The steam coming out of the shower filled the tiny, baby-blue tiled bathroom of Connor’s apartment with a thick fog. The vapor grew so dense that Connor could barely see his hands and body through the haze that surrounded him. He let the water pour over his head, its heat scalding him as it passed over his face and chest. It felt perfect, the warmth and the mist matching the feelings he had inside. He closed his eyes and drifted as he scrubbed away the dirt and grime from his body.
Part of him wanted to believe that it was all true. That Leyla liked him, loved him even. That she wanted to be with him and know hidden things about him and unclasp the secrets of her own heart to him. He wanted to believe that theirs was a fairytale romance for the ages. That they would finish this job and ride off into the sunset together. He desperately wanted to believe that, but he couldn’t.
As he cleaned the steam from the bathroom mirror, he was brought face to face with the first reason the whole thing didn’t track. Staring back in the reflection was … just some guy. Connor wasn’t ugly by any stretch, but he wasn’t a stand-in for Cary Grant either. He had brown hair, dark eyes, and pronounced cheekbones set into a face that always looked gaunt due to too much time malnourished as a child. He was short and lean and wiry. The exact opposite of a leading man, and anyone with any sense would see him next to a woman like her and tell him not to get his hopes up. He was trying not to get his hopes up. It wasn’t really working out that way.
Ever since they had become partners, he had held this secret hope that she might fall for him. Hell, since the moment he had first laid eyes on her, he wanted her on his arm. Everyone did, that’s just part of who she was. If she snapped her fingers, a doctor, a lawyer, and an underwear model would be at her door with a dozen roses and a ring with a rock the size of Mars begging her to marry them.
Everyone wanted her, and she knew that. Not only did she use that fact, she abused it. Ever since they had started working together, she had tried to use her looks to get him to give her a bigger cut. ‘I’m doing the hard part,’ she would say with a pout, then she would press up against him with a pleading smile.
He had seen more than a dozen men fall madly in love with her outside of the jobs they pulled. She had treated each one just like a mark, taking them for jewelry, trips, or personal favors. Once she had what she wanted, she cast them off like garbage. It was even worse when she was on the job. She tightened the noose so fast that the guys hardly knew what had happened by the time the last hurrah came around. How could you trust the feelings of a woman who used the affections of men for a living?
He dressed in a fresh set of clothes, thinking about the way her lips had felt on his. Had there been a vulnerability there when she opened up to him? Maybe a little bit of truth had grown through all the lies they were laying down like a flower straining for the sun out of a crack in the broken pavement.
He wished there was some mood lighting or a symbolic costume to give him the cue on whether she was the bad girl waiting to screw him over or the dame with a heart of gold from the other side of the tracks waiting for the right guy to open up her secret heart. Even a lens filter would give him a better clue than this dance of prodding words and misdirections they had built around each other.
Coming out of the bathroom into the tiny cigar box that some people would call a studio apartment, Connor pulled his jacket off of the bed. There really wasn’t much to the old place: four white, bare walls, a tiny desk in one corner with a little TV on it, a set of drawers in the other, a kitchenette, which had seen only minimal use, and a bed that took up the bulk of the space. Even as bare as it was, Connor had to sidle around the bed to retrieve his jacket from where it had been flung. He didn’t really care. It was just a place to hang his hat until his ship came in.
He double checked the jacket pockets to make sure he had his gloves, picks, and lubricant. The rest he had left in Leyla’s rust bucket of a van, so he had to content himself with checking the small items he had kept on his person. He tried to distract himself by going over the steps of the heist. There was nothing to do with all these thoughts about the girl. No way to work through the maze of lies to find the truth. She was like him: she played the confidence game. You could never trust a con, even if that con was your partner.
With his jacket on and collar turned up, Connor only had one thing left to do at the tiny studio apartment he called home. He went to the dresser, pulled out the t-shirt drawer, and opened the tiny compartment he had behind it. It was always good to have a slip where people wouldn’t look, and this one was perfect in his opinion. Even if someone thought to check the chester drawers that took up the corner of the tiny space, most people looked in the underwear drawer. He took a twenty out of the slip and a wallet with a fake ID. Finally he put his real wallet in the space and closed it back up. Replacing the t-shirt drawer, he made sure it looked perfectly undisturbed before he put the wallet in his pocket.
He hadn’t always switched out IDs before a job, but one time they had been preparing a heist and a cop had checked him at a DUI checkpoint. Naturally, once the robbery had been reported, they came calling on some of the people that came through that checkpoint. They didn’t ask more than a few cursory questions, but Connor didn’t like the cops getting that close to him. Maybe it was just paranoia, but he preferred it when they stayed in their circle and he in his.
Money for the bus and any incidental expenses, a fake ID, and tools of the trade, everything was checked off. He took a last look around at the small, tidy space. Aside from a few dishes in the sink, everything seemed to be in its place. Connor locked the deadbolt behind him as he left and meandered down the stairs of the complex.
He lived on the eighth floor of a building that basically packed people in like a hoarder packs shoe boxes. The walls were thin, the paint was peeling, and the elevator never worked. Not that it mattered. Connor always preferred to take the stairs so he would have an escape option. As he descended the chipped, worn down staircase with its rusty banister, he thought about the kind of place he’d like to set up in once this job was over. He never was one for mansions, but at least a place where he didn’t have to hear every argument of the Brazilian couple next door would be nice. By this point he had almost learned Portuguese. Well, mostly just the cuss words.
Coming out the main door to the complex, he checked the time to see how long he’d have to wait for the bus. He estimated that he would have just enough time to make change at the newsstand on the corner before it got to his stop. He was so busy concerning himself with the how-to’s and wherefores of getting on the bus that he didn’t notice the two large guidos, both with a disturbing lack of neck, until he had almost smacked into them.
“Boss says he wants to see you.” The obvious speaker of the group intoned.
“Why would Joey want to see me? I don’t owe him any money, do I?”
“Don’t know, you just have to come with us.” The tall, muscular man didn’t so much say his words as punch them with his mouth. He was wearing a ribbed shirt that showed off the pulse in his muscles. The strain in the man’s body told Connor that, no matter what, he would be seeing Joey today. If he didn’t go with a smile, he could count on getting some broken teeth.
“Yeah, of course, I would love to see Joey. You’re driving, though. I ain’t got a car, you see, and, besides, you boys would just block my ability to see through the rearview mirror.”
“Shut up. We’re supposed to drive you anyway.”
As they showed him to an old, boxy Lincoln, Connor’s hopes sank. If they had been instructed to take him in their own vehicle, there had to be the chance that he wasn’t going to be leaving Joey’s under his own power. Had it been a friendly visit, he would have been allowed to take his own vehicle to show that he could go home whenever he wanted. A forced pick-up meant that this was not a social call; Connor was in trouble.
His worry only heightened when the silent partner of the speaking strongman began to drive slowly and conservatively. They didn’t want their car to be noticed driving away from his neighborhood. He watched every building pass by in agonizing slowness as they drove the six blocks towards the little strip mall filled with three businesses, all of which were owned by Joey Malone. It felt like the last coffin nail when they opened the door that stood in the very center. No restaurant wining and dining, no law office meeting, Connor was having his face time with Joey in the butcher shop. Connor tried to take it in stride.
“Hey, thanks for the lift, boys. You want me to pick you up a ribeye while I’m in there? Maybe a sausage or two?”
“No, thank you.”
He at least had to give the neckless wonders points for politeness, even if they lacked in conversationalism. He opened the door and wandered past the counter and into the back. Joe’s Butcher Shop actually did pretty good business despite being a laundering outfit for some of Joey’s shadier dealings. As such there were rows and rows of carcasses in the back hanging on hooks. The staff was busy moving and separating the meat into the various cuts or feeding it into grinders to make sausage or hamburger.
He pressed on through the mill of meatpackers to come to the very back room. It may have been an office at one time, but Joey had converted it into his own private butcher room. It held nothing but a tile floor with a separate drain, a series of hooks and chains, a long, metal table, and a small, rolling tray on which sat the implements of the trade. The whole crime-boss butcher schtick felt a tad cliche to Connor, but someone like Joey knew how to apply cliches and melodrama to get the best effect.
The man was there now, dressed head to toe in a white butcher’s uniform and preparing to carve up a side of beef. The high-pitched ring of steel was piercing as he honed the edge of a particularly nasty looking cleaver. As Connor passed into the small room, the doors were shut behind him, and he was left there, cut off and alone, with Joey and his impressive array of cutlery.
“Connor! Just the man I wanted to see.”
“Joey! How the hell are you?” Connor watched nervously as the man proceeded to hack through a slab of meat with the cleaver. He split all the way through with one great whack, blood misting onto the white apron on his front.
“Oh, y’know, business is good, always something to do. What about you?’
“Same old, same old, just doing what I do.”
“Yeah, that’s not what I hear.”
“Oh, really?” He tried to sound unassuming.
“Word on the street is: Connor Donnelly’s got something big in the works.”
Connor laughed nervously, “Ha ha, Joey, that’s pretty funny. I don’t know who would have told you something like that, but they’re telling tales out of school.”
Joey hacked through another piece, bones crunching as they were severed with a sharp crack. “Connor, you know how I feel about liars, don’t you?”
“Of course I do, Joey.”
“Do you really?”
“How do I feel about liars?”
“You feel lying is a violation of trust, and, if you can’t trust someone, you can’t work with them.”
“And if I can’t work with them, then I would be remiss if I let them run about doing as they pleased. Now, I like you Connor, I’ve always felt like I could trust you. I can trust you, can’t I?”
“Of course, Joey. I’d never lie to you.”
“So you’re telling me now that you aren’t planning a job?”
“No, I didn’t say that. I got a score lined up, but it’s small potatoes. Just my usual goof. Trick a guard, rig a door, then smash and go.”
“So it’s small time?”
“Yeah, nothing to worry your head over.”
“And I have your word on that?”
“Scout’s honor, Joey.”
“And when Nicky comes to me saying that you picked up a diamond-tipped drill?”
“That’s just so I don’t have to do my normal safe-cracking.”
“Then Dan tells me that you’ve just bought a water-saw?”
“Uh, that’s just …”
“And Old Man Martin sends me a note saying you had a chat with him about building a mirror assembly to take out a laser grid. How’s that supposed to look to me, Connor?”
Connor was now distinctly aware of how confining the space that he was sharing with a cleaver-wielding madman was. He had really hoped that by spreading out his acquisitions that he could avoid Joey finding out. Instead it looked like every person in town had lined right up to squeal on him. The look on Joey’s face was livid. He had dropped the friendly act completely. Connor swallowed to clear the lump in his throat before speaking. “Look, Joey…”
“So I want you to tell me one more time, Connor. Do you have a big job planned?”
“I don’t know.”
Joey gritted his teeth as he hacked through the slab of meat several times. “Come again?”
“The place I’m hitting. There’s no way to see what’s inside until I get there. I picked up all that stuff to make sure that I’d have the right tool no matter what the situation.”
“And you think it might have lasers? That don’t sound like no small-time job to me, Connor.”
“It could be big; it could be nothing. I didn’t wanna’ get your hopes up if it turned out to be vapor. You know I wouldn’t cross you. You’ll get your cut, like always.”
Another great thwack and the meat was split again, “Oh, I’ll get my cut, and I should be satisfied with that?”
Connor could feel his back up against the door. “I could even go double if it will make you happy, Joey.”
“Connor, who runs this neighborhood?”
“You do, Joey.”
“Yes, I do. And I like my neighborhood to be a well oiled machine. You’re a fastidious man, so I know you know what I’m talking about.”
“You can see why it might be a problem, then, if someone in my neighborhood decided to go behind my back and plan a job without informing me of it. Especially when that job is above the scope of their normal work.”
“Mhmmm.” Connor’s throat was starting to feel really dry.
“I mean, if you get caught because you’re getting too big for your own britches, that could lead back to me, couldn’t it?”
“I won’t get caught.”
“Of course not. After all, how many laser grids have you snuck past to this point?” Joey’s tone was a mocking sarcasm that had extra bite due to the boning knife he was currently using to trim the fat off a cut of steak.
“... None, Joey.”
“That’s what I thought. Now, I like initiative, Connor, you know that. When you convinced that little blondie to run the short game with you, I applauded you for taking the step forward yourself, didn’t I?”
“But there’s a fine line between ambition and stupidity, my friend. Now you want to move onto big heists, maybe you can even pull it off, but you not telling me makes me feel like I can’t trust you so much any more. You understand?”
“I promise that you can trust me, Joey.”
Joey stabbed the slicing knife into the slab of meat, “Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?”
“You wanna’ run the big games, you gotta’ show me you can handle the big games.”
“How do I do that?”
“I got a different policy for the big boys in town. I don’t want a percentage. I have a straight fee. You pay the fee, you have my permission to do that job. You don’t pay it, well, let’s just say that you will not find this a ‘hospitable’ working environment.”
“How much is the fee?”
Joey dipped his finger and began to write out large, messy numbers across the wall:
Zero. Blood oozed down the wall as Joey turned back from the sanguine scrawling.
“Ten large!” Connor gaped, “I don’t got that kind of scratch on me, Joey.”
“I didn’t figure you did, Connor, so I’m prepared to do you a favor.”
“I will let you do this job, and you can pay me by the end of the week.”
“But, Joey, I don’t even know if this is that big of a job. I might break in and find five bucks and a pack of mothballs.”
“That’s always the risk with big jobs, ain’t it? Sometimes you hit the big score; sometimes you come up empty handed. That’s why I started asking for the fee in the first place: so I get paid no matter what your fortunes may be.”
“Yeah, but what do I do if it turns out to be another small time score?”
“Honestly, Connor, I don’t care what you do.” He had taken to carving up another piece of meat with the slicing knife. “You just make sure that, if you come back here, you have ten grand in your hands. Otherwise, I would not want to be you. You feel me?”
“Yeah, I feel you.”
“Alright, you have yourself a real good day, Connor. Best of luck on your new endeavor. I will see you at the end of the week.”
“Yeah, see you then, Joey.”
Joey pressed a button on the wall and the door opened. Connor’s steps were so quick that he almost ran over two of the staff on his way out. Just great, he thought to himself, I gotta make good on this job or figure out a way to come up with ten grand.
He tried to consider how much money he had socked away. He probably could hit at least the ten thousand mark if he combined his dirty money with the clean money in his bank account, but then he’d be completely wiped out. The thought of coming so close to greatness then getting pushed back to square one irritated him. He contemplated the possibility of running if the job went south and realized that it wasn’t an option. Better to live off ramen and tears than face Joey’s ire. Even if he skipped town, the man had a long reach.
The two Mr. Universe wannabes were still waiting for him outside. If they were surprised to see him still alive and in one piece, they didn’t show it. Rather they just opened the door to the boxy Lincoln without a word. Connor wished that he could refuse their generous offer, but knew that it wasn’t in the cards. Instead he decided for glibness, “Sorry boys, they didn’t have any sausage for you. Something about switching their operation to making soy products.”
The talkative one blinked and said, “Get in.”
“Thanks, you certainly are kind gentlemen. Say, can you drop me off downtown?”
As the car began its slow, steady drive, Connor ruminated over the mess that he had somehow found himself in. A girl who he couldn’t trust that may or may not have feelings for him, a greedy crime-boss with a penchant for meat carving, and a heist that may or may not set him for life. He shook his head as he looked out the window. No matter what happened, it was going to be one hell of a week. When the Lincoln finally rolled to a stop, Connor flashed a smile and a ‘thanks’ then headed down towards Securities, Ltd. He needed some food, a cup of coffee, and some time to implement the part of the plan that he hadn’t told Leyla about.