Connor looked into Leyla’s warm, blue eyes and suppressed a shudder. They were standing in a storefront they had retooled to look like an upscale art gallery, and he couldn’t help but remember what the place had been like before he and Mickey had cleaned it up. There had been a foul smell from when some bum had squatted in it, using the place as a living space/latrine that had taken them the entirety of a week to scrub out. The linoleum that had been used for flooring was so old that it was turned brown from the years of dirt and grime that were collected. When they cleaned it, they found that it was the pukey green color of whirled peas. The walls had been defaced with paint, excrement, and some kind of blunt object, probably a baseball bat. As the final straw, they were forced to try to evict a raccoon who had somehow managed to take up residence in the ceiling tiles.
Not that even a single piece of that was visible now. The floors, which they covered with new, eggshell colored linoleum, were freshly waxed, the walls had a new coat of light blue paint, and the whole place smelled of fresh citrus. It had been over a week of grueling effort, but their toil had paid off big. They had actually talked the owner of the building into paying them to renovate the place with the added condition that they could use it for a few days for an ‘art exhibit.’ Mickey had expressed his preference of sinking a bunch of dough into a spot that was already nice. Connor had been adamant though, insisting that this was ‘giving back to the community.’ The truth was this was a little bigger than their usual fish, and he wanted to make sure they came out ahead even if the job went south.
Leyla looked around appreciatively at the space, which had already been laid out with paintings and sculptures. She moved from piece to piece, examining each one with curiosity. With one last look around the whole room, she came back to where Connor was still standing. “This is amazing! How did you do this?”
“There’s not a problem around that can’t be solved with a little elbow grease and creative thinking.”
“But what about the art? These are all original works.”
“Hm? Oh, that’s the easy part. All you gotta’ do is go to an art school and tell them you’re having a contest. They submit a piece, and the winner gets $1000. You can set the price to whatever you need to sweeten the pot. The thing of it is, everyone’s gonna make a thousand dollar work even though only one person will actually get the money. You can fill a whole gallery with pretty good stuff, but the cost is comparatively low.”
“Not too bad, Mr. Donnelly.” Leyla smiled at him, and his insides ached. They had been running small jobs, mostly heists, for nearly a year now. Nothing had really escalated; they were still just business partners. Connor had been trying to work up the guts to ask her out, but he was reticent. He had seen her date once or twice, and they looked more like hustles than relationships. It was better to be sure she wasn’t going to play him, but he couldn’t help but feel that pain like molten lava when she flashed her pearly whites.
“Well I do what I can to make you look good. Do you got the time locked down?”
“Yeah, curtain’s tomorrow. He’s taking me to dinner first at that new Asian fusion place that just opened up. That’s at six, so we’ll probably be out here between seven thirty and eight.”
“That sounds perfect, doll. Send me a warning text, and I’ll make sure everything’s set up. Do you remember everything you have to do?”
“Of course. I have to get him to buy one piece for five grand, and make sure he uses a check or a credit card for it.”
“That’s important. If he tries to bring a bunch of cash, make sure you get him to spend it somewhere. If you need help, send up a flare and I’ll figure out a way to fleece him.”
Leyla nodded, “I don’t think it will come up. I’ve never seen him carry cash.”
“Okay, and what’s the last bit?”
“I have to get him to kiss me in the gallery.”
“As much physical affection as you can get. That’s really important.”
“But why? And why do you need him to not use cash? There’s so many details you’re leaving out here, Connor.”
“It’s for your own good, doll. Just trust that I got all the angles covered.”
“Don’t you think I should know? I’m the one sticking her neck out for whatever it is you have planned.”
“None of this will come back on you, alright? You’re just gonna’ have to take my word on it.”
“Connor … “
“I said no.” He wasn’t yelling, but his tone was harder than the walls of a detention block. Leyla’s eyes pleaded with him for a few moments more, but finally she capitulated.
“So is there anything else we need to rehearse here?”
“Nah. You’re golden, dollface. You got the rest of the night off.”
“I need to make sure the dress I picked up isn’t gonna be out of place at the restaurant he’s taking me to. Can I get you to come over and do a costume check for me?”
He smiled warmly for a moment. “Of course. Though I’m sure you’ll be gorgeous. You got good taste.”
They started to walk out the door as she said, “It’s not only about looking good. I need to fit in, or it’ll be obvious that I’m not who I say I am. Lana Lemora has been to restaurants like this all the time. Sometimes I feel jealous of ‘Lana.’”
“Because she goes to restaurants with a dress code? I don’t even see the point of places like that.”
“It’s about being glamorous: the cream of the crop. You’re the best of the best and you prove it by going to the most exclusive places.”
“It just seems like a bunch of people patting their own backs to me, doll. But I’ll tell you what: if this job goes really well, we’ll pick up some snazzy duds and I’ll take you anywhere you want.”
There was a long, awkward silence that made Connor feel flush. He hadn’t really meant it to sound like a date, but he realized as soon as the words were out of his mouth that was what it sounded like. They walked along the sidewalk towards her van, the wordless gap between them creating a vacuum of angst and worry in Connor. He felt like several stars had been born and imploded in the sky before she finally spoke, “Dress to the nines and hit every gin joint and speakeasy in the county, eh?” Connor grimaced; she did this old school mobster voice whenever she was trying to make fun of him. It was truly terrible. “Gonna paint the town red, huh, kid? Pull out the ol’ wing tips? Fit back into that monkey suit? Get the line on all the saucy tomatoes in town?”
“You’re a riot, doll.” He was trying not to laugh, but she gave him a terrible version of the Betty Boop dance that made him smile. “Alright, it was a terrible idea.”
“Not so much a terrible idea as terrible execution.” She went back to her terrible mobster impression, “I’ve heard better lines than that from a silent movie.”
He felt like a dunce as they drove back to her place. He hadn’t intended to ask her on a date, but he had. She had repaid the favor by laughing and making jokes at him. He didn’t know exactly what he had expected. He had slipped up, and she had made him pay for it. That was probably the way it should be. It didn’t stop him from spending the rest of the car trip in sulky silence though. He stared out the window and contemplated the glass and the way the streetlamps managed to make the street she lived on look even more dingy and detestable than it did during the daytime. She parked the minivan, and her voice was tentative, “Did you still wanna’ come up?”
“Yeah, of course, don’t want you looking out of sorts when the mark takes you to that Asian fusion place. Besides, I’ve never actually seen your apartment before. I’m curious.”
She led him through the familiar courtyard and up the decrepit staircase where he had first suggested they do a job together. He’d always come up with restaurants or cafes for them to meet at when they were discussing a job, so this was the first time since that day he had walked these steps. It hadn’t even been a year, but it felt like that moment was a world away. He remembered the way she had looked in those shorts and halter on that first day.
It was a far cry from the woman in close fitted jeans and a trendy top that was ascending the stairs. She was more confident now, more assertive. She also was a much better liar. As she opened the door to her apartment, Connor was at least grateful that she hadn’t lied to him or strung him along when he asked her out. It was better to know where you stood than to lose all your money and dignity holding out hope for a dame that wasn’t ever going to reciprocate your feelings. Maybe she couldn’t. Maybe that part of her that could love had been lost in all the short cons and shiny misdirects. Maybe Connor had done that to her.
He was actually pretty surprised when she opened the door. Obviously the place was a big pile of terrible on the outside, but somehow he always pictured her as having the nicest, most well kept apartment on the inside. In his mind, on the other side of that old, worn door was a spacious suite of rooms with a four-poster bed, a huge antique vanity, and a living room/dinette with an overstuffed couch and a table which comfortably seated two. He was certain it would at least be well kept.
The apartment he found inside did not suffer from such an incongruous set change, however. It was cramped and dirty. Clothes were piled here and there, pizza boxes and leftover takeout cartons littered the floors, and one of the few cabinets had been left open with no dishes inside. Connor tried to wrap his mind around a girl so pretty having a place that was so ugly. It made him dizzy trying to process it.
She looked at him then looked around slightly chagrinned, “Well, this is home.”
“Jesus, Leyla. It’s … well, it is what it is.” He honestly couldn’t find the words.
“Yeah, sorry about the mess. I don’t ever seem to find the time to clean it.”
“I can imagine. Who has that many months free?”
“Anyway, let me go put on what I got. I’ll be back in a few.”
Connor looked around at the incredible squalor of Leyla’s apartment and fought the urge to start cleaning up right then and there. He wasn’t sure if she’d be offended or give him a medal, but he did know that cleaning somebody else’s stuff for them was a bad precedent. Do it once and they might start asking you over expecting a repeat performance. After several minutes that were filled with the sounds of clothes rustling and buckles jingling, Leyla finally came out. She was wearing a tight-fitting red dress with a generous amount of cleavage and a skirt that hemmed mid thigh. On top of that, she wore a series of interlocking bangles on one wrist, a tiny gold charm bracelet on the other, and a simple necklace with a ruby in it. Connor could feel his jaw drop.
“Obviously I haven’t done any hair or makeup, but what do you think?”
“I think, if you were a statue, I’d steal you.”
“Is it too much?”
“I’m not sure there is such a thing. Being so beautiful that the mark can’t take his eyes off of you only works in our favor.”
“So are you saying you can’t take your eyes off of me?” She intoned teasingly.
“Doll, the Pope wouldn’t be able to take his eyes off you. Jesus himself would take one look and say, ‘to hell with this Messiah bullshit.’”
She laughed at him. “Well there is one other outfit I thought might do the trick. Did you want to see it?”
“Is it better than this one?”
“Maybe not better, but still pretty good, I think.”
“Sure let’s see it.”
“Okay, I’ll need a few more minutes.”
He could hear the rustling of clothing again as he tried pointedly not to stare at the mess. Rather than coming out in a new outfit, she instead called out from the other room. “Alright, Connor, I’m ready.”
“Aren’t you coming out here?”
“No, come back here.”
The answer was obvious as Connor cleared the door into the one small bedroom. It certainly wasn’t a more elaborate outfit than the dress she had been wearing, but it improved upon the original in several key factors. “Oh … wow … um.”
“So what do you think? Would this be a good outfit for holding a man’s attention?” She slinkily strutted up to him, her bare hips swaying hypnotically.
“Let me put it this way: If you was the star in the Emperor’s New Clothes, the story would have ended with cheering instead of laughter.”
She smiled seductively at him then ran her hands up his chest and down his arms, removing his jacket. She started working on the buttons to his shirt as she said, “I think I would need a co-star for that story. Interested?”
He tried to kiss her, but she dodged his lips, pulling him to her neck instead. She moaned eagerly as he bit her neck. She finished with his shirt buttons and divested him of the garment. She pressed her body entirely up against him as she undid his belt. “Don’t gotta ask me twice, doll.”
He looked into her fathomless eyes for wordless minutes after they were done. Her look was passive and remote as she ran a hand up and down his back. He knew what she was doing. A series of unevenly spaced, horizontal lines about an inch wide ran up and down his back. Though the tissue had that leathery smooth texture that scar tissue always did, there were little divots that gave the area the feel of corrugated steel. He had seen her curiosity the moment that she had first scratched her hands down his back. Indeed it was always the first thing any woman noticed, which was why Connor wasn’t intimate with very many dames. How could he tell them that even them touching the scars momentarily returned him to his own personal hell of locked closets, starvation, and a rod heated white-hot. Something about Leyla’s caress calmed him, though. She touched Connor with a tenderness that would have caused him to purr if he were a cat.
She finally broke the silence of the afterglow, “What happened to you?”
“Fell down some midget stairs.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Come on Connor, you can tell me.”
“First tell me why you don’t like to be kissed.”
She looked down and away, “I … don’t like to talk about it.”
“Okay. Well how about this?” He fingered a jagged, three inch scar that ran down her shoulder. He had noticed a trace of it before, but she usually covered it with makeup which hid the size and severity of it. Looking at it now, it appeared to be some kind of stab wound.
Her look was petrified. “Don’t.”
“Don’t talk about that.” She covered the scar with her hand.
“I don’t understand.”
“Look, just promise me. You can’t ask about this ever again. Don’t talk about it and don’t look at it.” She looked like she was about to cry. It was crazy, but Connor relented.
“Yeah, of course, doll. Same with me and my back. We all got baggage here and there. Some of it’s physical and some of it’s mental, but talking about it just dredges up the memories of the people that gave us so much luggage to haul.”
She looked wistful. Her blue eyes almost cold and distant as she looked off into nothing. “Yeah, that’s true. I guess I should’ve thought of that.”
“No sweat, sweetheart. Let’s just make a deal: What’s in the past is in the past. If one party don’t bring it up, the other ain’t gonna pry.”
“Good idea. Though it seems to limit the subject matter some. Wait! I know.” She reached into the drawer and pulled out a glass pipe and a bag with some tiny crystals in it. She smiled conspiratorially at him.
Connor felt reticent. He had used before, but he usually shied away from the hard stuff. Her smile was inviting, though, and he didn’t want to kill the cozy mood he had wanted to get to for so long. “What is it?”
“Jesus. I didn’t know you did glass.”
“Not a lot, but it’s great for special occasions. Oscar hooks me up. You down?”
He grimaced for a moment, then committed, “Yeah, fine. Light it up.”
His heart sped as he took the first hit off the pipe. His mood lightened as the high took effect. The glory of the drug was indefinable as it wound its way through his body. It was like being happy, manic almost, and truly alive in a way that he hadn’t noticed before. The high was a great big glow that burned through him and crashed into him and pushed him up to new plateaus. He remembered talking or being talked at. He remembered having ideas that were new and vital and original. It wasn’t until the high faded that he realized that he couldn’t remember what the ideas were. He couldn’t remember what the rush felt like. All he knew was he was desperate to reclaim that feeling, but the supply was gone. Leyla was still slightly in a stupor, she leered half lidded at him with a smile on her face.
“So why sell the pictures to the detective? Why don’t we just use them for blackmail ourselves?”
“Because, if we blackmail him, he’ll trace it back to you. If he ever found you, you’d end up arrested or worse. The detective gives it to the mark’s wife. She pays a mint, because she’s gonna get everything in the divorce. So he pays us a handsome fee, and we don’t get no dirt back on us. You never wanna’ get any dirt on you.” Something felt wrong to Connor all of a sudden.
“Yeah, but we’d make ten times as much if we played it ourselves.”
“But with a hundred times more risk. Trust me, safe way’s the best way. There’s no such thing as an easy score.”
“Wait, how did you know about the blackmail part? That’s Brody’s part of the job.”
She looked confused. “We were just talking about it.”
“While we were high? You mean you were asking me for the extra details while I was tweaked?”
“Seemed like the only thing we had to talk about.”
“Is that why you invited me over here?” He could feel a sting somewhere in the center of his chest. It felt like betrayal. He wanted to cry, but they were tears of rage. “Is that why you took your clothes off? So that you could ply me and get the details of the job I wouldn’t share with you?”
“Connor, don’t be silly.”
“Silly? Okay, why do we need him to use a check or credit card?”
She looked away. He knew she knew. Finally she muttered, “Because Mickey knows a guy into identity theft.”
“Goddamnit Leyla.” He started putting his clothes on hastily.
“I can’t believe you tried to play me. What, you think I’m just another mark that you can con?”
“Maybe I thought we were partners. Partners share.”
“I share what gets the job done. If I don’t share, it’s to keep you or someone else safe. What if you did get pinched, huh?! How much do the cops find out when they start sweatin’ you? You can’t tell what you don’t know.”
“Goodbye, Leyla. I’ll see you tomorrow for the job.”
“Connor, I’m -” He didn’t hear the last part as he slammed the door behind him. He made it down the stairs before he finally put his shoes back on. Anger fueled his steps as he walked the considerable distance back home. It wasn’t so much that he was angry at her. He was angry at himself for being duped by the grifter he had trained.