Connor was more than a block away by the time he saw the ambulance arrive for Mickey. As much as he wanted to stay and see if his pal was alright, he knew how it would look if they found the tools that he had in his bag. He and Mickey would both be questioned and probably arrested just as soon as the doctors had finished treatment. Besides, Connor had come out of the crash remarkably free of injury. His legs and side hurt some, and he was a bit dizzy; but otherwise he was the picture of health. He continued down the street towards Leyla’s apartment, trying to consider his options.
He was about ready to just go home and try to sleep off this lousy day. She didn’t want him following her; that much was clear. As best as he could figure, she must have seen them in the distance behind her then pulled off onto a side street to ambush them. It worried Connor that she would take such drastic measures, but mostly it just pissed him off. Two and a half years together, and this is what it had come to. He absentmindedly mused about what he would do if he did manage to catch up to her.
He didn’t really have an answer, but something inside him told him that he needed to try. At the very least she deserved a good sock in the arm for him and a punch to the face for what she’d done to Mickey. He grimaced as he thought about Mickey. He had been alive when Connor had checked him, but who ever really knows with things like car accidents. Would he be able to look at himself in the mirror if Mickey died over this and he hadn’t done anything to find the broad that put him down? Having decided, he hailed a taxi and gave the driver Leyla’s address.
As the taxi sped towards that terrible neighborhood, Connor hated himself. He couldn’t stop himself from worrying about her. The girl that had just tried to kill him and Mickey both, the girl who had run and left him behind. He tried to turn all the worry and heartache into a big, burning ball of hate in his stomach. It didn’t really work. As much as he wanted to, he just couldn’t manage to find a way to hate her. It bothered him to think that she had gotten so deep down into his heart that he couldn’t even feel properly vengeful. What was wrong with him?
He was too late by the time he had bounded up the steps to Leyla’s apartment. He knew it the moment he arrived. The door was still open, and Connor could see that the inside was slightly more disheveled than it had been that morning.
He went inside anyway, a morbid kind of anguish driving him. The drawers had been opened and some of the clothes that had been in piles on the floor had been taken as well. The boxes where Leyla kept most of her jewelry were gone, and the majority of the toiletries were missing also. It looked like a rush job. There were still bottles of shampoo and such here and there, knocked over haphazardly. Clothes remained behind, half-pulled from their drawer.
Any other person might not be able to tell amidst all the mess, but Connor saw that Leyla had packed up and rushed out in a hurry. She had been afraid, he realized, so afraid that she nearly killed Mickey and him and had taken off like a bat out of hell. What could inspire that much fear in a person?
He had told the cab to wait when he had taken off. Still, he was pleasantly surprised to find it still idling there when he came back down. This wasn’t a kind neighborhood, and Connor wouldn’t have blamed a joe for motoring off rather than risking a car-jacking. He tried to think of where she might go as he crossed the courtyard back to the taxi.
He considered what he knew. If she was as scared as he thought, she’d want to lie low. She’d need some money to do that, though. She should be set there. Connor had socked aside probably about twelve or thirteen grand throughout their partnership if he counted dirty money. Then again, Leyla wasn’t the spendthrift he was. In a rush, he realized exactly where she would go. He leaped back into the car and told the cabby to step on it.
Gone. Every last dollar he had in his apartment was gone. He had made it back to his place to find the door slightly ajar. Leyla hadn’t even done him the courtesy of tossing the place to make it look like a robbery. She had gone right to his dresser, pulled out the drawer -the same one she had gotten his old t-shirt from- and taken all of his money from the hidden compartment behind it. Worse yet, she had taken his real wallet out as well.
He threw down the bag next to his bed. He was starting to feel a little irritated now. He had nothing left to pay the cabby except for what was left of the twenty he had brought. He gave the guy what he had and used a money-counting con to stretch it so it was enough. It always surprised him how eye contact made that scam work every time. He had counted and broke the five and ten twice each before it was over.
It rankled him a bit, having to cheat a fellow who’d done him an honest turn, but he was at least grateful that the fare hadn’t been more than his grifting skills could handle. With the taxi taken care of and his last money gone, he ran towards the bank. It was only a block and a half away and there was at least half a chance that Leyla might still be there. It was his very last opportunity to catch her before she was gone forever.
As he rounded the corner, he saw that someone was standing by the ATM. He could barely make out the back half of a vehicle parked on the corner that might have been a minivan. He ran up the sidewalk, heedless and strangely hopeful. He came closer, making out blonde hair, and kept running. Closer still and he could see the black outfit that she had been wearing, so he picked up his pace. He was so close now he could practically see the sweat on her skin, and he broke into a sprint. He slowed to a halt, and for a moment he thought he saw the warm, blue eyes of Leyla staring into his. They drew him in, embracing him in their azure heat, and he could hear a voice saying, “Hello, Connor.”
But he blinked and she was gone, an image created entirely of wishful thinking. He walked up to the ATM and found his wallet there on the ground in front of it. His card and ID were still inside, so he put his code and debit card into the machine. The screen confirmed what he had suspected. The bright, blue number $7.55 stood large like the last right-cross to the jaw that finally ends a boxing match. He was cleaned out, totally and completely. All that he found inside the wallet was a note that read:
Don’t Hate Me.
He had no partner, one of his oldest friends was in the hospital, and he barely even had the money to buy a beer, let alone pay back Joey. A beer sounded really good actually. He had never been a man for drowning his sorrows; he always figured it was better to spend your energy trying to fix your circumstances rather than getting plastered. Now he could see the appeal, however. Some problems couldn’t be fixed. Some circumstances were just broken from the start. Connor walked back home and and slumped down on the bed, defeated.
It was nearly midday before Connor worked up the motivation to get out of bed. For awhile he just laid there, staring at the ceiling and thinking about absolutely nothing. What was the point? When he did finally rouse himself, it was only the thought of the accident that motivated him. When he closed his eyes, he saw visions of blood on a steering wheel and felt concern for the man to whom that blood belonged. He needed to be sure that Mickey was okay. As he came down from the apartment, he was grateful that the blonde had at least left him his bus pass. Too bad he didn’t have money to get a magazine or flowers or whatever it was people got friends in the hospital.
When the final bus dropped him off just down outside the hospital, he was grateful. Busses were slow, and he had too many bitter thoughts on his mind. In four days Joey was going to have his head on a spike. He had trouble figuring out if he should be scared about that fact or grateful that the crime boss was willing to finish the job that the dame had left unfinished. At that moment he didn’t care either way. He just wanted to know that one of his only friends in this world was okay before he ended up leaving it.
The hospital was one of those massive, multi-story affairs. Connor didn’t know why, but those types always gave him the creeps. The big windows just looked like they were staring down at him somehow, causing a vague sense of unease, like he was looking into a future he didn’t really want to see.
Inside, the hospital had that same smell that every hospital seemed to. Connor could never actually figure out what went into that smell. Somewhere in the intersection between the antiseptic and the urine and the terrible, terrible food an odor existed that was a composite of all three but also entirely different from them. It was one of those smells that set off a sense-memory in every single person that ever walked in. For Connor, it was the memory of a line going flat and a door slamming shut on the future. The image did nothing to improve his fugue of ire and depression. He walked through the halls empty, angry, and jaded. It was a real struggle to put on a smile when he finally rounded into Mickey’s room.
“Hey! How you doin,’ Mick?” Mickey, Connor had found out at the desk, had been transferred from ICU after a night of observation. He had a broken arm, some broken ribs, and a concussion.
“Connor.” Mickey’s voice sounded weak and small. It hurt Connor to hear him so diminished. “You’re actually my first visitor for the day.”
“Oh really? I woulda thought that no-good wife of yours woulda at least made the rounds by now.”
“Ha. She thinks me bein’ in the hospital is a mini-vacation. She’s probably got two or three guys over there already.”
“Eh, she don’t know what she’s missing, Mickey. If you was smart, you’d kick that little hussy to the curb.”
“Maybe. Maybe I shoulda at least listened when you wanted to do the same to Leyla.”
Connor felt his mood blacken. “We don’t have to talk about her.”
“No, we do. Connor, I’m really sorry. You pay me. You say ‘watch the blonde and make sure she don’t try to pull nothin.’ I shoulda listened to you. I guess I just got taken in by her.”
“We all did, Mick. We all did. Don’t you even worry about that.”
“You didn’t. Do you got any plans for paying Joey?”
“Yeah. I got it all figured out, Mick.”
“Who you got lined up for it? I’m afraid I’m in the hospital for at least two or three more days, they said, otherwise I’d be all over a quick scam. Frankly it’s the least I could do.”
“Hey, forget about it, and don’t call me Frank Lee.” Mickey smiled at him as Connor continued, “I got everything lined up perfect, just you wait. It’ll be the best short game I ever ran. You just get better, Mickey. I’ll probably take a bit of R and R once I got Joey paid off, so you do whatever you want. I don’t expect I’ll be callin’ for a little while.”
“Yeah, of course. Just promise me you’ll take care of yourself, Connor.”
“Hey, that’s what I’m best at, isn’t it?”
Connor hung out for a little while longer, making small talk. When he finally did leave, he knew it was probably the last time he would ever see his friend again. As he walked out and waited for the next bus, he reflected on how strange their friendship might seem to outsiders. Mickey was quite a bit older than Connor and, other than the thieving, they didn’t really have much in common. Mickey was loud and open and too trusting for a crook. Connor was sarcastic and suspicious. But the first time they met, Connor knew they would be pals.
Mickey was sitting at a little cafe on the corner where Connor had been picking pockets. He wasn’t having much luck, everyone was steering clear of him. He was fresh out of juvie, and the ‘don’t mess with me’ look he had perfected inside was more burden than asset on the outside. Mickey had laughed at him. Connor, only 18 at the time, was hugely upset by the slight.
“What you laughin’ at, old man?” was the first thing he had ever said to the olive skinned fellow.
“You’re trying to play the lift game as if you could scare the wallets out of them. You gotta blend in more, kid. Little thing like you, that should be easy.”
“Yeah, they used to call me the thumbtack, because you don’t notice me until it’s dark; then I bite you on the foot.”
Mickey had just laughed. “Come here. I’ll buy you a slice, and you can tell me how such a tiny guy comes to look so mean.”
And that was all there was to it. Maybe Connor should have been more discerning than to make friends with the first person that bought him a pizza, but he honestly couldn’t have asked for a more loyal pal. Maybe there isn’t more to friendship than that, He thought. You latch onto the first person who’s even remotely nice and from there it’s a gamble.
If that were the case, maybe he had won so big with Mickey that Leyla was bound to come along just to tip the scales back into balance. He was just grateful that the man would still be in the hospital and would never know what terrible fate would eventually befall Connor. It felt defeatist to think so, but he couldn’t help it. After yesterday, the closest he could come to optimism was hoping Mickey would remain clueless, thinking Connor was just ‘laying low’ forever. In a way that was true, he guessed.
It was the later part of the afternoon when the bus finally wheeled around to where he planned on spending the rest of the evening. He walked down the street to the old familiar sign and shoddy looking exterior of Nattie’s bar. It was pretty much empty, as always, just one person mostly passed out at the far end of the bar. The crappy TV had a very fuzzy image of some kind of horse race while the jukebox hummed a sad country song to itself in the background. The atmosphere was exactly what he had wanted. Connor sat up at the other end, giving a small, unenthusiastic wave to the bar’s proprietor as the large, redheaded man came up to him.
“What’ll it be, Connor?”
“Pitcher of beer, Nattie, whatever’s cheap.”
“Don’t usually see you here so early.” Nattie put a pint glass in front of Connor and began filling a plastic pitcher with a droopy, yellow liquid that seemed almost unwilling to leave the tap.
“Well, you know, Nat. Sometimes there’s bad days and sometimes there’s days that make you question your whole existence in a very real and fundamental way. I prefer to start drinking early on those days, otherwise I might have to come up with some actual answers to those questions.”
“Buy a bar. Then the drinking and the answers are the same thing.”
Connor poured out some of the beer that Nattie had slammed upon the bar. It trickled flatly from the pitcher into the glass in a useless limp that never even bothered to hint at foam. Connor sympathized with the beer, but drank it anyway. It was warm and flat, but he couldn’t have cared less. “You really do have the right idea, because you don’t have to rely on anyone. You just open your bar, you serve your drinks, and you go home. That really is a golden ticket to paradise right there.”
Nattie smirked. “Ah, you must be having lady problems.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Everyone wants to own a bar when they have lady problems.”
“Always. I’m always having lady problems, because the lady is the problem. Why did I trust her, Nat? I mean, I knew she was no good. So why didn’t I make the right call all the way back when I first met her? Why didn’t I cut and run?”
“Because you wanted something from her. That’s how it is with women. You want it; they have it; and they got power over you until you realize it.”
“Ain’t that the truth, and they know they have you. That’s the worst part of it. She did, you know. She knew she had me right from moment one. She knew if I was playin’ smart I’d see it right away, because it was one of the first things I ever taught her. But I didn’t and now I’ve got no one to blame but myself.”
“What was it?”
“The thing you taught her, what was it?”
“There’s no such thing as an easy score.”