Being nervous would get you nowhere in the scheme of things Frank knew, but he still couldn’t get his fingers to stop drumming against his thigh as he waited for Baylon.
A job interview, he had told Sandy. And like any other job there was a regulation people stuck to. Frank had handed in his resume in the form of a couple of dead bodyguards and another mysterious briefcase and now there was nothing to do but wait until his boss saw fit to see him in. Still, he couldn’t help feeling as though he was awaiting some kind of death sentence and the ominous ticking of the clock on the wall wasn’t helping. It just reminded him that he only had so much time left.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The door swung open and Frank stood up automatically, almost knocking over one of the plush velvet chairs installed to make the room look a little less shabby. A man had walked in, so huge that he cast the other who flanked him into shadow so that Frank couldn’t see his face. He could not see the face of the first either, due to the wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes and the shroud of cigar smoke acting as a barrier of protection. Protection from what Frank didn’t know, considering they were the only three in the room.
“My Frankie,” Baylon greeted him with his arms outstretched, as though he were going to embrace him. “How you been? Get into any trouble on the way here?”
Frank opened his mouth to answer but Baylon cut him short. “Aw come on, now! First rule of business, never answer an easy question easily. You should know that.”
He nodded. “Yes sir. I do.”
“Right,” he tapped the cigar resting in his thick fingers. Scatterings of ash fell lightly to the floor. “You know why I asked you here. I need me more men for the hard jobs and I get the feeling that my boy here is a little lonely,” behind the smoky cloud Frank thought he could see the flicker of a smirk. “So I look around, get to talking to people. Friend of mine said you was a good catch, Frankie. That you was up and coming.”
Frank was about to answer modestly, to give Baylon his generic so-so confirmation when he caught himself, remembering what he had said about not giving an easy answer. So instead he merely inclined his head.
This time the grin on Baylon’s face was evident, splitting the smoke screen like a sharpened blade. “Good,” he said softly, sending a stream of silver-white curling into the air. “Drive. Ambition. I like that. That’s good.”
Baylon inclined his head slightly, the stimulus for the man to step out from behind him, raising his head to stare at Frank levelly in the eye who’s breath caught in his chest as he met the gaze. The man was tall and looked taller in the dim light so that Frank had the unsettling feeling of inferiority at first glance. The suit he wore emphasised his slim build but there was power there that hinted at restraint, something around the arms crossed casually against his chest and the way his shoulders were set back. His hair was dark, morbidly dark and contrasted violently with the whiteness of his skin yet weirdly fitting the dark shadows around his eyes, scars of many a sleepless night.
He looked Frank over with a cold glance, a contemptuous look which inexplicably sent his cheeks burning furiously and he turned his gaze towards the floor so that his employer wouldn’t see. And also because it was difficult to keep up a stare at someone so darkly attractive.
“This is Gerard,” said Baylon. “Your new partner.”
Frank gave a nod in greeting that Gerard did not return. Instead he looked away and his chest rose and fell with an exaggerated sigh of annoyance.
“You’ll get along swimmingly, I’m sure. I’ll leave you two to get acquainted, people to see, things to do and all that. Play nicely, now.”
He gave a wheezing, cracked laugh that ended abruptly and strode from the room, leaving Frank feeling distinctly awkward as he noticed the distinct scowl on Gerard’s face. He wondered what he’d done to piss him off after five minutes of introduction and as the floor was becoming boring fast, stole a quick glance in his direction. His arms were still crossed and he was still looking at anything but Frank, his hair falling into his eyes with an informal grace. Then he turned his head and their eyes met. Gerard’s narrowed.
“The hell are you staring at?” he asked accusingly. “Something interesting?”
Frank shrugged. This did not turn out to be an acceptable answer.
“Christ you’re short,” said Gerard scathingly. “How old are you, anyways? We running a Girl Scouts now?”
“I’m nineteen,” Frank replied slightly defensively. “And I’ve lived a lot longer.”
Gerard’s eyebrows furrowed. “What does that mean? That some kind of poetry?”
“It means I’ve been doing this,” he gestured into the air. “A long time. Longer than you have, I bet you anything.”
He counted quickly. As quick as he could with Gerard’s cold gaze fixed on him. “Just about ten years,” he replied.
Gerard raised his eyebrows. Frank couldn’t tell if he was impressed or not. “Well I’ll be. I could have sworn you hadn’t been on this earth for so long.”
Ignoring the taunt Frank returned Gerard’s level stare, watching his pretty red mouth curl into a sneer. “And you won’t be for much longer unless you do as I tell you,” he continued finally. “I don’t care how many games of Cops and Robbers you’ve had a go at on a rainy day. You’re playing with the big boys now and let me tell you, they hit hard. Now I’m supposed to work with you, be a guide and support and a helping hand and all that shit. But if you can’t keep up then I’m not coming back for you. And believe you me, I set a fast pace.”
Frank just blinked and nodded. He didn’t really know what to say. Then, upon realising Gerard was waiting for something intelligible he replied “Ready when you are, boss.”
“Right,” said Gerard curtly. He crossed over to the door Baylon had exited out of, gesturing for Frank to follow. It opened up into an entrance hall where a high collared-coat was hanging on a peg. Gerard grabbed it, tossed it round his shoulders and turned back to Frank as if something had suddenly occurred to him. “Just remembered. Rule number one. Don’t fucking bet against me.”
Baylon had told him to give a tour of the area, help Frank get to know his surroundings a little bit. Gerard didn’t like to for the soul reason that the area depressed him. Wherever he went he gained a further insight into a city drenched in sin; everywhere booze, everywhere sex, everywhere dirty money. Sometimes it sickened him to know that he was a part of it all, that this was his world and it centred around people like him to keep it filthy but he would send such thoughts to the back of his mind and have a drink and forget about it.
When he was still new at this it used to drive him crazy. He would have a guy on his knees staring straight into the barrel of his gun and then images of God and Hell would pop into his mind and his hand would shake. So he used to kid himself that by pulling that trigger he was purging the world of evil – one more cheating mobster choking on arsenic, one more disgusting street pimp broken in a ditch. Now he didn’t even have to pretend. It was quicker just to shoot.
With a gesture to Frank, Gerard strode up the steps of a large grey building and knocked rhythmically on the door which swung open as soon as his knuckles touched the wood. A large theatre lay before them, complete with polished wooden staircases, velvet curtains and a black guy on a piano. The woman standing on the stage was singing along to it to the encouragement of the four men who watched her. She broke off as Gerard entered and the heads turned round to face them.
“Gerard!” the voice of the Irish gunner came first as he leapt up to wring his hand. “Where the hell have you been, you lazy bastard?”
“Yeah, and who’s this?” asked another. “You never told me you had a kid.”
“That’s funny, Schechter,” Gerard rolled his eyes. “This here’s Iero. He’s new in town.”
A nod of understanding swept around the group. The man called Schecter held out his hand. “Gerard likes to call everyone by their surname. But we’re a lot friendlier. We view our syndicate kinda like a family. I’m Brian, this here’s Quinn,” the Irish man raised a hand. “Al,” a tall man who winked in greeting. “And Julian.”
Julian, a fair-haired boy not much older than Frank himself, made no sign of acknowledgement. Frank took in the faces as he always did, going over the names in his mind so that he wouldn’t forget. Quinn was tall and thickset with a loud laugh and a jaw that could break your fist if you punched it. Brian – thin faced with a friendly smile and Al had a large scar just above his left eyebrow that was still a bright red. Frank guessed it was a recent injury.
“Frank,” he said, shaking Brian’s hand and looking around the theatre. “This is a big place.”
“That it is,” Brian agreed as Quinn motioned for the man on the piano to play. The woman began to sing again as soon as he started, an upbeat jazzy tune that reminded Frank strangely of Sandy. “We own this place, as well as the other theatre down the road.”
“Whatdja use it for?”
Brian shrugged. “Headquarters. Smuggling stations,” he gestured towards the singer. “Give our customers something to look forward to when they’ve got a penny to spend.”
Frank nodded, conscious of Gerard watching him. He was listening to them talk, his mouth pulled upwards halfway between a smirk and a smile but his eyes were fixed on Frank, boring into him like he was looking for something. A familiar heat creeped into Frank’s cheeks again and he resisted the urge to look down.
The day was spent getting to know the members of his new firm. Fortunately, Brian, Quinn and Al were all remarkably likeable people and none of them held any semblance of Gerard’s sneering contempt. He found himself watching Julian however who rarely said anything to Frank or to the others. Maybe he just didn’t like the look of him. Maybe he was just shy.
“They like you,” said Gerard when they left later that evening.
“I like them,” Frank replied. “They’re more...cheerful than I expected. You wouldn’t have guessed they kill people for a living.”
“That’s because they don’t,” said Gerard exasperatedly. “Quinn’s a mercenary and even though he could squash a man with his bare hands he’s too kind-hearted to drown a kitten. Al’s demolition’s expert which means he doesn’t get to see the people die and can forget about it quicker and Brian’s got brains. He writes the plans other people put in motion.”
“What about Julian?”
“Julian...” Gerard hesitated for a second then shook his head. “Petty thief with pretty hands. You need a few of those in every syndicate.”
Frank wasn’t sure what that meant but the grim expression Gerard wore meant he wasn’t likely to press the matter. “What place do these guys rank, then? In the scheme of things?”
“After Baylon there’s me,” Gerard began with no hint of arrogance. “Then probably Brian. B likes him because he’s smart but doesn’t trust him enough to give him any power over the rest of us. Al and Quinn are on the same kind of level and Julian’s little more than an errand boy. He throws rocks at the fuzz and gets coffee.”
Frank nodded, wondering whether that was what Gerard had in mind for him. To fire a few shots if it got really bad and keep the sun off his face in the peace time. An image came into Frank’s head of himself, standing over Gerard with a large fan and he smirked to himself upon the realisation that maybe he wouldn’t mind that too much.
“What are you laughing at?” Gerard frowned.
“Nothing,” said Frank quickly. “Just thinking about things being quite similar where I was at before.”
“Where were you at before?”
He hesitated. Gerard noticed. “Anywhere really,” he replied at last. “I did odd jobs for anyone. Carrying crates from A to B. That kinda thing.”
Gerard raised his eyebrow. Frank couldn’t tell if it was in suspicion. “Errand boy, huh?”
Frank smiled. “When I had to be.”
He wanted Gerard to leave it at that and thankfully, he did. Goddammit, he swore to himself as they walked back down the street. You freaking jackass. Why don’t you just give him the name of your last syndicate? It’ll only be over quicker.
“Where do you live?” asked Gerard casually upon reaching the car.
Frank glanced around and gestured airily. “Not far away. I can walk back.”
Gerard rolled his eyes. “Like I said. You’re playing with the big boys now. You think they won’t have done their homework? Trust me, your face will be known on these streets before you can shout. And you’re planning to walk down them in the dark?”
Again Frank felt the uneasy sensation of inferiority as he raised his hands in mock surrender. “Jeez, I’m sorry. I’ll get a taxi or something.”
“Nah you won’t. Taxis are full of Italians,” he bit his lip, apparently thinking hard. His expression softened as he looked up. “Get in. I’ll give you a lift.”
“Oh – No, it’s fine, you don’t have to-”
“-I said I would, didn’t I?” he interrupted. “Now hurry up and get in. I need to be somewhere.”
Reluctantly, Frank slid in beside Gerard and directed him down the road. They didn’t speak in the car, except to ask and answer directions which were usually a one word “Yes” and a “Left.” Soon enough they pulled up at a small house and Frank got out of the car.
“Thanks,” he mumbled embarrassedly.
“No problem,” Gerard shrugged. “Get some sleep and meet same place, same time. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Frank nodded and waited until Gerard had gone to head inside. A long day, he thought to himself bitterly. Another long day.