Seroje used the balcony of the hotel to do her Tai Chi. She’d pushed the single glass-topped table and two woven-back chairs to one side to give herself the room. The slight salty breeze from the harbor was cool. She felt relaxed. A long bath and a full night of sleep in a bed made her almost feel normal. She planned on staying here another night to let OSLO chew on the fact that they’d lost her; besides, she didn’t know what else to do.
The one thing she did need to do was go shopping. She needed some clothes. She’d been in these clothes a little too long. Although she felt better after rinsing out her underclothes and letting them dry on the balcony overnight.
There was a nice view of the city and the harbor, only marred by the sight of Craig’s yacht. Big boy toys, she thought. Craig needed fewer toys. She had an answer to his question, “If we married, what would you want?”. She’d want him to get rid of his toys.
Neither was going to happen.
There was a knock on the door.
Seroje hoped that was breakfast. She was hungry since she didn’t eat last night. This morning she decided to be a little extravagant and ordered room service.
“Yes?” she said, checking through the peephole of the door.
“Room service,” the man said. He was wearing a hotel uniform.
Seroje opened the door, and the fist caught her in the jaw. She let the momentum turn her round, but she kept on her feet.
The OSLO employee stepped in looking mean, and then surprised that she wasn’t lying on the floor.
He didn’t know how many times she’d been hit growing up for one of her idiosyncrasies and tantrums because nothing was perfect. Seroje had learned the hard way and she knew how to take a beating.
“Your mama ever teach you not to hit girls, Doug?” she said to him, using his name, causing him to look startled.
He’d never met her, but she knew him from his personnel file. She was relieved he didn’t do any more, but he’d made a mistake not shooting her right then and there.
Two more big men, both OSLO employees, pushed through the door. One was pushing the breakfast cart. They must have used a hotel employee and then sent him off after paying him. The man she’d seen was not in sight.
Seroje felt sad her breakfast would sit there, wasted. Her stomach growled a complaint.
Hank came in last and shut the door, pulling out the gun he had hidden in his jacket.
“You fucking little bitch,” he said, waving the gun.
“You only brought three?” she said, antagonizing him on purpose as she stared at the floor, letting her hate for him come out. “How do you think three will do the job when six didn’t do it last night?”
“You didn’t hit her hard enough,” one man said.
“You’re right, Bryan,” she said, using his name. She knew all their names.
“Shut the fuck up,” Hank said. “You screwed up. The store cameras caught you getting into that cab. And your cabbie kept good records of where he dropped off his fare. You didn’t even register under a fake name.”
“Hotels don’t let you register under a fake name,” Seroje said. All three men smelled as if they needed a shower and looked as if they’d been up all night. “You have to show ID.”
“Get her things. Get your shoes on. Come on,” Hank said, waving his gun again as if that would speed things up. “We don’t have all fucking day.”
Hank was going to make the same mistake as the first man. They should have shot her right then and there. If you were going to kill someone, you did it. You didn’t talk. You didn’t change locations. You did it.
She slipped her shoes on while Bryan grabbed her backpack and purse.
“All she had was this,” Bryan said, showing Hank the revolver.
“Girlie gun. A revolver. No wonder we didn’t find shells,” Hank said, throwing the gun and her purse into the backpack.
“That’s all, boss,” the last man said.
“Thanks, Steve,” she said to him, causing him to flinch.
Hank glared at the man because of his reaction.
Seroje felt rather surprised at how quickly they got shook up at the little things. These men weren’t the right type for this work.
“You having personnel problems, Hank?” she said, please she’d thought of the dig.
“Shut the fuck up. Let’s go,” Hank said as he holstered his gun under his coat, leading the way out the door.
Bryan waved a hand for her to follow. None of them seemed to want to touch her. She could take a punch better than she could give and there was no fighting her way out of this. Seroje followed Hank out of the hotel room.
Hank took the stairs down and out a side door. A large black SUV waited. Bryan had the keys and was grinning while the other two were looking uneasy.
“Get in the fucking back, you babies. She’s just a girl,” Hank said with a roll of his eyes.
Seroje ended up sandwiched between Steve and Doug. Bryan drove. Hank sat in the front passenger side with her backpack.
“We could do a leisurely drive by the airport, but your boyfriend is gone. Flown the coop,” Hank said.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she said as she watched the clock on the dash, keying in on what she’d heard from him at OSLO. “He’s my boss.”
That comment caused some squirming with the two men in the back. Bryan frowned.
“Shut the fuck up,” Hank said. “Drive,” he said with a yell at Bryan.
The morning rush was done, but traffic was still steady. Seroje had no idea where they were headed, but Bryan knew where he was going, not even pausing while he drove through a large intersection, without looking left or right because he had the right of way.
A cab entered the intersection. It didn’t look like it was going to stop, aiming for the SUV. Seroje leaned back, calculating what she needed to do. She raised her arms as if pushing hair out of her eyes as she focused and her eyes steadied. The timing needed to be perfect.
The cab hit the front end of the SUV causing it to spin half a circle. Seroje used the force, aiming an elbow into Doug’s nose and forcing his head to hit the window with a crack at the same time she jutted her other elbow into Steve’s face, breaking his nose.
The car jerked to a stop and Seroje’s palm landed on the side of Hank’s face, slamming him into the window. She grabbed her backpack, making sure it clobbered Bryan as she crawled over Doug to get out of the car.
The cab was right there and she got in.
“Andiamo cowboy,” she said to Tony, who squealed his tires, taking off.
Tony drove, not asking any questions. Seroje already had an idea of where he was headed. There was an Italian area in the middle of the city.
She laid on the back seat, counting streetlights and watching buildings, already knowing the turns from the mental map she had of the city.
Seroje could tell that despite taking off with squealing tires, Tony kept to the speed limit, obeying stop lights, doing nothing to attract attention to himself. However, there was a loud screeching noise at the front of his cab that she couldn’t identify.
Tony pulled the cab up to the curb and stopped.
“I gotta get a new cab,” he said. “Go into that coffee shop. Be sure to speak Italian and tell Mama that Tony sent you. You’ll be safe there.”
Seroje nodded while she sat up and got out of the cab. Tony drove away with a dreadful screeching noise. His cab was dragging the front bumper.
The coffee shop was full of men drinking coffee and smoking. The place was hazy with smoke, smelling of spicy sausages, coffee, and oregano. A large Italian looking woman sat in the back. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun and was streaked with gray. She wore a flowery dress covered by an off-white apron. Her shoes were black, and she wore black support stockings.
Seroje noted that every conversation, all in Italian, stopped, and that every man stared at her. Their eyes following her while she traversed through the shop toward the woman she believed to be Mama.
“Antonio mi ha mandato,” Seroje said as she stared at the woman’s shoes.
“Antonio?… “ Mama said with a dramatic cry, causing Seroje to flinch. The woman’s manner of speaking Tony’s name gave Seroje the idea that this was his mother.
Seroje didn’t like the smoke and didn’t like the quick, dramatic movements or the loud voice of Mama, but she was given a chair and Mama yelled for food.
“Dr. Pepper,” Seroje said as Mama yell at the cook for something to drink. “Lo aspetto, Antonio.”
She told Mama she was just waiting for Tony.
“Si. Si,” Mama said, then she again yelled at the cook for food, causing Seroje to flinch.
A soda came and thankfully there was a new straw so Seroje didn’t have to touch the glass.
Within an hour, she’d had more food put before her than she’d had in a week, and Mama was already planning her and Tony’s wedding and the names of their children.
Another hour passed before Tony returned to cheers and congratulations.
Tony sat at the table looking somewhat bewildered.
“You okay?” he said.
“Yes. Did you know your mama is already planning our wedding?” Seroje said.
“What did you say to her? I said to come in and say I sent you.”
“I did. I said Antonio mi ha mandato,” she said.
“Oh, no, you used my full name. You needed to just use Tony, not Antonio,” he said and he laughed. “Sort of why I don’t date Italian girls. You just have to look at one. Then her mama and my mama start planning the wedding.”
“Sorry, I fully translated,” she said, staring at her soda.
“No worries. Not the first time. And you’re not the first damsel in distress I’ve rescued. So, what’s your name?”
“She doesn’t speak English,” Seroje said, stating a fact, because she noticed Mama was attentive, but didn’t seem aware of what the conversation was about.
“No. Won’t learn. She’s happy as she is,” Tony said. “Sorry about them goons finding you. I didn’t even think to fudge my log. Followed them back to the hotel. Knew to come around and smack ’em one.”
“You did good,” Seroje said. “But why?”
“And they hit you, didn’t they?” he said, not answering her question as he moved, reaching up to her face to look at her chin. “Ghiaccio, Mama.”
Someone brought ice in a towel.
“Put that on your face. Keep the swelling down,” Tony said.
Seroje held the ice to her face. She’d already been feeling the tightness to her jaw.
“So what can I do for you?” Tony said.
Seroje had to think about that question because she didn’t understand why Tony was helping her. She sipped her soda and took ten minutes to think.
Neither Tony nor Mama seemed impatient as they waited.
“Why?” Seroje said.
“My mama raised me right,” he said. “You don’t let girls get beat up.”
“These are not good people,” she said.
“I drive a cab,” he said, sounding as if that explained everything, but it meant nothing to Seroje. “I see the pits of humanity. I’ve been robbed, beaten, shot at, and crashed into. Crashing into that car and rescuing you was nothing.”
Seroje coughed and sipped her soda. The smoke was getting to her.
“Mama, perché non sei seduto indietro?” Tony said to his mama. “Come on. Let’s get you out of the smoke. There’s a place out back.”
“Restroom?” Seroje said as she followed Tony farther into the coffee shop.
“There,” Tony said, pointing out the door.
Seroje was pleased to find the restroom clean. She used the toilet, then washed her face and hands of the smoke. Her jaw was swelling and there were hints of color. She put the towel with ice back against her jaw and left the restroom.
The area out back was in the alley between the buildings. There wasn’t any smoke, but the odor of garbage surrounded her. There was a small table with four chairs.
Mama sat out there with them.
“She has to chaperon us,” Tony said in explanation.
“Seriously?” Seroje said, not touching the table because it looked filthy. Her eyes jittered up and down the alley before they settled to watch the nearest garbage bin.
“She really likes you. Especially because of this,” Tony said, reaching under the table and patting Seroje’s leg where her knife was. “I’m still laughing that they nabbed you and didn’t take that. Didn’t see it, I’d guess. They’re not street fighters.”
“Doesn’t do any good against four,” she said, thinking of what she needed from Tony. “I need to go get some stuff out of a storage unit.” She was thinking she needed the other gun for more than five shots.
“Tell me where and I’ll go get it,” he said.
Seroje wanted a ride there and didn’t expect his offer to get it on his own. She was silent for a long time. Mama sat there watching them with a close eye. Tony waited, looking very patient.
“I’m not gonna steal from you,” he said after a long silence. “From what I’ve seen, you’re not one to piss off.”
Stealing was not what she was thinking. She was used to working alone.
“My name is Seroje,” she said, deciding she needed his help.
“Good, because my mama wants to know who’ll be having her grandchildren,” he said with a laugh.
“They may be watching the storage unit,” she said, staying serious.
“I got that covered. Tell me where? Tell me what I need to get and give me the key,” he said. “Me and a few of the boys know how to take care of this. They’ll never even know we got into it.”
“Diversion?” she said.
“We’re good at that. Got to be creative when you’ve got the watchful eye of a mama,” he said with a grin. He had the whitest teeth.
Seroje took her storage unit key out of her pocket. She pulled a piece of paper out of her backpack and wrote down the combination to her safe and the address to the unit and the unit number.
“That’s the address and here is the key. There is a safe inside. Here’s the combination. Only one thing in there. A bag. I need the bag,” she said.
“One bag,” Tony said rising.
“Is there some place else I can sit?” she said. “Is there a park around here?”
“Mama, la porti nel giardino,” Tony said, rising and leaving back through the coffee shop.
“Vieni con me,” Mama said, rising and moving down the alley.
Seroje followed, swinging her backpack up over her shoulder, still holding the ice to her jaw. She wrinkling her nose as she passed the garbage bins.
Mama stopped short of the end of the alley at a door that seemed part of a tall building behind the shop buildings. Seroje followed her into an old looking elevator where Mama hit the button for the top floor. The elevator sounded rickety, but it had a current inspection sticker.
The elevator didn’t stop on any of the other floors in between and dinged its arrival at the top floor. Mama led her out, down the empty hall a short way to a staircase. The hallway carpet was green and threadbare. The door to the stairs was well-oiled and opened with only a soft creak. The stairs led up and out onto the roof through another well oiled door. The roof was covered in raised garden beds.
“Grazie,” Seroje said as she walked around the greenery. There were rows and rows of vegetables and there was even a raised bed of strawberries, long passed their berry time. In the middle of it all stood a large planter with a lime tree.
Seroje sat on the edge of one of the beds and breathed, closing her eyes. Mama’s footsteps faded away and the door to the roof opened and closed, but it didn’t matter if Seroje was alone or not. She had some peace, at least for a while.