It Happened Like This

Okay, three things.

One, sorry this is so late going up. Our furnace went out a day or so before I planned to post it. I didn’t get any computer work done for two days while we waited to get the new furnace installed. I know I’m supposed to suffer for my art, but it was like 60 degrees in my office. I can’t think when I’m that cold. And my fingers get numb. So of course, everything else got backed up. I’m just now digging out.

Two, thanks for all the likes I’m getting on my stories. It’s nice to know that people actually enjoy them and I’m not just spitting into the abyss. You are also encouraged to click the follow button. That will give you a quick email notification every time I upload a story. That keeps you from forgetting about me. And don’t forget there is a comment button. I’d love to get feedback on what you liked and didn’t like. Questions of how a story came about or why I had a character act a certain way. Suggestions on how the story could be improved. I have to mediate all comments so none of them are public until I clear them. So, if you want to say something private just note it and I’ll keep the comment private. Can’t be much easier than that. I guess that was actually three things instead of one, but hey, it’s my blog; I can do what I want.

Finally, today’s offering. This requires a bit of background. It Happened Like This is actually the first story I wrote. It has a history. A number of years ago I took a creative writing class. My project for the class was to write a short story. The teacher went against conventional wisdom. Instead of telling us to write what we know, she wanted us to stretch. She asked us to go as far from what we knew as possible and imagine a totally alien setting. There were definitely some interesting stories in that class. I came up with one about a two-bit street hustler in New York, getting by on his wits. Eventually his dangerous life style and hubris caught up with him and he ended up dead. The teacher loved the story. For some reason I was never happy with the story. Something seemed wrong. Fast forward some years. I had a dream about the story. In the dream Joey, the main character, told me that I had it all wrong. He said “It happened like this” and proceeded to show me a very different version of what I had written. When I woke up I realized that the dream wasn’t full of non sequiturs like dreams often are, but was a coherent story. I immediately wrote it all down before I could forget. It just flowed out, almost as if I were taking dictation. For that reason, the story is told in the first person, just as Joey narrated it to me.

So, get ready for an unusual story. It involves gangsters, prostitutes, stolen cash, Elton John and even a fairy godmother. Joey seems happy with how it turned out and hasn’t bothered my dreams anymore. Maybe I should ask him for some more ideas. Anyway, as they say in Monty Python, and now for something completely different.

It Happened Like This

New York City, 2010

Ok, so it happened like this. It was last Wednesday and I was at the apartment alone. Yeah, let me tell you about the apartment. It’s in an old rambling monstrosity that should have been condemned years ago. Most of the buildings around it are newer businesses or boarded up hulks. But Mrs. Berger keeps hanging on. She lives on the first floor, the second is given over to a couple of shady businesses and Tip’s office. We live in one of the apartments on the third floor. A small living room, eat-in kitchen, two small bedrooms and a bath. Some hookers live in the other third floor apartments. I think they are Tip’s also. They’re loud and brassy. They call us ‘Cupcake’. Brandy says he’s afraid of them. Truth be told, so am I. Tip says the building has charm and personality. I say it’s a rat infested firetrap. But Tip pays the rent.

 As I said, I was alone. Brandy had gone out for an audition. He is an “aspiring actor” as he puts it. He’s my best friend in the world and I love him dearly but he can’t act. Let me clarify that. He. Can. Not. Act. Not even a little bit. But he gets hired every now and then. Partly it’s because he is gorgeous. Not just good looking but genetics gone crazy gorgeous. Producers will put him on the stage as part of the scenery or walk on/walk off just because of his beauty. And also because he’s not too particular about who he’ll sleep with to get on stage.

He said he’d be back by noon and would stop by Tip’s office to pick up our salary. Tip is our manager. He sets up appointments for us. In other words, he’s our pimp. We are male escorts. And, yes, that kind of escort. Don’t get all holier than thou on me. We provide a quality service to men and some women who require discretion for various reasons. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting a five dollar blow job from Moleface Mary down on 6th if that’s what you want. But we are a cut above. Tip calls us a little “boutique service”. It’s not a bad way to make a living. I have nice clothes and impeccable manners. Sometimes I get taken to nice places. And not to sound vain, but I’m every bit as beautiful as Brandy. While he’s blond and sky blue, I’m chestnut and green. We rarely go out together because people stare. We turn heads, both female and male. The first few times it was cool, but after a while it got to be a drag. Who wants to be stared at all the time? We usually entertain “regulars”. Bran’s are mostly men, a few women. Mine are all male except one. And yes, they are all dried up and wrinkly. Sometimes it’s not even about the sex. They just want someone to go to dinner with or just to talk to. But it’s mainly about the sex. That’s not too bad. None of them are kinky. But sometimes I’m just not in the mood to suck an 80 year-old cock. Ya know what I mean? But what can you do?

I’d been lazy that morning and not cleaned up from our breakfast so, a little past noon I cleaned all the dishes and was thinking about a salad for lunch. I heard a key in the lock and as the door opened I yelled from the kitchen “Hey Bran, how’d it go?”

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, fuckfuckfuck” was what I heard. I guess it didn’t go that well. But there was real distress in his voice. I came in from the kitchen with a dish towel, drying my hands. Brandy had curled up on the love seat in a fetal position, face red, tears and snot everywhere, rocking and clutching a garbage bag in his lap. He was hyperventilating like crazy.

“Oh fuck fuck fuck. Oh shit, I’m gonna be sick. He killed him. Oh shit.”

Brandy is not usually given to drama, remember he can’t act. But something was definitely wrong. I knelt in front of him and wiped his face with the dishtowel.

“Bran, Bran look at me. What’s wrong? Tell me.”

“Oh shit, he killed him and I saw it and he didn’t see me I don’t think and he’s dead and I took it and shit, oh shit. We’re so fucked.”

“Who killed who? Tell me slowly.”

“Tip. He killed Tip.”

“Tip? Who did?”

“Hammer.”

Oh shit is right. We are so fucked.

“Calm down, Bran. Tell me what happened.” Brandy had calmed somewhat and his breathing was slower. I took that as a good sign.

“I stopped in Tip’s office to get our pay. He said he had a headache and told me to get him some water from the halfbath. He had some aspirin in his desk. Just as I got in the bath I heard the door open and Tip said ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ ‘Just delivering a message’ and I heard a silenced gunshot. It sounded just like it does on tv. I was looking right at Tip and he sank back in his chair with a bullet in his chest. I moved behind the door. I was so scared. Oh shit, I was so freaking scared.” He started hyperventilating again. I grabbed his hands and soothed him as best I could.  

“That’s when I saw him. Hammer. He came right up to the desk and shot Tip point blank between the eyes. Then he looked over at the bath so see if anybody was there. Oh fuck I was so scared, Jo. I stood so very still praying he wouldn’t see me. I guess he couldn’t see me behind the door. But I could see him through the crack. Then he just left.”

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry you had to see that.” I got up on the love seat and held him. He cried into my shoulder while I pondered what happened. Hammer was muscle and a hit man for Swann. TJ Swann was a nasty piece of work, a mob boss everybody knew wanted Tip’s territory. Suddenly I remembered my last run in with Swann. It was some kind of convention and Tip had brought Brandy, me and some of the girls along as decoration and advertising. I was at a bar when I felt someone come up behind me and press against me. I looked up in the mirror and saw it was Swann. He pressed hard against me so I could feel his erection against my ass. He grabbed my thighs and leaned in so his mouth was by my ear. “I don’t usually go for the boys, but I may have to make an exception for your pretty ass. Soon, baby. Sooner than you think.” He licked my ear and was gone. I was shaken and so totally disgusted I wanted a shower right then. Tip said he was just playing mind games with me. Whatever, but I didn’t like being on Swann’s radar. And if Tip is dead, then Swann is the new boss. My ass literally belongs to Swann. Shit.

“So, what’s with the bag?” I asked Brandy.

“Well, we don’t have any money and I could see the safe combination right there in Tip’s drawer.”

“Brandy, tell me you didn’t.”

“But he owed us the money. I figured he had a few thousand in the safe and we need it.”

I looked at the bag in his lap. It looked like more than a few thousand.

“I didn’t know what to do. I just pushed it all in a trash bag and got out of there.”

“Tell me you closed the safe.”

“No, but I used a Kleenex. I didn’t leave any prints.”

“Brandy, a dead body and empty safe. It looks like a robbery and you’re holding the evidence. They’ll say you killed Tip.”

“Why would I kill Tip?” I pointed to the bag in his lap. “Oh shit. Fuckfuckfuck!” he yelled.

“I’ll go put it back,” he said. Just at that moment we heard multiple sirens approaching the building.

“Shit, too late. What do I do?”

“Let me think a minute.”

Much as I hated it, my mind kept processing the information I was getting. The 13th precinct would respond. Swann owned them. They’d tell Swann there was money missing. He’d know that someone came in after Hammer and that person possibly saw Hammer. And he would know who the likely suspects were. This is very bad. I’m going to get fucked by Swann and then we’ll both be rubbed out.

“Baby, I think we need to get out of here,” I said. “Grab your coat, phone and wallet.” It took us only a minute to grab our stuff and shove the bag of money into a gym bag. As I got to our door I heard heavy footsteps coming down the hall. Shit. I looked out the peephole and suddenly a blue uniform loomed and began knocking on the door. That was fast. This wasn’t canvassing for info about a crime. We were being targeted. There were two officers and I heard one say, “Luis said at least one of them was here. Swann said to get them both. I’ll stay here and you go get the super.” Luis? Ah hell. Luis is, or was, Tip’s bodyguard. Hammer wouldn’t have gotten by him and his security team. Unless he had been turned or killed. Damn Swann. Damn him to hell and back.  We had to act fast.

“Brandy,” I whispered. “We need to get to the hidey hole.” We silently rushed to my bedroom. Inside my closet at the bottom left was a removable panel. It was hard to notice unless you knew what to look for. It opened to a space about two feet deep and several wide, between the walls of the apartments. Mrs. Berger said it was space where people could store luggage. I actually had a suitcase in there. I took out the piece of luggage and Brandy slipped in. I pulled the closet door closed, fluffed the shirts that hung in front of the panel. I crawled in and pulled the panel almost into place, but reached out to put the suitcase directly in front of the panel. Once I had the panel in place we were virtually undetectable. It was dark and dusty, full of spider webs, rat droppings, exposed nails and God knows what else. I just hoped I didn’t sneeze. Or freak out. Brandy was still a mess. I gave him the dishtowel and told him to bite it.

I quietly slipped as far to the right as possible. A faint amount of light came in from a crack in the wall. There was a tiny crack in the corner wall of our living room. Pressing my eye against it I could see a small sliver of the room. I saw the door open and two uniformed officers come in followed by Mrs. Berger and Detective Trask. I recognized him immediately. He was no friend of Tip and solidly in Swann’s pocket.

“Search the place,” he said.  We could hear the muffled sounds of the officers rooting around our apartment. I held my breath when I heard the closet door open, but then it closed.

“Place is clean,” said one officer. “Nothing seems to be missing except maybe wallets or cells. They may be in the wind or just down at Starbucks.”

“One of you keep an eye on the door and another on the building in case they come back,” said Trask. “Swann wants them and he wants them alive, if possible.” They left and the apartment was silent once more.

“Now what?” Brandy murmured.

“Shit, I don’t know. Let me think.” We couldn’t go out our front door. And three stories up is too high to jump. Then I thought ‘God bless this old rat trap’. I felt along the wall opposite our apartment. I knew there was an attic there. I finally found what I was looking for – rotted wood. I pushed it with my foot and eventually with more of a crunch than a crack it gave way. A few more and I had created a hole we could squeeze through.

The attic was dimly lit by a small paned window that had probably not been cleaned in over 50 years. We crept across to a door on the other side, leaving tracks in the inch deep dust, cobwebs fluttering in our wake. The door was locked. Of course. I thought maybe we could break it open with a crowbar. I looked around. Although there was a hundred years worth of junk in the attic, nothing resembled a crowbar.

“Hey, this looks like a trap door,” Brandy said from over in a corner. We slid it open and looked down into a large janitor’s closet. Once in the closet, I gently opened the door a crack. Seeing the coast was clear, we exited into a dim hallway I had never seen before. At the end I saw a door with a frosted window that said Lavatory. Lacking a better idea I headed that way. It was a large ancient bathroom that did not seem to be in use. It smelled mainly of mildew and shit. There was a window on the far wall. I crossed and looked down. Yes! There was a dumpster directly below the window.

“Help me get this window open,” I said. Brandy looked at me dubiously but came over and began pushing. It wouldn’t budge.

“Maybe we could break it,” Brandy offered.

“Yeah, and the sound would bring every cop running.”

“How about if you moved that latch,” he said pointing to the side of the window. Of course. The window was locked.

After unlocking it the two of us managed to get the window open a few feet with a mighty screech. Well if anyone was in the alley, they’d definitely be looking up now. I leaned out. No one in sight and not more than fifteen feet below was an open dumpster filled with lovely soft garbage bags.

“All we have to do is jump down.”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap,” Brandy said.

“It’s no more than fifteen feet.”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap.”

“It’s…”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap.”

“Swann is going to kill us.”
“I don’t want to jump into a garbage heap. Don’t make me jump into a garbage heap.”

“It’s the only way.”

“Of course you realize I’ll have to burn these clothes. God knows what’s in there.”

“Mostly garbage, I’d guess.”

“Don’t be cute. This isn’t going to work. We need to find another way.”

I managed to bully him up on the window ledge. I figured it would take another ten minutes of pleading and threats to convince him to jump so I just grabbed his hand and jumped. To his credit he didn’t scream. He scrambled out in record time, making all kinds of sounds of disgust, wiping at himself and shuddering.

“I don’t do garbage” was all he could muster. “Shit. Is anything in my hair?”

Apparently, the police were watching the front and rear entrance but weren’t bothering with the side since there were no official exits. We scurried across the narrow alley into a connecting alley. In ten minutes we had put enough space between us and the apartment that I took a breather.

“Give me a twenty from your stash,” I said.  Brandy rummaged in the gym bag and pulled out a twenty. I waived down a taxi and said “Fairfield Hotel.”

When the cabby let us out, I grabbed Brandy’s hand and quickly rushed into yet another alley. After a few minutes we ended up at the Essex.

“That flea trap? With the money we have why are we going to some no tell hotel?”

“Because if we pay with cash at a respectable place it will raise questions. The Essex is cash only. And definitely no questions asked. Now give me a hundred and you run around back. I’ll register and let you in the back door. The two of us together draw too much attention.”

Within another ten minutes we were ensconced in room 308. It may have been cleaned at least once in the last decade, but I wouldn’t put money on it. I was hesitant to even sit on the threadbare bedspread and definitely didn’t want to sleep there but we were in a fix. But at least we were safe for the moment and could catch our breath. And figure out our next move.

“Joey?” Brandy said. I looked over at him. “I’m scared,” was all he said, as a fat tear drop slid from his eye.

“Oh, baby, come here,” I gathered him in my arms and held him tightly. “It’ll be okay. We’ll think of something.”

Okay, let me address the question I know you’re wondering. No, Brandy and I aren’t lovers. He’s like my brother.  And not like those cheap porno flicks about brothers doing it. Face it, when your job is sex, it’s the last thing you want to think about in your off time. Tip put us together a couple of years ago and it just works. All right, we did go at it once in the early days. But, hell, we were two gorgeous boys, always horny, we had to try it. And it was great. And I’m not saying we’ve never done it again since then, but if we do, it’s as friends with benefits. I love Brandy more than any person in the world, but not in that way. I recognize that he’s not as strong emotionally as I am, so I’ll always take care of him. No matter what, I’ll be there. I’ve been on the streets before. He never has. I lost one friend like that and I don’t want to lose another. Poor Denny never stood a chance. Brandy does; he has me. And I know he loves me just the same. We are family.

“Why don’t we see how much money we have to work with?” I said to distract him. I dumped the sack of money on the bed. It was an impressive pile. I pushed about half of it toward him. “We’ll both count and add it up.”

Fifteen minutes later I looked up at Brandy and said, “Shit, Bran. We have $85,300. We hit the fucking jackpot. What the hell was Tip thinking keeping this much cash in his office?” In addition, was a little black book with numbers in it. I couldn’t tell what it was for so I just stuck it back in the bag.  

“We can take this and start over anywhere we want.”

“Somewhere warm, please. I hate New York winters,” Brandy said.

“Yeah, how about South Beach, or Malibu!”

“Malibuuuu, sounds so exotic. Hey, and Hollywood is there, right? Maybe I’ll be discovered and get my big break,” Brandy enthused, his eyes agleam.

“All we have to do is figure out how to get out of New York. You know Swann is watching the exits. He has eyes everywhere.”

I had stood and been pacing around the room, but stopped to gaze out the window, wondering how to escape the city. I heard a high-pitched squeal that usually comes from a brake needing adjustment. I looked down and noticed it was a Crown Vic, unmarked. I happened to glance up the street and ice gripped my heart. There was another unmarked police car.

“Brandy, we’ve got company. We need to leave. Now!”  Within fifteen seconds we were bounding down the back stairs and out the back door. Either I had overreacted or the police had not moved into position to cover the back yet. We didn’t stick around to find out. Zigzagging through alleys I was furiously wondering how they found us. When I checked in the fat guy at the desk gave me a lecherous ogle, but then turned back to his computer porn after giving me the key. I doubt he called the police. And why would he? It was too soon for Swann to have out an apb on us. Did I have a gps device up my ass or something? Then it hit me. Our cell phones. Swann was tracking our cell phones. Would just turning them off deactivate the tracking? Shit, I’m not a techie. I don’t know that kind of stuff. We just needed to ditch the phones.

“Bran, I think they’re tracking our phones. We need to get rid of them.”

“But I paid a shitload of money for this phone,” he whined.

“We HAVE a shitload of money. We can buy another. Right now our lives depend on Swann NOT finding us.”

As he handed over his phone I came up with one possible chance. I dialed a number and after it was picked up I said, “You said if I was ever in trouble you would help. Well, the shit has hit the fan.”

After hanging up I told Brandy I had a plan. He looked at me as if to say “of course you do”. I was momentarily touched by how implicitly he trusted me to take care of this situation. A city bus had stopped nearby. Just before the back door closed I stuck my hand in and tossed our phones under the seats. Then it was back alleys again until we came to a bank that looked like a Greek temple. Brandy and I skulked in the shadow of one of the gigantic cement urns filled with dead plants as I watched the street. In a few minutes a limo cruised to a stop. The back window slid down and I could see the face of an elegant woman with a floral turban look curiously up at the bank.

“That’s our ride,” I told Brandy. I grabbed his hand and rushed down the flight of stone steps to the curb. As we approached the door was pushed open. We tumbled in, pulling the door shut, the lady said “drive” and we were off.

“Joey, my darling,” the lady purred. “Whatever have you gotten yourself into?”

“Contessa, you’re not going to believe it.”

Now unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere I’m sure you know who the Contessa is. She began her life as old Romanian royalty with a penniless title who parlayed it into a multimillion dollar cosmetic empire. Her Contessa line cosmetics apparently worked because no one knew if she was 55 or 75. She just seemed ageless. She had homes in Italy and New York and probably other places. She was seen everywhere. If there was a party or an event or anyplace the luminaries gathered, the Contessa was in the midst. She was also one of my regulars. Not for sex, though. She always said a woman was not properly accessorized unless she had a handsome man on her arm. I had been her accessory for many a New York soiree. She loved the hint of scandal of showing up with “a much younger man”. How she knew a two bit hoodlum like Tip I have no idea. She simply said, “the Contessa knows everyone.” And as far as I could tell it was true. She did seem to know everyone. And she took me to some fabulous parties. I actually met Madonna. Cher called me a “real hottie”. And Sir Elton John surreptitiously got a good feel of my ass. And I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I blew George Michael in a bathroom at a house party in the Hamptons. I mean, it was George fucking Michael. The Contessa was miffed that I was missing for so long but immediately said she’d forgive me if I gave her all the details. A blow by blow account, if you will.

So there she sat across from us, regal as ever. She turned slightly to regard Brandy. “My, my. I must have died and two angels have appeared to escort me to my final reward.”

“Contessa, this is my friend Brandon Carter. Brandy, I’m sure you recognize the Contessa.” For his part, Brandy was speechless. When she extended her hand he looked at it like it was a snake. Then he grasped it, shook it and said, “your majesty.” The Contessa laughed and said, “Just call me Contessa. Everyone does. Now what is this shitstorm you spoke of.” Such pungent language has always seemed odd to me when spoken in such a cultured voice. But the Contessa could curse like a sailor when the mood struck her.

“Well, first Tip has been murdered.”

“Oh, dear boy. You ARE in trouble.”

“And they’re going to frame us for the murder.” I related how Brandy had seen the hit on Tip and that Swann was now chasing us. I also told her about the money.

“So your employer is dead, his safe is sitting open and you have the money. It looks like what you Americans call an open and shut case. Are you sure you didn’t kill him?”

“No!” shouted Brandy.

She reached over and patted his knee.

“There, there my pet. The Contessa was only making a joke, in poor taste I admit,” she cooed.

While Brandy settled down she picked up her phone and called ahead. “Henri, we will have two guests. I’m sure they will be hungry so please have a late lunch set for us.”

Moments later we pulled into private underground parking and then an elevator that went straight to the penthouse. I had been here a number of times but was still impressed. I elbowed Brandy to stop him from gawking like a hayseed. The penthouse was expanses of space with elegant appointments and huge windows with panoramic views of Manhattan. We arrived just as her assistant, Henri, was setting the table.  

“Ah welcome, madame. And Monsieur Zhoey, so nice to see you again,” he smiled. Although Henri wore a tailored suit worth a good bit of what we had in our bag, it only accentuated the fact that he was powerfully built. About thirtysomething, black hair cut very short, and a two-day stubble that I had always found extremely sexy. In fact, I’d always thought Henri was a whole package of hotness, but as a professional, my focus was always on the Contessa. Excepting, of course, the George Michael incident. She introduced Brandy to him. I could tell from the appraising gleam in Henri’s eye that he found Brandy just as attractive as he found me. And vice versa.

He served Brandy and me steaks while the Contessa dined on salad.

“At least I can smell what you’re enjoying,” she lamented. “Although that aroma alone will probably add ten pounds.”

“Oh Contessa, you’ve never had an ounce of fat on you. Your figure is perfect,” I told her.

“Yes, so true,” she agreed. “But I have to work to maintain such perfection.”

Once Henri had cleared our places she said, “so show me the money you ‘found’.” I took the bag from beside Brandy’s chair and dumped it onto the table.

“Oh my,” she exclaimed.

“Over 85,000 dollars and this little book,” I showed her. She seemed very interested in the book.

“So what is your plan? What kind of help do you need?”

“Swann has the police looking for us. We just need to get out of town. Maybe to the West Coast where he wouldn’t find us. Get a new start.”

“This Swann character sounds like a piece of work. I believe I have heard of him before but never had the pleasure of meeting him. If the police are involved it could get sticky. I and my entourage have diplomatic immunity. But you two are American citizens. I may be able to smuggle you out. But if I do this, I want you to think hard about your future. With this kind of money you could get training and go into legitimate professions. You are both beautiful escorts, but much as it pains me to say, beauty is fleeting. I told you more than once that hanging around with dangerous people like Tip could get you killed. I don’t want you to fall back into the same old ways on the West Coast.”

“But, escorting is all I know.”

“Well you can learn new skills. You’re bright. I have contacts there and can make some introductions.”

“I think she’s right, Joey,” Brandy said. “I don’t really like our life anymore. I want more.”

“Good, then that’s settled. Now you boys must be exhausted. Henri will show you to your suite. You can shower and take a nap. Henri will find you some suitable clothes.  You two look like you’ve been rummaging through a garbage heap. The Contessa must get to work. There are a thousand details to work out. We’ll reconvene in a few hours. Off you go.”

The suite was sumptuous with two huge soft beds. We went into the bathroom and Brandy stripped and stepped into the shower. I sat on the toilet. We often talked in the bath while showering.

“Those clothes are toxic waste. I can never touch them again.” Then, “Do you think she can help us, Jo?” he asked.

“Well, she’s the Contessa. I haven’t found anything she can’t do if she sets her mind to it.”

“I’m going to so enjoy living out west,” he said. “Like a real cowboy.” I smiled at his whimsy.

After my shower I found Brandy had crawled into bed and was sound asleep. I wrapped myself in a thick, oh so soft robe and sat on the other bed. I was so keyed up I wouldn’t be able to sleep. This was such a huge mess. Is it possible even the Contessa couldn’t find a way out? I laid back with a worried frown on my face. Shit. This is the definition of a clusterfuck. That was my last coherent thought as I immediately drifted off to a dreamless sleep.

I awoke with a start. Okay, I’m in a strange bed. And I’m naked. So far nothing out of the ordinary. Then our desperate situation came crashing down on me again. I groaned and sat up. An outfit, undies, pants, shirt, socks, sneakers lay on each bed. Ah, Henri’s “suitable clothes”. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed but it was dark outside. Or at least as dark as Manhattan ever gets. I roused Brandy.

“Hey, babe. Let’s get dressed.”  He moaned and sat up. Then he looked at the clothes dubiously.

“Really? They want me to wear this?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the clothes.”

“It’s just not me. I have panache. This outfit says blah. It also says last decade.”

“We need to disappear, remember? ‘Panache’ stands out. Just wear it. Have you seen my wallet?”

“No, mine’s missing, too. I wonder why they wanted them?” Suddenly I got an uneasy feeling. Nothing I could put a finger on. Just a sense of unease. On top of the terror of probably being killed in the next few days.

We headed for the main suite. All the rooms were dark. The furniture had all been draped with sheets as if the owner was leaving. And we had given all our money to the Contessa and had no IDs. I trust her, I tried telling myself.

“Joey, this is spooky,” Brandy whispered, sidling up close to me.

Rounding a corner we came upon a small alcove with facing love seats and a small table. The Contessa sat on one side. She motioned for us to join her. I breathed the biggest sigh of relief of my life.

“This is my favorite spot in the apartment,” she began. To her left was a floor to ceiling window looking out on Manhattan from about 40 stories up. “The premium price of this place is based on the fact that the other side looks out over Central Park. People want the serenity of nature just outside their window. Hmph. If I want serenity, I’ll go to a spa. I prefer this. The hustle, bustle, garishness, vulgarity, vitality and LIFE that is New York.” Outside her window the city was living up to her description with neon advertisements, flashing lights and the general busy-ness of the city that never sleeps. But of course it was quiet due to noise dampening windows.  

“Here, join me for a toast.” She had three small glasses on the table each with about a half inch of dark red liquid. She pulled a champagne bottle from a cooler and filled the glasses.

“Kir Royale, one of my favorite aperitifs. Here’s to new beginnings.” She saluted us with her glass and we all drank.

“Now, down to business. The next time you need to throw away your cell phone, please remove the SIM card or smash the phone to bits. Swann recovered it and of course the last call you made was to me.”

“Um, sorry,” I said, totally ashamed at my blunder.

“Actually, there was a bit of a to-do with it. A SWAT team surrounded a bus of terrified tourists, swarming on looking for you two.  All they found was the phones. The mayor had a fit. Called it a PR nightmare and dressed down a captain. And then I got a call from Mr. Swann. I acknowledged knowing you, that your call was social and I knew nothing of your whereabouts. Of course, he didn’t believe a word. You were right to call me, dear. I had Henri check his sources. He knows almost as many people as the Contessa. You two are classified as ‘persons of interest’ in the murder of Tip. Mr. Swann’s plan is to have you held overnight at Riker’s Island before booking. There is a welcoming committee waiting for you. They are specifically ordered to rape you with as many men as want to participate. With Brandon they can do as they please, as long as you both don’t survive the night. It will be an unforeseeable tragedy. The murder weapon they will recover from your apartment will settle the case.”

I audibly gulped and from the corner of my eye I saw a tear slide down Brandy’s face.

“But never fear. The Contessa is your guardian angel. The Swann character showed up at my building with a search warrant. My attorney assured me there was no probable cause and we denied him entry on diplomatic grounds. His gendarmes were ready to force the issue but a call to my friend the mayor who had to call the same police captain to have his men stand down settled that. I fear the captain may be looking for another job. Later Mr. Swann sent a group of his personal thugs. My security detail took care of them with little trouble and delivered the unconscious bodies to the 13th precinct. Mr. Swann then called me and used language that made even me blush. I did take exception to being called ‘a dried up old bitch’. I have decided that he needs a lesson in manners.” She looked over at Henri who had been standing by. “What is it we say, Henri?”  He smiled and putting on his best Bronx accent said, “Ya don’t fuck wid da Contessa.”

“Anyway, as to you young men. Here’s what the Contessa has come up with.” She reached into a satchel on the seat beside her and handed each of us a leather folder. “Here are your new passports. I had Henri take your IDs from your wallets to use the pictures, here.” And she handed us back our wallets. I opened my passport and found I was now Luke Jackson. Brandy was Roger Smith.

“Roger? You named me Roger? What kind of name is that?” I hushed him.

“Sorry darling. It is what was available. These passports are top quality. They are more official than what you’d get from the government. And extensive computer hacking has given you backgrounds so that if you are picked up for any reason, your credentials will check out. “

“Thank you,” I said, glaring at Brandy.

“And here is walking around cash.” She handed us each an envelope containing $5,000 in small bills. “I have laundered the rest of your ill-gotten gain and deposited it under your new names in a friendly bank in Geneva. There it can grow tax free and without prying eyes. I’m afraid it isn’t as much as you’d expected. The new identities were expensive, especially since it was a rush job. That took $20,000.”     

“So that leaves us $55,000?”

“Not exactly. That is my next point. This little black book. Your Tip was planning a nice retirement for himself. He had been sending cash to a bank in Belize. This is his passbook to that account. I’ve always heard that crime doesn’t pay, but Tip apparently didn’t buy into that maxim. Anyway, my associates have removed the money from his account, passed it through several no tell banks and shell companies so it is totally untraceable. It is also safely in the bank in Geneva equally divided between the two of you. I think of you as the closest things Tip had to a family, so it is fitting that you be his heirs.”

So apparently there was more than $25,000 in my account. Not much to start a new life on.

“How much did Tip leave?” I asked.

“Forty-six million dollars.”

“Forty-six million,” I squeaked.

“Dollars!” Brandy screeched.

“Yes, my darlings. You each have a little over twenty-three million dollars on deposit in Geneva. You are technically wealthy.”

Sweat broke out on my forehead and I began to feel faint.

“Oh dear, you are pale. Henri, a damp cloth please.” She scooted beside me on the love seat and tenderly wiped my face until I could focus again. I looked over at Brandy and tears were flowing down his face.  “Hey, babe,” I said, grasping his hand. “Looks like we’re going to make it after all.” He grinned through his tears and said, “Just like Mary Tyler Moore.”

“Now for the final piece of our plan. I am closing the apartment and leaving tonight. You are travelling with me as my secretary and my masseuse. You’re listed on the manifest and have cleared customs. The jet awaits.”

“You have a jet?” I asked.

“Heavens, no. The upkeep on them costs a fortune. It belongs to the Sultan of Brunei. He makes it available whenever I need it.”

“Sultan of Brunei? As in the richest man in the world?” I couldn’t seem to say anything original.

“Yes, he wants me to marry him. A perfectly lovely man. I keep telling him that he already has a hundred wives, why add an old broad like me. But he says he’s in love. I keep putting him off. At least it gets me the use of a beautiful jet.”

“And where are we going?”

“Well now that you’re wealthy I’ve thrown the West Coast plan out the window. We’re headed to my villa in Florence first. Then Milan for your wardrobes.  Oh, this will be such fun. I want to show you Europe, the museums, the palaces, the libraries, the ruins, the parties. Introduce you to all the right people. It will be such an adventure. Our own Grand Tour. Oh, listen to me, channeling Auntie Mame.”

I looked at her and said, “the world’s a smorgasbord and most poor bastards are starving to death,” remembering the line from the stage play. “But I’m not sure we’d fit in. Suppose a former client recognizes us. It could be embarrassing for you.”

“Oh posh, child. You think what you’ve done could shock the people I mix with? Hah. Princess Claire of Hohenzollern is the most notorious woman in Europe. Her peccadilloes alone make the two of you look like altarboys. And Grand Duke Friedrich and all his little girls AND little boys? And don’t get me started on the Windsors. My doves, you are my protégés and as such every door in the civilized world is open to you. No one dares incur my wrath.”

“Because ‘ya don’t fuck with the Contessa’,” I grinned.

“Precisely, so is it a deal?” She raised an eyebrow at me.

I looked at Brandy. He nodded eagerly.

“Deal.”

“Splendid.” The Contessa looked up at Henri who had appeared at her shoulder.

“Erik says they have taken the bait, madame,” he said. “Friedrik’s team says they have a visual on the tail car.”

“Ach, so predictable. Proceed with the plan. Let him know we are leaving now. He should give us another 30 minutes. Tell Friedrik to drop back. We don’t want to give ourselves away,” she said with a smile.

I arched my eyebrow in question. She explained that seeing as Swann wanted us so badly, she didn’t expect him to give up easily. She feared an ambush on the way to the airport so she sent a decoy limo to LaGuardia. Our jet was at JFK. Erik, her security team leader and the driver of the decoy reported that they were being followed. I was alarmed that Swann’s men might harm them, but the Contessa said her guards had already shown they could take care of themselves against two-bit thugs such as Swann hired. Also she had Friedrik’s team coming in behind Swann’s hired muscle.

As soon as we boarded our jet, I noticed that Henri had hooked up a headset, apparently to keep tabs on goings-on in New York. I turned to listen as he came forward to brief the Contessa.

“Erik says a dark sedan has pulled out in front of them and is moving slowly. He believes the ambush is imminent. Friedrik is moving up. Dieter’s team had already staked out Swann’s likely ambush point and are ready.”

“Tell Erik that we are boarded and in the clear. He is not to initiate hostility but may return fire as necessary. We have three crack teams to their poorly trained two. I hope they aren’t foolish enough to turn this into a war. Tell him to keep me posted.”

An hour later we were cruising over the Atlantic in the most luxuriant seating I’d ever experienced. It was better than my bed at home. I wanted to live here. Henri had just told the Contessa that Erik and his teams had taken Swann’s men without a shot being fired. They had seen they were outnumbered and thrown down their weapons. A fair number of them they had identified as officers from the 13th precinct. Her men had handcuffed them and delivered them to a police department not owned by Swann. Her lawyer had delivered a complaint of harassment to the mayor and police commissioner. If he wasn’t before, the captain of the 13th precinct was now definitely out of a job.

 Brandy was dozing beside me with his head on my shoulder. He suddenly stirred.

“Joey, I forgot,” he said.

“What?”

“I forgot to turn off the automatic lights in the apartment. They’ll just continue to go off and on if no one turns it off.”

I laughed at him and kissed him on the forehead. “I’m sure Mrs. Berger can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

A thousand miles behind in New York City the lights in the apartment went out on schedule. Down the block a pair of evil eyes was watching. “I’ve got you now, you little fuckers,” he muttered and made his way toward the building.

It’s been a few days since all that. I’m basking in the sun this morning on the piazza of the Contessa’s villa overlooking Florence. The Arno is gleaming in the distance. ‘Roger’ is still in bed. Today is for relaxing. Tomorrow we’re off to Milan for new wardrobes. The Contessa says she has reserved some of the better design houses for us for the entire afternoon. Then there is a financial adviser she wants us to consult with. He says he can double our fortune in a year’s time. The Contessa says his word is good and his methods are mostly legal.

It’s cool on the piazza but the morning sun is warm on my face. With a small blanket across my legs, life is good.  I want to hold this moment forever. I guess I’m still afraid I’ll wake up in a rat infested apartment with Swann leering down at me.

Now that I’ve had time to consider it I think I have some idea of what was happening back home. Tip was not an idiot. You don’t become a crime boss by being dumb. He knew that Swann’s star was on the rise and his was setting. His escape plan was the large “retirement fund” in the off-shore bank. He was probably shutting down businesses, collecting debts and such. That would explain the large amount of cash in his office. Swann would not have been ignorant of Tip’s sudden influx of cash and would assume that Tip was building up his war chest to fight back against Swann’s expansion. So Swann launched his attack a little before Tip expected it. Luis would have known Tip was leaving and may have decided to throw his loyalty behind the new boss. So Tip was planning to leave the rest of us high and dry. The bastard.

 The Contessa flutters out like a flock of blue butterflies and settles in a chair beside my chaise. A faint aroma of jasmine follows her. She looks at me, saying nothing. After a few moments the staring is making me uncomfortable.

“What?” I say, unable to stand the scrutiny any longer.

“I knew it,” she crows. “I just knew it. Henri has been inordinantly pleased with himself all morning and then I find you out here sated and purring like the cat who got the cream. I knew it. You two were together last night.”

It is pointless to deny it as I feel my ears turning pink. Henri and I were together last night and it was magnificent! He is such a vigorous lover. I’m still sore in a few places. But just the thought of last night is making my pajama bottoms uncomfortably tight.

“I must say I expected as much but I thought Henri would take a few more days before he made his move,” she continues. “Ordinarily I would say, ‘darling, we don’t do the help’, but Henri’s practically part of the family. He’s quite smitten with you and I must say I approve.”

“Thanks?” is all I can manage.

“But I have one proviso,” and she gives me the coldest look I can imagine. “Don’t you dare hurt him.”

“I have no intention of hurting him. I think he’s great. He may break me, though.”

“Oh yes, our Henri is a man of gusto. Speak of the devil.”  Henri has appeared on the piazza with a sheet of paper.

“Good morning again, madame. Good morning Monsieur Luke. I trust you slept well?” I nod and he stops beside the chaise, his attention on the Contessa. His slight French accent takes me back to last night and his moans of “Zhoey”. I have to readjust myself under the blanket.

“I pulled this off our American newsfeed this morning, madame. I thought it would interest you.”

I also take the opportunity to surreptitiously stroke the back of his calf. He cuts his eyes at me barely suppressing a grin. I wink at him. The grin strives to break through. I mouth “tonight” and he can hardly control his face. He quickly looks back at the Contessa. She is reading the news report. Suddenly her hand flies to her mouth, covering a smile. “Oh my,” she gasps. Then she begins to giggle like a school girl. “Oh this is too rich. I love it.” She passes the news item to me.

“Gunning Granny Gets Goon (NYC)

An elderly landlady shot and killed an intruder in her home early Thursday morning. Mrs Eulalia Berger who says her age is “none of yer damn business” (public records say 74) surprised an armed intruder in her building and shot him dead. “I keep a gun to shoot rats in the alley. These New York rats are big as tom cats. But it looks like I got the biggest rat of all,” she said.   

 The deceased has been identified as John “Hammer” Benson, 35, who is unemployed. He is allegedly involved with organized crime as an enforcer in the lower East Side. Mrs. Berger said she heard a noise about midnight and went to investigate. She and Mr. Benson apparently came upon each other at the same time and Mrs. Berger shot first. She hit Mr. Benson three times in the chest. “Shoot first, ask questions later. That’s what I say,” she said. No charges will be filed as it was a case of self-defense.

            In a related story, ballistics of the intruder’s weapon match it to the gun used to kill Tomas Czarnik aka Tip O’Shay in the same building on Wednesday. A detective working the case said “it appears Mr. Benson killed Mr. Czarnik. He must have felt there was some loose end and was planning to fix it. Mrs. Berger probably saved an innocent life tonight.” The detectives feel this solves the murder/robbery but the persons of interest, Joey Larsen and Brandon Carter, remain missing. “I fear they probably knew too much and are at the bottom of the East River,” a detective said. As to a motive, the detective said it was a gangland clash. Mr. Benson has been associated with Mr. T.J. Swann, an entrepreneur with what some consider a questionable past. Mr. Swann was unavailable for comment at press time as he was being taken into custody by FBI agents on a plethora of organized crime charges – murder, extortion, prostitution, drugs, bribery, racketeering. “We’re just getting started,” said a federal agent who asked not to be identified. “A concerned citizen turned in boxes of evidence tying Swann to most of the crimes committed in the East side in the past ten years. It’s a treasure trove for us. Swann’s going away for about 500 years plus.” In addition to the federal arrest of Mr. Swann, Police Internal Affairs have placed a number of police officers from the 13th precinct on unpaid leave pending charges. Those involved include Lieutenant A. J. Fielding, Captain T.R. Montgomery and Detective Alan Trask.”

“A concerned citizen?” I ask looking at the Contessa with renewed respect.

“I had to call in a lot of favors to get all that and so quickly, but that rascal needed to be taught a lesson.”

“And that lesson would be?” I begin.

Henri finishes it with his best Bronx accent, “Ya don’t fuck wid da Contessa.”

And you can believe I never will.

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