I’m not the only one who notices when he enters the dive. I watch him with intent, narrowed eyes as he pushes his way past the drunks crowding the door. Here at The Blinder, scumbags, killers, thieves, whores, liars, miscreants, recalcitrant beings and generally foul people are routine. This one doesn’t belong. He’s too neat. Too clean. Looks like honest money.
He stands erect, but casual, as he retrieves an antique gold fob watch from the pocket of his tailored suit. The stench of the place hits him as he studies the hands. His nose scrunches up and a cough escapes him as he settles the watch back in his pocket and returns the collective glance he’s getting from the boys by the pool table. If I had any doubts, they’re gone now.
He’s from the Quarters, this one.
I can smell the egotism from here. The overlap of incandescent and neon lights bouncing off his pale flesh belies his figure better than any spotlight. I recognize this asshole. Calls himself Silver Tongue Thomas McKinney. I sink into the shadows. Light a cigarette.
He’s here for me, the poor bastard.
Daniel said someone would be joining me. Never said anything about a fucking paddy, though.
Thomas clears his throat. Stares down the boys at the pool table, eyes squinting in the smoky air. Unsatisfied, he breathes deeply and speaks powerfully. “I want to speak with the Vancise family.”
One by one, the patrons of the bar twist in their seats. Their wary eyes lead him straight toward me. Great. I crane my neck, adjust my weight on the seat, and let confrontation sweep over me.
He stops in front of my table, hands in pockets, eyes straining to discern my figure through the shadows. He forms his opinion of me before we even get to talkin’, a supercilious smirk forming on his thin lips. He glares down at me and my pale thin body that I hide beneath dark, tattered clothing. His eyes take in the blood stains on my t-shirt. The scars on my face. The dirt on my hands. He begins to walk away, but stops mid-step and says, “I was told I could find a Vancise or two here.”
I’m never what they expect.
“Congratulations,” I say, my voice low with the rasp of smoke. “You found one.”
“You work for the Vancise family?”
“What are you, their secretary?”
I don’t bother correcting him. The sudden silence in the bar is answer enough.
Thomas shuffles his weight, as if he can already feel the daggers drilling into his spine. A short bark of nervous laughter escapes him before he manages to compose himself. Without asking, he sits down opposite me. Pushes his chair in. Makes himself nice and comfortable.
He flashes me a smile that I’m sure he thinks is charming. “Might I ask who I have the pleasure of addressing?”
I bring my beer up to my mouth, set my lips around its neck, all the while meeting his eyes. The men behind him step closer. I tilt my head to the left, let them know it’s okay to stand down. I finish off the bottle, run the back of my hand across my lips, and lean forward. Thomas recoils at my breath, but I don’t take insult. Our brew may not have the best taste, but it gets the job done.
“The name’s Bee,” I mumble past the cigarette between my lips. I twitch a smile at Thomas and glance around at the good patrons of the bar. One by one, they look away.
That’s right, boys. Leave this prick to me.
“And you’re a Vancise?”
I blow a puff of smoke in his face. Try to ignore the tension building in my shoulders. “Half of one.”
“Ah.” His smile pulls at the crows’ feet beneath his eyes. “You’re the bastard. Daniel’s.”
I smile at him as I exhale. “You should probably just call me Bee.”
“Right. Bee it is.” He shoots me another thousand-watt smile. “Is there perhaps someone else I could speak to, Bee? I’ve come a long way and I—”
“I know who you are, so you can go ahead and stop right there. I may only be half a Vancise, but that’s more than you or anyone else in this shit hole can boast. You wanna get word to my family? Then you gotta say it to me. Best to start talkin’. I ain’t got all night and they’re gonna be makin’ the last call soon.”
He recoils as if struck. “But… you’re a woman.”
“Trust me darlin’, I’m still more of a man than you are. Sit down and start talkin’ or turn around and leave. Your choice.”
His frown turns to a scowl then, jaw set in a harsh line. “I won’t stand for this,” he says in a voice devoid of intonation.
I return his emotionless volley. “Good thing you’re sittin’ down then, eh? And I’d stay seated if I were you. I pulled a knife as soon as you sat your paddy ass down. Try to leave now and I’ll cut your balls off.” I lean forward. Cut the seam of his pants and press the tip of the blade against his crotch. “Now that we’ve got the introductions out of the way, why don’t you tell me why you’re here?”
To his credit, he doesn’t flinch. Doesn’t even reach up to wipe the sweat off his brow. Slowly, he sets his hands flat on the table and then laces his fingers together. “I’m here on behalf of Calvin Dayton.”
“Never heard of him.”
“He and Daniel are old friends.”
“My father doesn’t have any friends.”
“He used to,” Thomas says, the first hint of desperation sinking into his voice. “Before the war.”
I consider that for a moment. “And what does this old friend of Daniel’s want from the Vancise family?”
“I have an envelope here for you,” he says. “If you put the knife away, I’d be happy to pass it over.”
I smile then, just the faintest twitch of lips, and ease the blade off his balls. “Let’s see it, then.”
Thomas reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a manila envelope which he places on the table and slides forward. I take it and reveal the contents, shuffling through the stack of green bills.
“Ten thousand,” he says. “Cash.”
I don’t bother counting it. “I expect Mr. Dayton isn’t giving this up out of the goodness of his heart?”
Thomas wets his lips before speaking as slow, calm, and steady as possible. “Mr. Dayton was hoping this would express his sincerest apologies.”
“Victoria,” he says and he nearly chokes when he finally looks up at me. “My God. You don’t know, do you?”
I meet his gaze as I stub out my cigarette and produce another. He’s shaking, now. The sweat is running down his brow. That’s how I know things are going to get ugly. I pull off my jacket and start rolling up my sleeves as I say, “This money is for Victoria Vancise? My cousin has quite the reputation. She’s always been a heart breaker, that one. Alright. What’d your boss do? Rough her up in the sack? Knock her up?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Calvin’s sons, they… well, boys will be boys. Sometimes those two lose control. It’s my understanding that they didn’t know who the girl was when they picked her up.”
I get a sick feeling, then. “What did they do, Thomas?”
He’s speaking quickly, now. “I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a fair price. It will cover the cost of the funeral in full. The coroner and his team have already been paid off, as have the police.”
“What did they do to Vicky, Thomas?”
“I’m very sorry that I’m the one who has to tell you this,” he says.
I shake my head. Put a hand up. “Don’t tell me that. Don’t you fucking tell me that. I don’t want to hear that. You’re sorry? I don’t fucking care how sorry you are. I want you to tell me what these boys did to my cousin. Now. You tell me now.”
“I assumed as much when you mentioned buying off the fucking coroner. Now, that’s not what I asked you, is it? I asked you to tell me what these boys did to my cousin.” Two of the boys from the pool table start walking toward us. I get to my feet and point the blade in their direction. “Did I ask for your assistance? No. So don’t take another fucking step.” I turn my attention back to the slicked-up rat in front of me. “I want you to tell me what they did to my cousin and I don’t want you to spare a single gory detail, you got that?”
He does his best impression of a bobble-head and the words begin to fall off his lips, “They took her. Grabbed her off the street right here in the Wilds. It’s where they find all the girls. They saw Victoria and took a liking to her so they brought her back to their place in Magnolia and…” His voice trails off. He shakes his head. Looks down at his hands. “I’m not sure how to put this delicately.”
“I didn’t ask you for delicacy. I want you to be as blunt with me as you would if I’d been born with a cock between my legs.”
He cringes at my choice of words. Swears under his breath and then looks up to meet my eyes. “They raped her. They took turns. When they were done, they beat her. When she could take no more… when she begged for death, they cut off her head and dumped her body in the Sound. They recorded the whole thing. You’ll find some coordinates inside that envelope. That’s where you’ll find her body.” As soon as the words leave his throat, he exhales and leans back in his seat. “We will, of course, get her head back to you so that you can give her a proper burial. Mr. Dayton would like to meet with Daniel, if possible. To discuss this and… other business.”
I find myself nodding my head. As if everything he just said was perfectly reasonable. I put the knife back in its sheath. Grab a beer out of the hand of a man standing to my left. Thomas watches me all the while. Wide eyed and tight lipped. His hands have left sweat marks on the table. He looks like a battered housewife, the way he keeps glancing at my waist as if he’s expecting me to pull off the belt. “This old friend of Daniel’s… he has other business to discuss, then?” I keep my voice calm. My posture relaxed.
“Yes. He would like to buy a piece of land here in the Wilds, if he and your father can find the right price. He intends to build a resort, of sorts. A sanctuary for people like us to—”
He doesn’t have time to spit out the next word. I’m on my feet, taking the bottle from my mouth and swinging it against the table and up to Thomas’s neck in one fluid movement. I grab the chair he’s sitting in and lean it back, balancing him between a concussion and a slit throat. I wait for his mind to catch up before I speak.
“People like us?” I smile, something caustic and ugly, and press the makeshift blade into his skin just enough to draw blood. I look him up and down. He’s pissed himself, the poor fuck. “What makes you think we have anything in common?”
I gesture toward the drunks by the pool table. I don’t know who they are but they know me and they come running. Before I can even give the command, they’ve both got a hold on Thomas. He nearly slips in his own piss as he tries to fight them off.
I sigh as I stub out my cigarette. “You’re making a scene, Thomas. And you’re acting like a damn child. Now, I know that you didn’t want to come here tonight. But rules are rules and they have to be obeyed. And you are very loyal, Thomas. Of that I have no doubt. You’re a smooth talker, too. That’s why your boss sent you, isn’t it? I bet you both thought that infamous tongue of yours would get you through this. I know what they say about you, Thomas. I do. And it’s not just your loyalty they talk about. It’s that wicked tongue of yours. You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard! ‘Are you planning a parley? Make sure you bring along Silver Tongue Thomas! That man can talk himself out of anything.’ But I know something else about you, Thomas. Something that I’d bet your new employer doesn’t know.”
“I don’t—” One of the men holding Thomas steady rams his elbow into his jaw. That shuts him up right quick.
I lift his head up. Force him to look at me. “You’re not a fan of women, are you Thomas? You don’t have much practice talking to the gentler sex, do you? You haven’t used that infamous tongue of yours on a woman in any fashion. And that’s a damn shame. I’ve heard so much about that tongue of yours. Before you go, why don’t you open your mouth and let me take a look at it?”
He goes still for a moment. His eyes move to the men at his side. Finding no help there, he turns back to me. Whatever he sees on my face gets him to start flopping around like a fish out of water.
“Open your mouth, Thomas.”
There’s no reasoning with him. He shakes his head. Thrashes hard enough to get one arm free. I step forward and press the edge of the bottle against his throat. That calms him down some. “I could slit your throat instead but I’d hate to get your yellow blood all over this nice suit. Open your mouth.”
He does as he’s told. Smart man.
I hold his jaw open with one hand. Take a look inside. “They’re all liars, then. You don’t have a silver tongue. No, but you’ve got some gold fillings. Tell your boss he can keep his money. I’ll be taking these as payment for my time.”
My two new friends hold Thomas steady as I replace the broken bottle with my knife.
“This will be easier if you hold still,” I say as I stick the blade in his mouth. I start with the fillings in the back. By the time I get to the one on his left central incisor, the blood is flowing faster than he can swallow. A mess of blood and saliva trails down his chin. It’s drenched my hand. I pull a handkerchief out of my back pocket, wipe my hands of the mess he’s made, then shove the rag into his mouth.
“Thank you for your honesty, Thomas,” I say. “Now clean yourself up and run back to your boss. Let him know there’ll be no future meeting between him and the Vancise family. He can build that resort of his somewhere else. And you make sure he knows the only reason you’re still alive is so that you can give him this message: I want him and his kids out of the Wilds. If they aren’t gone in three days time, I’ll kill them all myself.”
The two goons release their grip at the same time. As if we’d rehearsed the whole thing.
Thomas sways for a second, then bends over and vomits on the floor. A mess of blood and sick splash up specks of piss. I take a step back just in time to avoid the worst of it.
When he’s done, Thomas runs the back of his hand over his mouth. I step forward. Take the handkerchief out of his hand and use it to clean the spots he’s missed on his cheeks and chin. When I’m done, I tuck it into his suit pocket and tap him on the shoulder.
“You should go now, Thomas,” I say.
He meets my eyes for a second. Tears and snot dripping down his face. Then he turns on his heel and pushes his way through the silent crowd. They part before him like the Red Sea. The door swings shut behind him. It sends in a whisper of the wind. Makes the silence in the place seem eerie.
I look down at the floor. Pull a cigarette out of my pack and stab it into my lips. Shake my head as I light it. “What a fucking mess,” I say to myself. I take a much needed drag. Exhale slowly. Only then am I able to plaster a smile on my face and turn toward the bartender. “Tell your barmaid to bring out the mop, John.”
John knows better than to argue. He merely gives me a brusque nod before gesturing to the woman standing beside him. She scurries off like a cockroach.
I look around the room. Everyone is still standing there, staring at me. It’s starting to make me feel twitchy. I realize I’m still holding the knife. That’s probably not helping matters much. I wipe the blood off on my pants leg before putting the blade back in its sheath.
I take another drag then clear my throat. I meet the stares of the miserable fucks in the room and say, “Right, then. None of you cunts heard a word of that. John here is going to get you all a drink of your choice, on the house. And you’re gonna keep drinkin’ until you can’t walk straight. When you’re ready to leave, John will escort you to the door. If you want to keep your ears and your tongue, you’ll thank him for the drink and crawl home. If you say anything else to him— anything at all— it’ll be your blood on the mop.”
That said, I turn around and grab the envelope full of money off the table. Thomas hadn’t had the balls to collect it before taking off. I take out a few bills and distribute them to my two helpers then casually make my way out the door.