“At the hour of our death.”
Paulie opened his eyes.
“Amen.” Antonio pulled the trigger. A spray of brick dust flew out of the wall above Paulie’s head, dredging his hair and he barked a sound that was neither consonant nor vowel but a mingling of both.
Or maybe I made that sound.
“See?” Antonio said. “I shot over your head.”
Antonio grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of building. The last I saw was Paulie stumbling back as if he couldn’t believe he was alive.
Antonio practically threw me into the Mas, taking off before the helicopter got over us. I had my hands over my mouth to stifle all the emotion that wanted to spill out.
“Contessa,” He rolled the top up and drove slowly and legally. “What?”
“He’s right,” I choked out. “If something happens to you, it’s my fault.”
He pulled over, slammed the car into park and took my wrists in his fingers. “Listen to me.”
I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see anything. It was all too big. Too overwhelming. He was ready to shoot his best friend, right there, for me.
He pushed into me until all I could see was his face, his hands cupping my cheeks in my peripheral vision. I inhaled his smell of burned forests and charred cities, his voice of salted caramel. He was my world, right then, and my heart rate slowed.
“Listen. To. Me.” He took a deep breath, and I felt it and mimicked what he did, calming myself by tuning my body to his. “I am responsible for the years of my life,” he said. “Nothing you do will change them. This position I’m in is my own. And now, you’re in it. We can talk about that later. But now, do you hear the sirens?”
I listened. Nodded.
“The shop is half a mile away. We have only a minute to leave or we’re going to be found here.”
“We didn’t do anything. We were just standing—”
“If I’m here, there are questions. If I’m not, there are layers of paperwork between those shots and the owner of the building.”
The thup-thup-thup of helicopters was a few blocks away, over the store. Paulie would have left the scene, and we were just two people in a parked car, but we couldn’t ignore the impending descent of the law.
I took a long blink. The crisis was over, and there was only three things left: Antonio. Me. And God.
Could I keep two realities in my head at the same time? Could I believe he was good and sound, even though I knew he committed murder while he was with me? I feared it would become too much, some day. The struggle would eat my soul until all that was left of me would be my body, the physical manifestation of ache, need, and desire.
I knew there would be ramifications to Paulie’s near-death experience. I’d have to deal with all of it, and yes, I was going to have to deal with my responsibility in his current state of affairs. I breathed once, twice, and I put my fear, arousal, and self-loathing behind a thick shell of ice and control. I knew it swirled underneath, an ever-growing, self-propagating ball of hysteria.
The size and power of that ball terrified me. Once we were in the car, I hardened the shell around it. Blinked. Breathed. Swallowed. Became myself.
Antonio drove like a model citizen. The police sirens died out; the thup of the helicopter faded away. I could tell he was trying to be calm and to breathe evenly. Eventually, his grip on the wheel loosened, and he leaned his head back on the seat.
“Will they find us?” I said. “Or Paulie? Or anything?”
“The building is owned by an offshore trust.” He took a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and poked one between his lips. “The police will find nothing. The insurance company will get a bill.” He offered me the pack, and I declined. He pocketed it and pulled out his silver lighter. “Case closed.” He lit his cigarette and snapped the lighter shut with a clack.
Antonio drove. Smoked. I wondered if this would be our new small talk. Instead of the weather or the financial markets, would we share a quick description of police activity and the traceability of ownership?
Since the Mas had been parked in the back, no one would know it had anything to do with the shooting. If they did know, they expected it there. The possibility that everyone in the neighborhood kept silent for their own protection occurred to me.
Antonio coiled like a spring, pushing on the steering wheel, even as he drove like the sanest, soberest man alive.
“I am going to fucking kill him.” He slammed the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. “What did he think he was doing? Son of a whore. He could have killed you.”
He put his hand on my cheek. His touch lit my skin in a crackle of firing nerve endings. “I’ll rip him apart if anything happens to you. If he scratches you, I’ll drive a knife into his heart. Do you hear me? He’ll be dead before he hits the ground.”
I groaned. I didn’t want him to kill anyone, but I didn’t want him to stop talking. “You don’t need to kill for me.”
“Killing him would be kindness if he hurt you.” He curled his fingers into a fist. “If anyone hurts you, I will kill them.”
Our lust was all mixed in with viciousness. I wanted to take it and swallow it without reservation, even if I blew apart from the intensity of it.
I took his hand and put it on my breast. “What if you hurt me?”
“Take me, Antonio. Hurt me bad.” I slid my hand between his legs. He was hard.
He turned a corner, and I saw the yellow-and-black East Side Motors sign. It had a dusting of soot on the bottom. A trailer with a logo for LoZo’s Construction had been pulled onto the lot, a man sat in the back of the truck, feet dangling eating a sandwich. Charred wood and plastic were piled to the left; burned-out cars had been moved to the right. The office side of the building was burned to the beams. The garage fared better, though there had been some damage. Antonio pulled into the garage. It stank of grease and flame. Thickness and sharpness stung the back of my throat. If black had a smell, it would be the inside of that building.
Antonio got out of the car and lowered the gate, shutting the space in darkness except for the wall connecting the office, which had burned off at the top.
I got out of the car, feeling my way along the side of it.
I felt him beside me a second before his hand grabbed a handful of hair and bent me over the hood of the Maserati, holding me there.