It was a hole. Not the literal sort of hole, of course, which went without saying, but possibly worse. The alley had obviously graduated from the same hard-knocks type of academy for alleys in over-populated cities the world over, but this one seemed special to Nanette Baker, self-judged thief extraordinaire. It was grimy, with unspeakable pools of grease in expected places, like under the huge, stinking green dumpster, but also in impossibly strange spots, such as the amorphous blob on the brick wall of the office building to her immediate left. She inched away from it, keeping her eyes on the broad man looming in front of her like a bad trip. Cockroaches scuttled about like furtive secret agents in a third world country.
"Boy, you sure can pick 'em, Vinny," she said, soaking her voice in sardonic contempt to hide her fear. She'd dealt with Vinny the Muscle several times, but he remained unpredictable, dangerously capricious. It didn't help that he was solid as a Hummer and about as smart as a rhinoceros with bowel issues. "Would it kill you to arrange to meet me somewhere with a roof?"
He grunted, a sneer traveling sideways across his face, causing his rough features to ripple oddly, his eyes twitching one at a time. It might have been funny if it had been safe to find humour in anything he did. "Can it," he said, furthering the image of a constipated rhino with a growl tucked into his tone. "Do you have the...merchandise?"
People starved for entertainment probably would have paid admission to see Vinny in his element. Nanette repressed a snort as she rolled the heavy backpack off her shoulder, swearing when her long hair caught in the zipper. Rather than release it gently, she tugged and cursed again as a few tight curls came loose. "Right here," she said, as though the movement had been smooth and uneventful.
Whatever else could be said about him, Vinny was an old hand in the business. He wasn't one to dicker or refuse payment. He didn't have the brains. He produced a fat black duffle bag, held out in the same enticing manner as Nanette now held the backpack, then set it down. "Mr. Ciccorelli appreciates your business," he said, as though reading a poorly-written script off a bent placard. He wasn't even looking at her.
"Yeah, I'm sure." It wasn't grade-A banter, but Vinny wasn't much of a partner for such things. She set the backpack down at her feet, then bit her lip, knowing that what she was about to do was quite possibly the dumbest thing she had ever done.
Then she thought about it a for a second and amended the thought. Not quite the dumbest thing she had ever done, but certainly the dumbest thing she had done in the past month. ...Week.
She angled a black boot-clad foot in front of the backpack and nudged it so that it slid almost behind her. "It was a tough job," she started, then went on, encouraged by Vinny's unimpressed silence, "I deserve a little extra."
"Mr. Ciccorelli agreed to ten thousand." The grunt was more persistent, but a bit confused. Apparently Vinny didn't have a ready method for dealing with metaphoric curve balls.
Nanette fussed with her hair. Her scalp really hurt...maybe she'd pulled some of the curls out by the root when she'd tugged herself free of the backpack. She certainly felt as though she'd completely straightened out the kink on that side of her head. She swallowed an itching urge to rub the soreness away. "Think of it as a bonus." The top of her head throbbed dully, refusing to lessen into a minor ache. "After all, I'm sure Mr. Ciccorelli really wants this little bauble." He must have, the fat old mobster had to be aware of what she'd had to go through to obtain the ugly statuette. But then, what was that to him?
The rippling sneer jerked across Vinny's face again, faster than before. Either he was thinking hard, or he had gas. "Ten thousand," he repeated. "That's all you get."
Nanette sidled forward without actually moving towards the big man, all but batting her eyes and exuding as much sex appeal as she knew how, shoulders and head tilted like a pinup pose from the 70's. "But surely--"
She'd pushed her luck too far. It whimpered away from her, leaving the alley at a coward's speed as she staggered backwards three steps from the force of Vinny's backhanded blow. She clutched her head, assessing the damage while keeping her eyes on Vinny in anticipation of a second attack. There was none. He reached round her to snatch up the backpack, then leaned in her face, his hot breath smelling of stale garlic and some kind of meat. For one heartbreaking moment, she was afraid he would leave with backpack and duffle, but then he stalked out of the alley, leaving behind the agreed-upon payment and no word of warning. She grimaced, still holding her doubly aching head. Men like Vinny did not warn with words, after all.
Just a smack in the face to mark the place a bullet will go if I step out of line again, she thought, bitter as wormwood. It had been time to get out of the business for far too long, but it was, after all, a lucrative business. Too lucrative to leave behind lightly.
Nanette sighed and shook her head, silently chiding herself. It was not the time for mental recriminations and self-berating, she wasn't tanked on southern comfort. She retrieved the duffle and beat it out of the alley at her usual pace, fast enough to get wherever in whatever time limit she desired, without drawing unwanted attention.
Stashing the money was easy, but it reminded her of why she preferred Cayman accounts and the like. Hard currency was nice, could concuss people if it came from the right country, and it was reassuringly real and impossible to ignore, but large amounts of it tended to attract the wrong sort of notice. She felt better once it was out of the public eye.
Picking her way carefully along the broad and nearly unoccupied sidewalk, Nanette did her best to get her bearings without gawping like a clueless tourist. She had been all over the world, but it had been years since she had been back in the States. There had been precious little reason to bother since Mama Baker had passed, even less reason to specifically go as far as the hot, suffocating town stuffed in the butt crack of Louisiana that she'd grown up in.
Little City was as close as she wanted to get. It was far from Nowhere, but not exactly a Somewhere in and of itself. It was full of little people with lots of little cares, none of them encroaching into her own life by simply existing. She could breathe in a place constructed this way. There was room.
She paused, distracted from her muggy thoughts by a painfully neon sign that read, upon conscious inspection, Charlie's Boozer. The word 'booze' was extracted from this, found pleasant, and was allowed to prompt action. She strode inside, casting an eye about for items and people of interest.
It was too early for many of them to be loitering around, even at a place so eloquently named. There was a group of beautiful people crowded around a table near the back, fighting over the only spot of good lighting and bickering in an obviously bored way. They were mostly men, and all of them seemed to be wearing uniform black or a riot of colour. A few feet away from the table, a handful of people were milling around, like a spill spreading out on a flat surface until gaps formed. There was a stage near the beautiful people's table, but it was unoccupied and did not appear to be expecting tenants soon.
Nanette blew a puff of air at her forehead and sauntered up to the bar. The only people to impress there were blue-collar men relaxing after work and a few career drunks, so she simply plunked onto a stool and flagged down the bartender.
At last, a spark of interest. In general, Nanette had never felt she had the right eyes--or anything else--to find men physically appealing beyond a sort of artistic appreciation, and although this one did not have her ready to 'convert', he was certainly... Unfortunately, despite a good old college try, the only word she could justifiably attach to his metaphysical head was "precious".
From her vantage point on the bar stool, she could see that he was at least a head taller than she was, made to appear even taller by his ropy figure. He looked difficult to break, but wire was like that, and her upbringing practically demanded that she try to feed him. Intuition told her he couldn't have been older than twenty or twenty-two, but her unkind eyes insisted he was seventeen. Her lips curled into a smile that she knew was a bit cruel, but she indulged herself. He had floppy hair that was almost curly, and the color of hardened caramel on popcorn.
As he approached, he blew his hair out of his face, only to let it fall back over his eyes. It was all Nanette could do not to laugh out loud. He was dressed like any bartender, although it made him look a bit like a very large penguin with a bleach job up top. "What'll it be?" he asked, his voice a delightful tenor.
It didn't help her image of him, but it was a nice change from Vinny's gruff rhino-voice. She ordered a whiskey and proceeded to monopolize him at the first chance. It was a slow night, she told herself. For the bar and for her. "What on earth is a sweet little profiterole like you doing in any kind of bar?" she asked him, rubbing the rim of the glass with one uninterested finger. Her tone wasn't anything like flirtatious, but he looked taken aback anyway. She wondered if he was used to attention of any kind. To clear up any confusion, she added, "Not that I want to take you out of here, sweetie. I'm just curious."
He relaxed, then pulled a rag out of BartenderSpace and began wiping down the sticky counter. "A guy's gotta eat," he said, once again gracing the air with a voice that Nanette was certain she would think of as musical if she had another glass or three.
"That's what we all say," she drawled, then finished off the glass. She pushed it forward and pointed to it with an elegantly manicured fingernail, whereupon it was refilled. Whatever else the boy was, he knew his profession. "I found mine by accident."
He raised an eyebrow, but did not show a clear sign of real interest. Of course he wouldn't, she told herself, undeterred, he was a bartender. Even if he was as green as he looked, he had to at least think--or pretend--that he had heard it all.
"What's your name?" This time both eyebrows went up, a bit higher than the single bored twitch of before. She smiled and rolled her eyes a bit, scoring her vision with the nearest ceiling light. "Bless your proper English soul," she said, positive that he wasn't remotely English, "I'm just talkin' to ya. It's less awkward when we've introduced ourselves." She held out a hand and gave her name, only briefly considering a pseudonym before doing so.
As amusing as a blush would have been, flooding the young man's face like rain in a crater, she was denied the entertainment. He shook her hand with polite curtness, then let go and said, "I'm Asher Foley."
"Pretty. Are you named after your mama?"
He cringed slightly, heaven knew why, and shook his head, returning his attention to the unconquerable stickiness. "Weren't you talking about your job?" Apparently determined to steamroll her to any topic that he was not involved in, he added, "What is it you do, that you could get employed by accident?"
Time was not progressing with the swiftness of proverbs. Nanette nursed her glass and considered what sort of fiction to supply. She enjoyed talking to people, loved the new stories she could tell each disposable conversation companion. "Acquisitions," she said, a little too close to the truth, but with another full glass to enjoy, she wasn't feeling terribly paranoid. "For a museum. Paintings and ugly examples of primitive art that pretentious people coo over."
To her surprised delight, Asher Foley chuckled. Yes, she had had enough to think it musical. "And you like it?"
"Sweetie, I love it." The acquisitions part of it was certainly thrilling, and it afforded a very comfortable lifestyle, when she wasn't risking it. "Even the boring bits." This was untrue, but where was a good story without the untrue statements?
He shook his head again, smiling faintly. Disbelieving. Nanette enjoyed her most recent drink a bit more. It didn't matter if anyone believed the story, the value was in the telling, in having an audience.
"And what about you?" she asked, getting tired of talking. The bar was finally beginning to fill up, but her head was beginning to empty at a slightly faster speed. "Did you grow up dreaming of kicking out rowdy drunks and curdling willing livers en masse?"
Fully aware that she was not at all fit to judge anyone's conscience or moral fitness, she decided not to make even a mental comment about Asher's failure to flinch. The rag bunched up in his hand, the folds of fabric bursting gently from his fist as though appealing for escape. When his fingers relaxed, it was easy to imagine the rag sighing in relief, a sign to Nanette that she really had had quite enough for the night. She held her chin in her hand and slumped more than she liked, looking up at the unexpected thin smile that had covered Asher's face like a mask. It didn't reach his eyes. They were a soft light colour, grey, perhaps, and currently looked far away, locked out of real, meaningful perception.
The rag was stashed away to sulk about its treatment in private, and suddenly Asher was all business. "No kid dreams about a job like this," he said, with no trace of bitterness, but rather a sort of natural humour. "That doesn't mean there's something wrong with it, though."
While she nodded for a little too long, he drifted off to pay attention to a large group of thirsty women dressed in overly practical business suits. Nanette overpaid and left a nice tip, a thank-you for her departed one-man audience. Bars were for diversions, and she'd had one. It was time to teeter back to her current base of operva... operla... The flat she was staying in.
The sidewalk was unfriendly, but not dramatically so. It stayed off her face, although it did insist and wiggling about like the ocean. The flat was closer to Charlie's Boozer than she'd realized, a nice thought. Perhaps it could be her own boozer.
She tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and stumbled a few steps too close to an unresolved dog turd, then straightened up and held her head, laughing emptily. Thinking out had to come later, after she had found her keys, the flat, and a chance to sleep it off.