Saffron [Part II]
On the door to Ron’s office, the words ‘Welcome To Hell’ had been carved out, the gaps that formed the choppy sentence filled in with what I knew was red paint.
I had been the only one around the day it happened. Headquarters had been infiltrated by a local gang over last year’s holidays and they had drawn read and green graffiti everywhere.
When everyone came back to work the next week on New Years, only one person had been pleased.
Ron regularly redid the words just to humor those who thought that the Ciscos would lose control over the city when the Carmosinos started rolling up sleeves and baring fangs but I had witnessed enough blood being spilled on the red-tinged wood for me to know better than to touch it with my bare hands.
I flipped Frank’s knife in my hand and used the hilt to knock. I hit the doorpost thrice, softly with a breath of pause between each knock; the door creaked and opened immediately.
A deep breath told me that it was occupied. Though Ron’s office always smelt of saffron and cinnamon, the incense only burned so strongly when someone had a reason to go inside. Usually, on weekends, the scent was old and stale.
Ron was almost never in on Saturdays. So right now, I didn’t know what to expect.
I stepped into the dimly lit room and shut the door with my heel but before I could say a word two hands circled around me from behind, one curling around my waist and the other wrapping loosely around my neck.
Instinctively, I flipped the knife the right way up. My left hand had a terrible backhand grip. That made it easy to get me disarmed.
While my mind worked overtime to find ways of escaping the hold, my gaze drifted to the hands themselves. From wrist to elbow, a dozen gold and silver bracelets ran up the dark skin of my attacker; all ten of their fingers were decorated with two inch stiletto nails varnished with a neon purple polish that glowed softly in the darkness of the room.
Those alone were familiar enough to calm me down. I closed my eyes and let my hand fall to my side. The last time I had seen Ron, the nails had been shorter and neon green.
“Boss,” I greeted half-heartedly as the tip of one deadly finger pierced through my shirt and into my side. “You got me.”
“Well, well,” Ron’s soft voice tickled my ear. It sounded equal parts dangerous and seductive, just how I remembered it. “Look who finally decided to turn up.”
“You let your guard down today,” the hands shoved me away and I spun on my heel to maintain balance. “You’re late.”
I opened my eyes again to see Ron leaning against the door, lips painted a crimson-red displaying a smug grin.
“Barely, Boss,” I wanted to look down at my wrist but remembered in time that I didn’t have a watch. Still, I knew that if I was late it was only by a few seconds. “I counted the time personally. I know how you feel about punctuality.”
“Ah, Kay. No one is here other than you and me. No need to put on a show.”
“I prefer drawing lines with my superiors. It keeps things professional.”
“Well, I could have sliced a deadly line on your carotid some seconds ago as punishment for you being tardy but I didn’t. That should tell you that professionally I don’t just consider myself your superior.”
“Saffron, I’m sorry for being late,” I said to amend my previous greeting and she crossed the distance between us to press a chaste kiss on my lips.
She did this every single time, it was a wonder that she wasn’t tired of it. I knew I was.
I only got away with calling her boss in my first year of working for her and since the day I stumbled into her office and found her drunk she started greeting me with kisses instead of the usual handshake.
In front of others, she said it was to make everyone else know that I was special.
We both knew she did it for the sole purpose of riling me up.
“That’s a better attitude,” she adjusted her bracelets then carefully puffed the top of her short afro before flicking on the switch for the rest of the lights. “You know, I just love the way you say my name.”
When all the fluorescent bulbs came on, I got to witness Saffron Cisco in all her glory before her new wardrobe snuck up on me like it usually did.
In a lot of ways, she looked the same but at the same time she was very different. Since the last time I was here, she had taken down her dreads and added light purple streaks to her hair, her nails had been filed to a sharper point and she had finally gotten her ears pierced.
“Are you going to stand there and stare at me all day?” With her nails, she pinched the diamond hoop dangling off her left ear and her chunky bracelets crashed loudly against each other as they slid up and down her arm. “I don’t really mind if you do.”
With a testy smile, I turned around and walked to my usual chair. I only sat down when she settled into hers.
Finally, there was a desk between us again. This was the image of Saffron I was used to, powerful and imposing. The leather chair, passed down from her grandfather, highlighted both those qualities.
Without taking her eyes off me, she crossed her legs and I realized that she wasn’t wearing her stiletto heels today. Without them, we both stood the same height but with them she was a good five inches taller.
She must be in a mood today. Dominance was the theme Saffron usually went for when she dressed herself up for the day. If she wasn’t wearing heels that meant she didn’t think their presence would give her an upper hand in the situation she was going to have to face.
It wasn’t often that that happened. Most people got weak knees when a stonefaced, no-nonsense woman like Saffron Cisco happened to stand a head taller than them.
“Frank said you came looking for me,” I told her after a moment of silence. Ron was never one to start important conversations. The first to speak always ended up on the losing end and she was the queen of that game.
“Yes,” she drummed her nails on the desk then sighed. “I was.”
“So. . .” I set the knife by the stack of folders in front of me just so she knew that I wasn’t here to just talk. “What did you do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Frank seemed more on edge than usual and I don’t think your unexpected visit was the only cause,” I said and looked right into her hazel eyes. “So what happened between Friday midnight and now that has him so scared for my life?”
“Scared for your life?” she asked with a scoff and pointed a finger at me. “Why would anyone be after you? You don’t know anything worth killing for.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“But he’s not the only one scared for your life, Kay,” she admitted and retracted the finger. “Remember how I went looking for you?”
I nodded just to get the conversation moving along. There was nothing to remember, I had just told her that she had come looking for me but Saffron liked to draw things out longer than they needed to be and there was nothing I could do about that.
“Friday night, a runner for the Carmosinos died on our turf. So that has the Carmosino family is thinking that I might have killed him to start a gang war,” she said with a small shrug as though the city could handle a war right now.
“So did you? Or did you not?”
“Didn’t,” she clasped her hands and rested her elbows on the desk. “You know me, Kay. I don’t like messy things and wars are beyond messy. Bodies of my guys and bodies of their guys have been popping up since then. Now, that can’t be a coincidence, can it? Antonia Carmosino is meeting up for ‘peace talks’ tomorrow. You know how much I’ve had of that bit—”
I cleared my throat and picked up the knife again. There was little anyone could to do but listen when Ron started a spiel but at least now I knew why she had ditched the heels. Radiating feminine dominance didn’t work as well in front of another woman as it did in front of a man. Antonia Carmosino was going to be hard to deal with.
“. . .that beautiful person,” Ron continued and rested her chin on her knuckles.
When our gazes met again, her smile grew, suspiciously. I narrowed my eyes slightly, hoping to see through her before I found agreeing to something that would get me killed. “And does that have anything to do with me?”
“Kay, everyone knows you’re my right-hand man.”
“I am not your right-hand man,” I leaned forward and stuck the knife in the gap between us. “I really only came here today to get my pay for the month.”
“Ah,” she dragged open a drawer I couldn’t see from where I was sitting then slapped a small manilla envelope in front of me, beside the knife. “Here’s your hush money. Now can we talk? As friends, not a superior and their subordinate?”
“We aren’t friends,” I told her as I slumped in my seat and thumbed through the hundred dollar bills. “You just like to rant and I like to listen because we both don’t have a better source of entertainment. You’ll find someone to replace me the second I’m gone.”
“You know that no one can replace you, Kay,” Saffron used a nail to cut a horizontal line into the four notches she had already scratched into her desk. I didn’t know what tally she was keeping, but she was very dedicated about it. “I was skeptical at first when Frank brought you in. You were weak, snivelling and intimidated as hell, but I still remember what you said to me that day. How did it go again?”
“The fact that you call me Kay, doesn’t make me your yes man,” I said with a small smile. That had been three years ago. I had been freshly put out and too sheltered to survive on the streets. If Frank hadn’t taken me to the Ciscos, I wouldn’t have lasted till the next month.
“Yes,” she clapped her hands together and looked absolutely delighted. “You didn’t know who I was but you didn’t give a shit. I knew the moment I saw you that you were special. Do you know what I saw in you?”
“No. You never told me.”
“I saw nothing,” she said, with one of her ‘larger than life’ grins. “Your cold sapphire eyes. The first pair I couldn’t see through. Back then your soul was dead and that made you the perfect runner. I knew that you’d do your job, no questions asked.”
“You’re being awfully sentimental today,” I folded the envelope twice then stuffed it into the front pocket of my jeans. “Other than the problem with the Carmosinos, did anything else happen?”
“Nothing else. You can blame the sudden romanticism on my raging hormones. It’s been what, a month—”
“Two weeks,” I offered the correction with a smile.
“—since I last saw you. You don’t know how much I’ve missed you, Kay. You’re the only one who says shit right to my face. You’re not like the other P.E goons working under me,” she ran her a nail over the small scar sitting over her right cheekbone. “Just because they can’t deal with the fact that they are working under a woman, in their eyes I’m suddenly non-binary? It’s always they this and them that; Ron said and Ron didn’t say. And all while my fuc--fudging name is Saffron and I don’t remember switching genders.”
“If it bothers you so much, you could always make the transition,” I pointed out the simple fact. “It would make it easier for you to establish your authority. And I’m not pro Equality, I’m W.M.”
“Tomato, Tomahto,” she waved her hand to dismiss the difference. “And it doesn’t matter how easy it’ll make my life, if I transition it’ll make me no different from my traitor of a brother. Broke Pa’s heart when his favorite grandson turned female and ran away to find love. Now she’s pretty with a husband who could buy ten of me and here I am trying to keep the family business alive while surrounded by dozens of men struggling with their unnecessary egos and insignificant masculinity. . . No offense.”
We both knew she never included me in her generalizations. I was a special case, having chosen to be neutral in the gender war that was tearing the world apart, and that was why she liked me so much.
“I mean,” she tugged on the golden cross that swung freely from where it was attached on her right earlobe. “I know that the old man is dead now but he felt betrayed enough when Veronica ran off. He made me his heir because he had no other choice, you know? No worthy grandkids left besides me. If I had acted like a woman in any sense of the word, he would have thought that I was secretly supporting the female agenda—the paranoid, old coot—and he would have either had me killed or killed himself! So of course I cut my hair and called myself Ron to make him happy. But like I said, he’s dead now. Don’t I deserve some happiness?”
It was a rhetorical question, so like all the times she has asked before, I didn’t answer it. Everyone deserves to be happy, I knew that. Ron was just one of the few people who was born into the wrong half of the world and couldn’t be.