The first hit was always the hardest one to take.
The guy swinging at me was drunk enough that he’d given up aiming at my face—those were easy to dodge, especially coming from someone so juiced—but he got lucky with his fifth jab toward my middle.
Fifth jab. First connection. My muscles contracted painfully, but I shoulder-charged him hard enough that he ended up ass-planting on the hard concrete of the back alley.
The Beartrap Bar wasn’t always so lively, but this particular asshole had picked tonight to make a fuss. With no bouncer in the place and an awful lot of booze under his belt, it must have seemed like a good time to push the concept of consent with a few of the younger patrons. He’d been cornering them in the bathroom and waving his dick around.
Unfortunately for him, Friday nights were my Beartrap nights.
He was shouting as he stumbled back to his feet, his words slurred and insensible, but I managed to pick out kill you and goddamn motherfucker in there among them.
“And here I thought tonight was gonna be dull,” I chuckled, straightening up. Never let them see you hurting. That’s the secret to a good, honest fight.
And then the guy pulled out a knife.
“Oh, come on,” I groaned. “Why’d you have to go and do that?”
He lunged at me. I darted back. He stabbed at me again, surprisingly nimble on his feet, and I grabbed his wrist. I was about to disarm him…
But I hesitated.
It was a growing battle these days of what I should do versus what my darker half was telling me to do. Screaming at me to do.
What I wanted to do was kill the guy. Eradicating this particular cockroach would be an overreaction, sure. But it would also be satisfying. For a few minutes, anyway…
And it would be so simple. A quiet, easy kill. Bend his own arm back until the knife met his throat, slid in firmly to the hilt. Bundle the body behind the dumpster a little ways down the alley until I could come back later and clean up.
Result? One less asshole on the streets, one less problem for me as I made my protection rounds of West Hollywood nightlife. I was getting tired of making people mind their manners. Tired of pretending I was something different than what I really was.
Killing was what I’d been trained for, from the time I was six years old and my father had first shown me how to take apart a gun, clean it, and put it back together. Killing was what made me useful to my employers in Vegas or LA or anywhere else I might decide to go in future.
Killing was my craft. It was hard not to practice it.
But I’d been under strict no-kill orders from Don Ciro Castellani ever since he’d stripped me of my position in the Family and told me I had to learn better judgment. Not to mention the shit that killing this guy would pour down on my idiot Capo, Luigi “Legs” Liggari, if word got out.
And word probably would get out. There was no telling what spies Legs had sent after me tonight.
I’d stood there contemplating my fucking navel for way too long, and the asshole seized his moment. He yanked his wrist out of my grip, swiveled, and aimed the knife right at my heart with a shout of triumph.
Resigned to keeping this fool alive, I shoved his arm aside and gave him a hard, high kick to the back as he stumbled past me. In combination with his own momentum, it sent him headfirst into the wall opposite. He crumpled to his knees, the knife dropping from his hand.
“You know, this could’ve ended less painfully for you,” I sighed, as I picked the knife up. The guy struggled a moment, trying to heave himself up.
“No, stay down,” I told him, crouching down next to him so I could hold the blade to his throat. I pushed his face into the wall. “Here’s the deal. I’m a really fucking nice guy, so I’m gonna let you live tonight. But I ever see you around here again? I will kill you. Artistically, even—but you won’t be around to appreciate the art of it. Do we understand each other?”
And then he said it, the thing every second asshole in LA said when I’d kicked them out of somewhere. A little muffled, since he was eating bricks, but clear enough. “Do you fucking know who I am?”
I slid a hand into his sports coat, piercing the skin of his neck when he moved to stop me. The sting of the cut quieted him down. I took out his wallet and flipped it open. “Paul Bunnings, 1639 South Maple Street. So yeah. I know who you are—and where you live. Understand?”
I pressed the knife a little harder into his throat, and he yelped. “Since we’re getting to know each other,” I said in his ear, “most people call me Jack. But you can call me ‘sir.’ And you should probably know…” I stood up, folding his knife and sliding it into my own pocket. “I work for the Castellanis.”
That always got them. It was satisfying to see the effect the Castellani name had on people. The Family rep around town was still solid gold, despite all the internal bullshit going on.
“I didn’t know.” His voice was hoarse, sobriety scared back into him.
“I didn’t know, sir.”
It took him a second, but he repeated it when he saw I was dead serious. “I didn’t know, sir. Oh fuck, please don’t kill me.”
“Easy mistake to make,” I said, ignoring the plea, “wandering into a place where you’re not welcome. But you won’t make that mistake again, will you, Paulie? You’re going to forget West Hollywood exists. Otherwise I might find myself wandering down Maple Street some night.”
He nodded his head hard, his mouth slack and drooling a little blood.
“Get the fuck outta here,” I snapped. “Go on, fucking run, you dumb shit,” I added, as he tottered away on unsteady feet, heading down the alley in the opposite direction from the Beartrap.
I turned to make my way back to the bar, and caught a shadow flitting across the opening of the alley. I went to red alert again for a few moments, but nothing came of it. No alarms, no cops, no problems.
It was probably one of my fellow crew members. Legs Liggari wasn’t a clever man; he encouraged his crew to squeal on each other about minor infractions, and rewarded tattletales. It made for an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, not to mention lies running rampant. But Legs thought it kept him secure in his leadership to keep the crew at each other’s throats.
Like I said, he wasn’t a clever man.
Still. It was probably just as well I hadn’t killed that fucker.
I usually left the Beartrap Bar last on my Friday night run of collections because I liked to stay awhile. The bartender was always glad to see me, and there was this pretty-faced guy who was often there to start off his night while I finished mine.
I liked having something nice to look at when work was over, to remind me of the brighter side of life.
Tonight, though, I’d had to take care of that little problem first, and when I came back inside, I couldn’t see the guy I was looking for. I picked up the envelope as usual from the bartender, accepted his grateful thanks, and thanked him in turn for taking care of my hat while I’d been outside. Then I had a choice to make. Head home? Or hang around?
I already knew the answer. My job left little time for distractions, and I wasn’t in the mood for flirting anyway, not after that blue-balling fight outside. It had left me dissatisfied.
I was picking up my hat to leave when my decision was reversed for me. “Here you go,” the bartender said, sliding me over a… I had to pause and look more closely at it. “Drink” would be one word for it. “Event” would be closer. There were cocktails and then there were cocktails; this one was three different colors and studded with an umbrella, a fruit stick and two straws.
“Think you might have mistaken me for someone else,” I snorted, pushing the drink back toward him.
The bartender—Tim, he was called—grinned and pushed the drink back at me. “That’s what I said, too, but he insisted: ‘When that hot guy with the fedora hat comes back in, make him a Hollywood Harlot.’ So there you go. From your secret admirer.”
Secret admirer? The internal alarm bells began ringing faintly. “Who?”
“Relax. It’s that guy you’re always staring at when you come in. Here.” He pushed it a little further towards me.
“You know, these are really fucking hard to make.”
I raised one eyebrow.
Tim sighed and pulled the drink back. “I’ll get you your usual.”
I’d already picked up my hat again from the barstool next to me. “Don’t worry about it.” The alarm bells had turned into sirens. Maybe I hadn’t been quick enough to spot the honeytrap the first time the guy had started eyeing me, but I saw it now. As if a guy that good-looking would ever take a second glance at me.
I was already turning for the door when that particular piece of heaven slid in front of me.
“I was only trying to say thanks for taking out the garbage,” he said. “But if you really won’t drink it, at least sit with me while I do.”
I looked him over, and he preened a little. He seemed to think I was taking in the sights. I was, but I was also wondering about concealed weapons.
I’d been watching him for weeks now—not unnoticed, based on the bartender’s comment—and it was just as much a pleasure to look at him this close up as it was from a distance. Until that first night I’d seen him, I’d never thought of myself as having a type. I always paid for my company. Safer that way, for many reasons. But since I’d laid eyes on this guy, I hadn’t been able to get him out of my head.
Apparently I did have a type.
My type was ten years younger and a few inches shorter than me, slim and lithe, although occasionally he liked to show off well-defined arms with a muscle shirt. High cheekbones and a generous mouth, and eyes with a color that wouldn’t settle on one shade. But whatever color they were, they were always expressive, curious, thoughtful.
My type also had the kind of ass that caught attention. The kind of ass that made me clench my teeth hard when I thought about getting inside it. Over the past few weeks, every time I’d seen someone turn to watch the view as he walked past, I’d felt a jealous solidarity.
This was a young man who was used to being looked at. Liked to be looked at. I liked looking at him, too, but I’d never fooled myself into thinking he might take any interest in me.
His smile turned uncertain. “I’m sorry if I misread,” he said. “But we’ve been eye-fucking for weeks. I just thought tonight—”
“You know you’re way out of my league, right?”
“What?” He gave a confused laugh.
“Okay,” I said, making up my mind. Better find out who was behind this particular honeytrap, right? “I’ll watch you drink that thing. I’m sure it’ll be entertaining. But I’m on the job, so I’ll stick to water.”
He moved past me, making sure to brush up against me as he did, and leaned over the bar to show off that ass to its best advantage.
He knew exactly what he was doing.
“Hey, Tim,” he called. “Plain water for this grouch, and bring that dazzling creation back over here.”
He said nothing to me as we waited for the order, didn’t even look at me—he kept his eyes on the bartender, and I wondered if he were nervous under all that bravado. But when he turned back, cocktail monstrosity in one hand and an ice water with lemon slices in the other, I saw no hesitation. “I kept an eye on him to make sure he didn’t slip you a Mickey,” he said seriously, and then grinned as I blinked. “Come on. Let’s find somewhere quiet.”
The bar was loud and crammed full of hopeful bodies, but somehow this kid managed to find a booth in a dark corner that had a high enough side to shield some of the noise.
“So,” he said, after taking a long suck on one of the straws, “that was a good thing you did tonight.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“That asshole you pulled out of the bathroom? He’s been in there most of the night, trying to intimidate someone into swallowing his dick.” His head gave a quick, bird-like tilt. “I saw you. Out in the back alley?”
The shadow I’d seen… It was this guy? “And what were you doing, creeping around the back alleys of West Hollywood? You got a voyeurism kink?”
He gave a crooked smiled. “I was just curious. Wondered exactly how that situation was going to end. You know, I see you coming in here every week, but you never talk to anyone except Tim. You on the downlow?”
“I’m at work,” I told him. “Like I said.”
“But you usually take a drink,” he countered.
“Not that kind.” I eyed the multicolored cocktail. “You sure that’s even legal?”
He pushed it toward me, the other straw shaking back and forth temptingly. “Try some,” he told me, like we were at a diner and he was asking me to share his chocolate shake. I had a sudden craving for fries, something salty, and imagined running my tongue up his neck.
I wrapped my hand around his on the glass, pulled it closer, and kept my eyes on him while I took a suck on the straw. His straw. I wasn’t dumb enough to taste anything he hadn’t tasted himself. But it was too sweet and too heady, just like him.
If I drank in much more I’d regret it tomorrow.
“You don’t like it,” he laughed. “But that’s okay. You had a new experience, and that’s something you can put in your diary tonight, right?”
I nearly snorted out the half-mouthful I had left through my nose. “Oh, sure. ‘Dear Diary, this super-cute guy bought me a drink tonight.’”
“Pretty sure you know it.” I let him pull the drink back towards himself, and he tongued the straw back into his mouth, making sure I watched.
He took a suck, hollowing his cheeks suggestively, and then said, “Pretty sure men buy you drinks all the time.”
He was laying the flattery on thick, but it still felt good. “You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever bought me a drink before.” I couldn’t remember it happening. Usually I was paying a pro, and there were no drinks needed. I’d gone Dutch on dates. But I hadn’t dated for a long, long time.
He leaned in close and said conspiratorially, “Now I feel compelled to give you something really interesting to write about in that diary.” Under the table, his foot slid in between mine suggestively. “What job lets you come and pick up guys at a bar? Sounds like fun.”
Ah, shit. What the hell was I doing? Even if he wasn’t a plant, all this heavy flirting was exactly the kind of thing my Capo thought I did when I came out collecting in West Hollywood, and the kind of thing I’d prided myself on never doing.
Work was work. Mixing work with play was never a good idea.
“You don’t wanna know about my job,” I said, but I smiled as I said it, and that was my mistake.
“True. I wanna know about you. Like, what’s with the hat?”
“What do you mean, what’s with the hat?” I’d set my hat down next to me after wiping the tabletop down carefully, and those stunning hazel eyes—I’d decided now that they were hazel—had been hovering over it thoughtfully.
“Well, why do you wear it?”
The hat was useful. Covered my hair, my face, kept me in shadows when I needed them, and witnesses fixated on the hat, forgot my face. “It keeps my head warm,” I told him.
“Oh, right,” he said, nodding. “All that cold weather we get here in LA. Yeah, I can see how a hat would come in handy.” He tipped his head to one side. “Where’d you live before here?”
“Before here?” I leaned back a little, and stopped squeezing his leg so tight between mine. I couldn’t imagine anything about me that would’ve caught his interest, unless he was under orders. And now he was asking about my past. “I was born in Vegas,” I said, watching him closely. “Lived there until about a decade back.”
His hands were still wrapped around the cocktail. If he moved them at all, went for a weapon, he was close enough that I could punch him in the throat, give him something to think about while I got out of this tiny damn booth—
“Hat kept you warm out there, too?” he asked, and sipped at that drink again. He pulled out the fruit stick and licked the coconut foam off it, staring right at me.
“Kept me from getting sunstroke in Vegas,” I said. “It’s a useful hat. Does double-duty.”
“I see that.” His tongue curled around the banana chunk, pulled it off the skewer into his mouth. I watched every minute movement and while part of me wondered what that tongue would feel like curling around my nuts, the other part wondered if he was getting ready to push the skewer through my eyeball. “You seem tense,” he said—or purred, rather. “I could help out with that, if you like. You want to go somewhere more private?”
Lord help me, I did. “I’m fine right here,” I sighed.
He took it on the chin. “As long as you know the offer’s on the table.” His leg inched higher between my own. “Or under it.”
He wasn’t a killer, this kid. He was just horny. That could make him even more difficult to deal with, though. “What do you do for a living?” I asked. “Or are you a trust fund brat?”
He pulled his legs away sharply. “I’m an artist,” he said after a moment.
“What kind of art?”
He stared at me a moment, then tugged a paper napkin out of the dispenser at the side of the table. He fished a pen out of his pocket and began sketching out something on the napkin, holding the paper tight as the pen dragged across it. Thirty seconds later, I was looking at a minimalist caricature of myself as a noirish villain, my hat pulled down low, squinting suspiciously out at the viewer.
After a pause, I said, “That’s not very flattering.”
He gave me a deceptively sweet smile. “Maybe not, but it’s how you’ve been treating me since the second I started talking to you.”
He was right. I’d been acting like a jerk. And besides, when was I going to have another chance to enjoy a view like he was offering?
“Let’s start over,” I said. “How about I buy you a drink—one of those monstrosities, if you like—and you tell me all about yourself.”
The Boss always told me I had bad judgment.