had been forged with no less drama than anything his town of destiny could produce.
Things were good for a long time. A few years after Tabby and Ben had been cast away, he was still at the top of his game. He had a pool and a place in the Hills. Two steady girlfriends and an actress on the side that did everything they could to make his life miserable.
Living the dream.
That all came to a close rather suddenly. If Billings and Johns went out with a metaphorical whimper, Lars Ramona exited with a literal bang. A visionary snot-nosed director (who will remain nameless) demanded the biggest explosion in film history for his final action sequence, set in downtown Cleveland. Lars refused to do it, sighting engineering, physics, safety, and the fact that Cleveland already looked something akin to a war zone.
He was fired immediately. Blacklisted. Dalton Trumbo without the politics. No matter how good Lars was, the snot-nose was a partner in one of the biggest production companies in the business. For anyone else in showbiz, dealing with Ramona would mean guilt by association.
For a time Lars was sad. The girlfriends left. Took his cars, which were both Italian. Months went by, and he found himself surrounded by stacks of bills and crumpled packs of cigarettes.
Ben Billings was the only one to visit the bereft little immigrant. The discarded actor walked around Ramona’s house, shaking his head slowly at the dust and the piled up takeout and generally pathetic state of things. Eventually he stood over Lars. The little genius was in a stained silk robe and some sort of underwear too small for any American man to consider wearing.
“Mr. Ben?” he asked, trying to see through weeks of drinking and drugs.
For a minute or two Billings didn’t say anything. He took a few slow steps back from the couch, trying to act unaffected by Lars’ body odor. A minute or two was all that could be afforded. The smell was too offensive, and Ben wasn’t that great of an actor.
“Yeah, buddy. Ben Billings.”
“It was said you died.”
“Not quite. Well. Manner of speaking.”
“Non capicsco. Cosa vuoi dire con questo?”
“That’s beautiful,” Billings said, walking over to a sliding glass door to let some air in. “Anyway, I’ve been through this stage. It doesn’t get any better. You’re either going to kill yourself, or you’re going to find another way to make it down the line.”
“It’s incorrect. What they’ve done to me. I come from nothing. Now back to nothing.”
“That’s a proverb, my friend.” Billings tried not to breathe as he placed a card with his number in one of Lars’ delicate, clammy hands. “Call me. We’ll make some money.” Ben pulled down the lapels of his sport jacket and straightened out his sleeves. “I’ve been on that couch, Ramona. It’s no good, letting talent go to waste. I don’t think the universe likes it.”
Before Lars could answer, Billings was out the door. He sat there for a few more days, doing the last of the drugs, drinking the last of the booze. After all that, he figured he’d try to explore that thing Ben said about the l’universo.
One phone call. They’d been working together on and off ever since.
“So you tell me now,” Ramona said. “This face. Maybe the job didn’t go as all was planned?” He pulled a small wand-like object from a waist pocket and starting waving it up and down Ben’s body. Nodding with satisfaction, he moved over to Tabby and gave her a similar treatment. “The purse,” he said. She handed it over without a word. It was wider than his waist and half his height. He waved the wand over every surface, finally proclaiming a satisfied, “Yes!”
Tabitha took back her bag and pulled out a device similar to the one he’d just used from her back pocket. “I already checked.”
“Yes I know,” he said. “But these are delicate devices of my own mind. No one else makes them.”
“Well, they worked perfectly. We knew exactly when Henk planted the bug. Your little gadget here started buzzing in my pants. It was thrilling.” Tabby gave Lars a few mock elbows. Ramona blushed. Billings frowned, walking back over to the hood of the Mercedes.
“So this is when you begin the acting and the pretending.”
“This morning,” Tabby said. “I’m assuming he had one of his lackeys drop it in my purse last night, after I took the necklace.”
“The thing did fine, Lars,” added Billings, rather abruptly. “What is all this stuff?” he asked, scanning the separate messes around the shop, trying to differentiate one from the next. It was like being in modern art gallery, only Ben had a feeling that each pile of junk he was looking at actually had a purpose. “Many movies call me. The TV now, with the budgets bigger than before. I can’t say no.”
“So they’re outsourcing their effects?” Tabby asked.
“Let me guess,” Ben went on, “they get to slap their name on your work.”
“I think the money is what is the important thing,” Lars said. He looked hurt. Almost scared. Billings had been his friend. His savior, even. Now it seemed the con artist was determined to be angry. “Why is the face?” Ramona whispered to Tabby, turning away from Billings and his brooding.
“The job went well,” Ben said. “Everyone did a great job, but Davy and I are running into some problems on the buyer side.”
“Did you use Mr. Arab?” asked Lars. He bent down and held out his hands, like he’d been carrying around a heavy platter and was now serving it up to some magistrate.
“Tried,” said, Billings.
“Mr. Argentina then you should call.”
“Before you run the atlas, just assume we’ve already thought of it. If there’s a stone, Davy knows to turn it.”
Ben could see that another fence’s name was on his lips and was grateful when the talented tinkerer stopped short. Moving pilfered goods was not in Ramona’s wheelhouse. That would require knowing names and putting them with faces, skills hard to sharpen with a soldering gun in a workshop eighteen hours a day. For instance, Mr. Arab was a man named Alessandro. He was from Puerto Rico. Mr. German was actually a Swede. Mr. Argentina was a heavyset woman from Tunisia.
“Maybe we go back,” Ben said. The words were hardly audible. His mouth was over his hand. Tabby didn’t register what he said. She took a few steps to ensure she could hear him over the generator in the basement and the fluorescent lights swinging from cheap metal chains.
“What was that?” she asked.
“We go back to Henk. Try to make a deal.”
“Now you’ve officially lost it.”
“I don’t know what else to do. We’re running low on funds. I’m sick of staring at middle age with nothing to show for it. I’m sick of the nothingness and the nowhere of everything. I see the void, Tabs. I see it wrapping me up like a dreadful cocoon. It’s not good when the vacuum starts to make sense.”
Tabitha was ready to fire back, but she tempered her keenness to shout Ben down. His face was turning from tan to a hot red. It looked particularly odd in the unevenly lit garage. “Lars, be a love and hand me my purse.”
She held an arm out until the effects specialist placed the bag’s handle around it. She started digging. Ben’s color wasn’t returning to normal. He wasn’t speaking. The sound of jewelry and keys and makeup clattering together didn’t help, but the bottle of pills she finally mined would. “Here you go,” she said, handing Billings two 0.5 Klonopin tablets. He threw them down without hesitation or discussion. He placed one hand on Tabby’s shoulder and another on the hood of the Mercedes. Lars ran up with a bottle of water. She thanked their dutiful friend and helped Ben take a few short sips.
It wasn’t often, but Billings was prone to these little breaks. Whenever he started talking about nothingness or an abyss or anonymity, she knew to have the pills on standby.
“Thanks,” he managed, rolling around the hood of the car, looking ridiculous and not caring, trying to catch his breath.
“You know, this is the thought I had.”
“What, love?” Tabby said, averting her eyes from Ben to listen to their diminutive companion.
“The best might be to call Mr. Philadelphia. He’s very good at the buying and selling.”
Tabitha smiled sadly. Ben continued to struggle for normalcy under his skin, swearing at Lars between tiny, strangled breaths.
Chapter 5: The Place You’re In
Evan Henk ended another attempted call to Tabitha, all the while understanding the pointlessness. He smacked his lips and tried in vain to ignore his dripping eye. He’d been played all the way through. They were in the wind—an expression he hated for several reasons. Pretend cops were always using it in TV shows and movies after someone got away and it was time for a snippet of music and a scene change. He didn’t notice the trend at first, but when they’re in the wind drifted down to the unwatchable network shows, he couldn’t help but wince at its hearing. Also, and more importantly, it perfectly described his knowledge of the two failed entertainers’ whereabouts. He was trying to think of a more suitable phrase, but in the wind was just about perfect. Far as he knew, they could be anywhere. The trackers and bugs had all been ditched following the heist at the club. Their cell phones and SIM cards were obviously destroyed. He had a guy trying to find the slippery pair, but he held out no hope.
As a hustler and thief, being fooled by other criminals left an especially raw wound. He’d overcome so much; to get fleeced was a slight that was embarrassing.
Wholly embarrassing. Unequivocally embarrassing.
Ben Billings and Tabitha Johns were outside his sphere of his influence; the famous Hogan-Nelson wedge was out of his hands. The fake, however, was gripped firmly in his left. The stocky businessman-criminal looked at the worthless club and then at a newly opened pack of cigarettes calling out to him on side table to his right. No, he thought, but it didn’t do much to hold back his urge. Soon he was lighting up, taking a drag that generated equal portions of self-loathing and relief.
If one was to stumble on the scene having no prior knowledge of the players, it might stupefy. Henk, five and a half feet tall on a good day, was exercising mental and physical control over two men of enormous weight and stature, muscles and aggressiveness amplified by myriad powders and injections ranging from the latest synthetics to Chinese cat urine.
Karl and Ken sat on little stools like eye doctors before an examination. They were in the absolute center of the basement, surrounded on all sides by concrete walls. The floor was also concrete, though it was treated and smooth. Karl leaned over and glanced at his feet, but grew tense when he saw the drain near the wheels of his little stool.
“You just took the club?” Henk asked, smoking with one hand and running his thumbnail inside the grooves of the wedge.
Ken straightened his giant back. “I did, sir.”
“After examining it? Even after all the study we did on the actual piece?”
“It was chaotic,” Ken said. “People everywhere rushing to their cars. Billings mentioned the cameras pointing outside from the country club. We didn’t want anything leading back to you.”
“You didn’t think back to the plan! The cameras were turned off, you simple fool! This whole thing was foolproof.”
Obviously not. He stood up with marked deliberation and looked over his large-bodied minions. “What do you have to say?” he asked Karl.
“I thought it seemed off.”
“Oh you did?”
“But Ken had the club, and I try to respect my elders.”
“Your elders? My God.”
“We can get it back,” Karl pleaded. “I know some buyers in the area they might’ve gone to.”
“Is that right?”
Henk swelling rage wouldn’t allow another response. Using every sinew and all the frustration and hate coursing through his veins, he buried the blade of the club into the top of Karl’s head. The giant’s eyes went shifty as his blonde scalp turned red. One of his arms was twitching violently, slapping the stunned Ken in the leg over and over.
“Help me with this,” barked the boss, summoning his remaining employee to action. He’d done too good a job; the club was proving troublesome to free from Karl’s head.
Ken wasn’t much good. He was leaning away, crying what he could logically assume were his final tears.
Henk abandoned his attempts at extraction and leaned down to meet Ken’s watery eyes. He wiped a few flecks of blood from the bodyguard’s face and pressed a large portion of the giant man to his chest. “It’s all right, now,” he whispered. Karl’s body had stopped gyrating. The strange electrical convulsions immediately following death had run their course.
“Please don’t kill me,” Ken wailed.
Henk pressed him tighter. “I’d never hurt you.”
As soon as he finished this statement of reassurance, Karl’s body toppled over backwards onto the floor with a disturbing thud.
After a lingering kiss to his bodyguard’s forehead, the boss stood up and surveyed the scene. “Loyalty,” he said, announcing the word as if it was the beginning of a speech he was making to a room full of onlookers. “Our journey is fraught by vicissitudes that can’t be seen or accounted for—unpredictable landmines and turns of chance. Finding things to rely on in this perilous struggle—it’s the key to life. One of them, anyway.”
Evan Henk was calm now. In his mind, the proper sentence had been passed. Karl wasn’t anything but a symbol of unreliability; a landmine diffused.
His seemingly sociopathic reaction didn’t come out of nothing. Despite wealth, reputation, and the big house that served as his current seat of power, Mr. Henk’s “journey” was one in which he’d seen an unyielding series of betrayals. His father was a scoundrel, more than once telling him to clean his room when he wasn’t in the mood. The torture was only just beginning. Raised by a Christian mother, young Evan was forced into caring for the poor twice a month at a local soup kitchen. The sights and smells suffered in the service of the broken and meek became stains on his memory. He once was forced into hugging a man with one arm who hadn’t shaved or bathed in over a week. As one might guess, his parents’ fire and brimstone approach to childcare made for a palpably unpleasant home life. Beset on all sides by the obdurate middle class lifestyle of idyllic Fayetteville, Arkansas, Mr. and Mrs. Henk managed a perverse form of mental gymnastics, asking Evan more than once why he was so unhappy. It would’ve been an insult to mention the horrific private school education he was forced to endure. Bravely, he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
The drudgery of his early years was broken up only by the friendship with a boy named Terrell Smoke. Terrell didn’t seem to mind Henk’s perpetual scowl. They became what some might call friends. In truth, however, the relationship was one-sided. Young Evan would engage Smoke as protector while stealing from the other children. An insurance policy, if he was ever to get caught. Smoke was beaten bloody and removed from the school after Evan convinced him that the larger boys were attacking him for being black and different. Terrell wouldn’t truck with such bewildering injustice, and thus was plunged into a fight where he was permanently scarred and almost lost his life. Through the entirety of this bloody encounter, Henk was down the hall, purloining what he hadn’t already taken from the older boys. He never saw his friend again, and only thought of him when wondering who he could conscript into his next scheme.
Terrell Smoke would be his first and last friend. The noble child protector was sentenced to a life of eating through a straw, surrounded by overweight and underpaid health care providers somewhere near Little Rock.
Evan was again alone. It felt right and good. The first time he read “No Man is an Island,” he couldn’t stop laughing at the unmitigated stupidity of its writer. John Donne was some sort of weirdo, obviously…
Henk used his isolation to study others from a remove. His only interactions were used to help bolster whatever manipulations he was currently working on. He blackmailed teachers and principals. Used girls and boys for lascivious and financial ends. They obviously deserved whatever they got. Like his parents, they didn’t even try to understand him. He wanted so fervently to be loved and for that love to be reciprocated. He couldn’t understand why his luck had never panned out.
“Ken. Pull the club from Karl’s head. Come, now. Get it together. Go upstairs, tell Kang to get down here. Oh. Make sure he brings his swords.”
Despite feeling something akin to seasickness, the giant leapt off the stool and ran up the basement stairs with an escapee’s fervency.
Henk rolled his eyes. Looked at his hands. They were bloody, but not bloody enough. He had fresh betrayers to dispatch.
It seemed time for another cigarette. He felt a slight sense of peace. If he couldn’t before, he could certainly rely on Ken. As for Kang, there was no more loyal servant. He sat back and breathed in a fresh helping of smoke to mask the rising scent of new death. Maybe they don’t love me, but blind allegiance is a start. Is that so much different than love?
Seeing that his phone was buzzing, he put out the cigarette and tried to clear his throat. He needed water. Smoking, reminiscing and murder was thirsty work. “This is Henk.”
“Evan, my boy.”
“Do we have a bad connection, or are you being intentionally terse?”
“I’m sorry. How are you, ma’am?”
“I’m quite well. Calling to say—they’ll be coming back with the club. I think the best thing—and this is your decision of course—the best thing might be to pay them a fair price and let bygones be.”
“I’m not sure.”
“You sound a little off. You haven’t done anything, have you?”
“What does that mean?”
“We all get loose once in awhile. Nobody sees all the angles all the time. Hubris to think otherwise.”
“Tabitha Johns and Ben Billings were trained by the best. They’ve beaten the best.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, let’s not stand over smoking remnants of wounded pride. I think a meeting is in order.”
“How do you know they haven’t unloaded the club?” Henk asked.
“Because I made sure every decent fence in the world won’t do business with them. A lot of favors accrued over the years.”
“Good. Set it up.”
“The prize is Dina Santorelli, Evan. Don’t let hurt feelings get in the way of that.”
“Good. Just don’t go lashing out. That temper of yours.”
“Set it up.” Henk said, ending the call.
Telling me what to do. How to behave. I’m in control.
Kang stopped abruptly behind him after descending the stairs. A tight, constipated little bow. “Sir.”
“Did you bring swords?”
“Good. We need to make Karl smaller.”
“The last body barely fit in the incinerator.”
“Thank you, Kang. But for now, smaller Karl.”
Chapter 6: Extended Stay
Ben and Tabby weren’t interacting with their usual rapidity and spirit. The listlessness hovering between them was the result of their ultimate failure to fence the antique, followed by an attempt to make up for the tension with sex in an extended-stay hotel. It had been a long time since they’d yielded to each other’s bodies; the fact that the dam burst as a type of emotional Band-Aid made their rapport stranger. Billings sat on the end of the bed, naked, sweaty and cold. The noisy little climate control unit had two modes: frozen tundra and off.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said. He was staring at a nonsensical picture on the wall, trying to make sense of a square in the midst of a few other oblong shapes set against a pale brown canvas. “If it was weird—I’m sorry.”
Tabitha was sitting up against the headboard, covering her breasts with the rough sheets. She wanted Ben to feel sorry about the stalled job, but not for the sex. Weird as the before and after tended to be, he always managed to give her more pleasure than anyone else. It all went back to talents. She possessed an ability to shut out the world when making love, and Ben was a tender lover. She watched as he stared at the mass-produced piece of modern art crap on the wall and knew where his mind was. She stopped short of saying you don’t need to be sorry. He was wandering mentally and still completely aware of the present; one of his talents. She’d let him wander a bit more.
Johns tried to turn off the little lamp next to the bed but the switch was ineffectual. The room remained bathed in a ridiculous amount of light, shooting across from multiple sources. It reminded her of an independent film set—some experimental director with holes in his pants and ideas of being Orson Wells and avant-garde. The type that never took the time to realize art was work more than vision. “Place like this, you think they’d want to keep people in the dark.” Tabby was referring to the bad bedding and fraying carpet but considering herself as well. She remembered the days (not so long ago) when covering up didn’t enter into her thinking—now though, no matter how many heads she turned, it wasn’t as many as before. Her body was starting to sag. Inevitability didn’t make it any less depressing. Tabby equated decline with failure, no matter the rate. Stop with the thinking. Try getting laid again.
“You’re more beautiful than ever,” Billings offered, unmoved except for a few shivers, still staring at the picture. “More beautiful than ever.” He was whispering facts, almost like he had no choice. For Tabby, it made it matter more.
How does he do that? He’s not even looking. Damn his sensitivity.
He turned his head but not enough to look at her. “My mother had a painting just like this.”
“It had a poetic name. Some Upper East Side moneychanger bought it for a hundred grand. Probably worth a couple million now.”
“Must’ve been pretty good.” Tabitha knew what not to say. She’d continue with insipid retorts until the ground shook loose.
“That’s the thing. It looked just like this one. I never could tell the difference. It was all crap. Lines and circles. Random variations of color. And yet—the Great Rhonda Billings was the toast. The must-have at any benefit or party.”
If they were going to get back to work, Tabby would have to pick up the ball. Ben was in a cage with his mother’s success as a modern artist and his own failure as an (actual artist). This was a dangerous space, considering most if not all art employed some level of fakery, and their current line of work required lying about pretty much everything.
The ironies were sort of piled on top of one other.
Billings shook his head and slid back down the bed, wanting to stare at her in the afterglow; a picture far lovelier. It seemed cavalier to let the moment slip. He chided himself for his wanderings. There was no good life. Only good moments. Currently, he was being wasteful.
She ran her hand along the top of his head. He had the haircut of a younger man, close-cropped on the sides and back with plenty of length above. She thought it was a little too hipster, saved only by his effortlessly handsome features.
“You recharged?” Tabitha asked, nodding down his body. “Maybe another round?”
“Maybe,” he said, trying to bite down on a smile. Their lips met and they became tangled up in each other’s bodies. Billings said something about the sheets sucking ass between kisses. Tabitha laughed quietly and they carried on until three sharp knocks on the door railroaded the process.
“No thanks,” Ben said. “We’ve got plenty of everything.” He was on top, covering Tabby’s mouth gently with his hand while she playfully smacked him on the chest and neck.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist. Things are in motion, beautiful children. Plus, I can imagine how desperate you are for a reunion.”
Billings and Johns looked at each other underneath the bright lights and mouthed shit in unison.
Chapter 7: All Heart
They weren’t given time to put on any clothes. In seconds they were sitting on a coarse little sofa on the far side of the room. Tabby was wrapped up in a messy heap of the rough sheets. Ben was using an absurdly small decorative pillow to cover up what he could. “Can we at least make this a bit dignified?” he asked, looking up and holding out his hands. As he did so, the stiff little cushion slipped down from his lap. He made no effort at recovery. An extremely stupid and inglorious attempt at defiance.
“I think that would take more time than I have.” She didn’t look down. Or maybe she did. It was hard to tell behind the sunglasses. They were Gucci, as was her dress. It was an elegant and understated green, almost shiny but not quite, almost ridiculous but not quite, with large amounts of material in the shoulders. It fell elegantly just above her knees. Ben looked at her heels and necklace. The whole ensemble would’ve been comically opulent on anyone else, but not her. Not even in an economy hotel room. That was one of her creepy gifts. Never out of place but always noticeable. Distinguished and dignified. The sort of dignity that Billings and Johns were miles from.
“It’s nice to know there’s consistency in the world,” she said, taking stock of the humble surroundings.
Tabby bore a straight posture and a stolid expression. “What are you doing here, Remi?” she asked.
Her question went unanswered. “My children, still leaning on each other for—moral support. It gives me heart.”
“Heart,” Ben said, grabbing awkwardly for his fallen pillow. “That must be a novel sensation.”
“My poor Benjamin. Never the performer you fancied yourself. Blood flushing those lovely cheeks red. The lessons didn’t quite take.”
“How many lackeys do you have out there?” he asked, trying in vain not to betray the defeat running roughshod through his insides.
“Just the one.”
“Talk about consistency. How long have you had that little psycho watching your back? She must be losing a step.”
“Not at all. Fact is, Lizzie is better than ever. But I’ll make sure she hears of your concern.”
“Great. That gives me heart.”
Clapping her hands with Victorian gentility, she sat down on the bed and crossed her smooth, freshly-tanned legs, adopting a teatime posture. “There’s that pedestrian wit. I won’t lie. I’ve missed it. Now—what have you figured out? And TJ my sweet—there’s no need to keep acting.”
Billings dropped his head and placed his hands on the pillow, a signal to let his partner take center stage.
“It must be a grand plan,” Tabitha said. “You obviously froze out all our fences and buyers. Engineering it so we’d have to go back to Henk. Allowing it go this far, so all the players are beholden to you. I wouldn’t call it wizardry, Remi.”
“Whatever the end game, we’re not playing.” Tabitha adjusted her sheets and held her head up with a tightened jaw, refusing to look directly at the surprise guest.
“I understand your feelings. Even so, there’s so many reasons to play.”
“Is this where you start rattling them off?” Ben seethed. He wanted to jump up and use his power to smother the woman to death with his little pillow. It would be a wonderful turn, watching as all that dignity was stripped away. He could think of no better instrument than a dingy cushion used to cover his sweaty balls. Pure fantasy, of course. Violence wasn’t in his repertoire—besides, Remi’s little angel of death wouldn’t stand idle. Lizzie Halsey was the sort that took pleasure in bloody unpleasantness. The epilogue would be horrifying.
“I could list the particulars,” she said, still the perfect picture of refined equanimity. “But what’s that writer’s rule? You know the one—show, don’t tell.”
She pulled out a silver handgun and a cellphone from the tight suede handbag still slung around her neck. Ben and Tabitha stiffened as the door to the room opened.
“Dammit,” Billings said, rising from the sofa. Bryce Creighton was standing weak-kneed on the other side of the bed, face stained with mascara. Lizzie Halsey was behind her, holding a Ka-Bar combat knife to the girl’s delicate throat.
“This one cries a lot, Ms. Dryer,” Halsey said.
“What the hell, Ben?” Bryce whimpered. She said something else but it didn’t register through the shaking and tears.
Billings was frozen, standing there naked. Completely helpless.
“She’s got nothing to do with this. You need to let her go. That’s an innocent kid, Remi. Way out of bounds.”
“Ms. Creighton is more than that. Always underestimating women,” said Dryer. “Something else I tried teaching out of you. I mean, take a look around. Nothing but women.”
“Take that knife off her,” he said, pure pleading. “For God’s sake.”
Remi Dryer stood up from the bed, tapping the silver pistol against her leg, addressing Billings but fixing on Tabitha. “You slept with her how many times, Benjamin?”
For the first time, Tabitha met her gaze. “Let her go, Remi. Let her go and we’ll do whatever it is you want. I imagine it’s Dina Santorelli you’re after. You obviously want us for the job or you wouldn’t go through this show.”
“Of course,” Dryer said, snapping her fingers. Lizzie pushed the law student to the floor. “Did you really think I’d resort to murder?” She adopted the tone of a chastising schoolmarm. “I hate that our reunion had to play out like this. Given what the two of you did to me—well, let’s just move past it for now. Remember what I always said. Dwelling doesn’t do.” She looked down and saw Ben’s pants crumpled by the foot of the bed. “You can put these on, now. We have work. Plans to make. I hope this was a wakeup call.”
“What’s next?” Tabby asked, slowly moving to comfort the hysterical young woman curled up against the wall. “Santorelli, no doubt.”
“Call Mr. Henk. He’ll compensate you for the pinched piece. Fair price. I worked it all out for you. Think of it as an olive branch.”
Ben snapped his pants straight before pulling them on. “Yeah, Remi. You’re all heart.”