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The thing about her is that she makes him feel.  Not like he doesn’t feel things on the regular.  He feels when he’s with Marcus.  Ups and downs, highs and lows; that’s expected.  That’s being a father.  He feels when he sees his legitimate bank accounts grow bigger, cent by cent.  He feels when he’s gotta take care of an egg gone rotten.  But all that’s within normal limits.  Nothing gets underneath and sits there cranking at the armor he’s fixed in place.  No one gets even close to seeing what he’s really like.

Nobody.  

So when she back talks him like he’s the scum of the earth, and she’s been sanctified by the holy water and has a fast pass through the pearly gates; he feels tickled.  He’s amused, deep down in his chest, when usually the only amusement he feels is with Marcus or his crew.  

She’s something else; she might even be a good addition.  So he lets her off.  Lets her get her toes wet, get a feel for the temperature of the river Styx, and see how she likes it.  Of course, as he’d thought she would, mama likes it.  Amusement becomes something else.  Fondness.  Desire, because his eyes work just fine.  Anger and pride and a little fear when she fucks him up, and brings Turner and the FBI in that much closer.  

Then, once he’s inside her, and her fingers are curled around his neck, and her mouth is hot next to his ear, and around his cock is a vise gripping him so tight he thinks he might die crying, he thinks he might be in love.

On the drive home, he shivers, thinking that over.  Love was for Marcus.  Love was safe with Marcus.  He remembered his mother reciting a verse to him when Marcus was just born, and things were already shattering with Antonia.  Love is patient.  Love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

He’d met one of those criteria with Elizabeth already.  Sometimes he felt he was getting close to the other four.  But what mattered, what kept him from sleeping when he needed to rest, was that he felt like he could be himself.  No matter what he said, no matter what he did, she’d look at him and see him.  Nobody could do that.  Not any one of his crew.  Not any one of his family.  Not since his parents were dead and gone, anyway.   And that was intoxicating. 

He thought it was the same for her.  

She’d shown him over and over again that she wanted what he wanted.  That they were one in the same.  So when she took his gun, he thought it was proof finally that she was ready to join him.  

Of course, that was when she shot him.   

That was getting ahead of things though.  


Welcome back boss.  The car door slammed home, and Rio rolled his eyes before squeezing his fingers across his eyebrows.  He was tired of playing on a board where the Queen was acting like she wasn’t sure if she was going to watch his back or sacrifice him.  He supposed that that was his fault.  None of the women he let close ever overstepped the line the way Elizabeth did.  They respected the lines he drew.  Elizabeth acted like she had never heard the word line in her life.  She acted like she and he were at the same level, as if they were partners.  Which, he sighed and reached for the starter, was his fault, too. 

The car rumbled to life, and he set his foot to the gas and pulled away from her driveway.  He reached a hand over to the passenger seat and brushed the leather.  It was still warm, but cooling already.  He drew a hand to his pocket and pulled out the phone he was using now and dialed.  It rung once, and Rio balanced it in his hand, ear close to the speaker, listening for the third ring.  When it came, he hung up.  

He was pulling onto the main road, before the car announced he had an incoming call.  

“‘Sup?”

“You got all of it taken care of, right?”

“It was quick.  We in, we out.  No fuss.  They didn’t even know we there.”

Rio nodded, “Right.  You done for now.  Pass it off to the next and we good.”  Cisco was silent, and Rio looked to the display to see if the call had been disconnected.  It hadn't.  

“Man, you sure bout this?  This some next level shit.”  

“Anything worth doing.  Anything worth doing,” Rio said in return.  His mind skipped ahead, thinking of the ways it could play out.  The minefields and the no-man’s land where planning could only take them so far.  “You tell the boys that none of us is through, yeah?  Loyalty now will pay later.”

“Yeah,” Cisco’s voice came through the speakers, a little tight, shaded with something he was swallowing back.  “I know it.  I got you.”

“Good.  Now get off my line.”  Rio listened for the rough chuckle, and the connection dropped with a click.  It was a matter of pride that none of the boys had gotten scared after Eddy.  It wasn’t like they’d expected any different.  The rules were simple.  You never snitch on your boy.  Eddy had snitched, half of it bullshit, and half of it truth, but he’d still snitched.  It was because he’d held back on the most important parts that Rio had put the gun in his hand, and not held it to his head.  When the feds found him, and they would, there wouldn’t be signs of a struggle.  

Struggle was etched all over Elizabeth though.  She straddled the line—defying its existence on her best days, begging for a line to exist on her worst.  This was—as her fifteen messages proved—one of the bad times.  She was dangerous when she struggled, and part of him loved to let her dangle on their hook, loved the way she wriggled and pried until she was nearly free, only for them to get hooked together all over again.  He wanted, so hard his gut was cramped with it, his head ached with it, to see how she’d get out of the mess she’d made of things.  But this shit was like Jenga, and she was a loose block.  It was better to flip everything than let her do her off the cuff shit.  

He’d gone way past the suburbs thinking, and hadn’t seen a tail yet.  Not even a patrol car.  But he peeled off into a side street, up into a house that he’d had bought years back but never bothered living in.  Now though, he’d had internet and power and water all turned on.  And had a different car in the garage.  He made quick work of pulling off and changing the license plates once he was in and the garage door was closed behind him, tossing them into the pile that would be trashed. 

The stored Cadillac, an older year, a different model, was ready to go, and he slid in and was backing out in a few moments.  It wasn’t far to Zorada’s place, but he didn’t want a walk in the pitch dark.  She kept it low key out in the 'burbs, and always complained about her bored neighbors making noise at the club whenever they played a round.  Coming to see her at night, at her house, was a concession to that.  Especially since she wasn’t going to like the plan.  

He drove up, buzzed himself through the gate and rolled down the drive, eyes flitting over the perfectly symmetrical lawn, the outbuildings for the yard crew, the dim darkness of the pool, the muted glow of the house in the distance.  Zorada stood at the door, he could see her, arms crossed over herself in cold or in irritation.  Or both.  She started talking as soon as he climbed out.  

“You know, this only works when you tell me that things are about to go to hell in a handbasket.  You do realize this, right?  I have absolutely no use unless and until you clue me in.”  She uncrossed her arms, stared up at him like she was about to reach up and shake him.  

“This is me coming to ‘clue you in’ Counselor.  We goin inside or we gonna freeze on this doorstep?”  Rio watched her, tucking his hands on his pockets.  “I’m good with whatever.”  

She sighed, jerked a thumb toward the door and stepped inside.  “Come inside.  What’s the game?”

Rio shoved her door shut and leaned up against it.  He glanced around the hall, listening.  The place was all dim light, and a strain of something, music, rose faintly from somewhere in the house.  “Where they at?” Rio asked, mulling on how much to tell her.  

“The little monsters are in bed.  Adam’s in LA this week.  My mother is helping but she’s out cold too,” Zorada peered up at him, frowning hard enough to wrinkle her forehead into three deep grooves.  “Don’t chicken out.  Give it to me straight.  Are we going to have a problem?  If so, how big and when?”

Rio scrubbed a hand over his eyes, sighing.  “Forty-eight hours startin tomorrow morning.  One whole leg is gonna break.  Can’t fix it no how.  Not with all the people I got working on this.  So they scatterin tonight and through the mornin.”

“Which leg?”  Zorada stepped closer, voice lowered.  

“Gift wrap.”

She nodded and turned in place, drawing a finger up to tap on her chin.  “You worried about this enough to want to have legal start working on things?”

Rio shrugged.  “I ain’t worried.  Can’t prove nothing without evidence Counselor,” he sighed, settling into a deep slouch on the door.  “Nah.  This fed though.  He got a taste with Eddy.  And he’s tryin to get another fix however he can.”

“So he’s going to try putting someone on the inside?”

Rio raised an eyebrow at her.  She shook her head at him.  “Beyond the one idiot sleeping with his target,” she went on, “obviously.”

“Can’t rule it out.  But that’s not the reason we here talkin.  I need to know where this fed stay at,” Rio flicked a look at her, caught her face changing expression, watched it settle on blank but not before he saw her eyes tighten around the edges.  

“Ain’t nothin gonna happen that can threaten your license Counselor.  Or your house or your kids.  But him and me gotta talk with no ears and no eyes.  Before he steps on a mine and we all get blown up.”

Zorada snorted and crossed her arms again.  “You’ve been watching those World War Two documentaries on Prime haven’t you?”

“People who don’t know history always repeatin it,” he replied.  He held her gaze.  She knew him.  He didn’t ask favors like this—ever.  All his contacts: in the government, in the DPD, in the FBI, all of those were his affair.  Asking for help that meant something was wrong.  They both knew it.  She looked away first, down at her bare toes.  “How are the new neighbors?”

“You heard bout that?” Rio asked.  

“I hear things,” she looked up at him and moved off a step to grab her phone.  She scrolled through the menus, face bright lit by the glow of the screen.  “You worried?”

“Counselor, do I look worried?” Rio chuckled.  

“You don’t look relaxed,” she returned, voice distracted, fingers flying as she typed out a message.  

Rio straightened, sucked in a lip and considered that.  He wasn’t relaxed.  His phone blowing up every thirty minutes was part of that.  Rotten eggs coming back to life when they were supposed to have been handled was part of it too.  He shrugged.  “Like the man say.  Mo money, mo problems.”

“Sometimes,” Zorada glanced up at him, a smile smoothing out the lines of her face, “I swear you are the stupidest person I know.  Did you really just quote Biggie Smalls at me like it was Shakespeare?”

Rio pulled a smile for her; it was true no matter who said it.  He still liked chasing paper, but the closer he came to total legitimacy, the more tantalizing getting out became.  There was so much scope for games that skirted the line between legal and illegal, for people who had the money to play.  He was close to stepping over that line and flipping his game for good.  Over the months since Elizabeth had come tripping into his world, he’d wondered if she’d be able to play those games with him.  She seemed like the perfect fit—with her cute little mama voice and the huge eyes—she’d have a whole bunch of rich folks’ pockets slit and leaking money before they realized she’d been and gone. 

“Alright.  I’m giving you this on the condition that this never becomes a liability.  I don’t want to get deposed.  My contact,” she waved her phone at him, “cannot afford to get deposed.   So whatever you do, make it legit.”

He reached a hand for the phone and plucked it from her.  It was near a tire factory on the east side of the city.  In his territory.  The thought was enough to make him smile again and he passed the phone back over.  “You ain’t gotta worry Counselor.  I’ll be a good boy.”  He lifted a hand and pressed it to her shoulder, and then turned to pull open the door.  

“Right.  I’ll settle for law abiding over good, just FYI,” she called after him.  Rio shook his head and grinned at her over the roof of the car.  

“Ain’t no fun in that,” he replied and slid into the car.  


 

“Come on man, you think I give a shit bout that?”  Rio settled back in his chair, raised his mug to his lips, kept his eyes on the man across the table.  “You giving up ground that belong to you cause what you tell me?”  Rio glanced down at the scrap of paper covered with a huge scrawl.  It was always a marvel seeing some folks handwriting.  This fool looked like he was still writing with the big pencils meant for five year olds.  “Cause the heat from the bluemen.”  Rio read the words and jerked the paper off the table it’s the back of his hand.  “What the police have to do with you?  Huh?  Unless you runnin some games you ain’t tell me about?  Is that it son?”

Theodore, the non-writing fool, bowed his pinched head, chewing on the nails of one hand and straightening his glasses with the other.  “That’s not it, Rio, I promise.  But...,” he trailed off and Rio sat forward, feeling his patience beginning to slip.  Theodore jerked a glance up at him and out stumbled the next words.  “Word is your girl is about to be arrested by the feds.  And if she goes down, then she’s gonna flip on you most likely.”  He nibbled at his nails, eyes flickering between looking up at his face and down at the table.  

Rio sipped at his tea.  Sometimes he hated Elizabeth’s mind.  A preemptive strike like what she and her girls had orchestrated had driven his business to a new level and shook the foundations all at the same time.  What had been invulnerable, unassailable was fallible.  And what was worse was that she was known as his girl.  No other explanation fit why he’d left her and her crew alive.  Not when he’d arranged for his boy, Eddy, who had come up with him, who had been with him for ten years, to shoot his own self in the head for the same offense.  

The king had a weakness, and weakness was bad PR.  PR that he thought he’d fixed with all the money that rolled in the longer Elizabeth was in the picture.  Her worth was clear to everyone on that leg.  Rumors spread from there to the others.  He’d forgotten that a bad story sticks around longer than anything positive.   

“Imma need you to do somethin for me,” Rio said after the silence had grown long enough to have Theodore squeezing his hands together until they were white-knuckled with tension.  “You and your crew need to watch this place,” he slid a piece of paper across the table until Theodore snatched it up, “and when the word come, you need to give him a message from me.  Nothin funny.  Just a message,” Rio stressed the words.  

Theodore nodded, chin jerking up and down spastically.  “We’ll be good if I...,” he began to ask and trailed off.  

“Good?  Nah.  We ain’t gonna be good til your bitch ass get back my territory and even then we gonna see.”  Rio stood, slammed down his mug. The liquid splashed over the edges, splashed onto Theodore’s hands, coated the tablecloth with red brown splotches.  Theodore jerked back with a hiss, shaking his hands out.  “Run cold water on that.  Shakin ain’t gonna do nothin.”

He strode away and through the door, eyes taking in the quiet of the street in the early morning light.  The sun was starting to shine through and over the buildings, but the chill in the air seemed worse.  It bit through his hat, and he wished suddenly that he’d finished the tea instead of letting it slop over the sides.  But these new kids, with Elizabeth’s stolen money, no doubt, were making waves, taking spots that belonged to him and stirring up shit between the two halves of the city.  

It was, he considered, another thing that was his fault.  Trusting a new kid to know how to wipe their own ass was the act of a fool.  Rio shook the thoughts away and tapped his fingers along the steering wheel, peered out of the side mirrors.  No tails had picked him up yet, so he had time to get back to the loft and check on the clean-up job Cisco had overseen for him.

Navigating the turns from memory, Rio almost didn’t take notice of the minivan ahead of him.  A car came between them, but he’d already recognized her plates.  The plates plus the little stickers she placed to cover the way Eddy had got it shot up before bringing it back.  It was her.  There was no reason for Elizabeth to be on this side of the city unless she was coming for him.  The irritation he’d pressed away simmered in his chest again, raising heat along the back of his neck.  She was relentless, even after the smack he’d given her yesterday.  He wanted, with a suddenness that twisted at him, to follow her when she made her way inside.  To see her face again when he refused to help her with the police and the feds because, of course, that was what she wanted.  He wanted to watch her crumple and then see how she’d build herself back up.  Last night though, it had been all he could do to give her the smack she deserved and not reach out to touch her and immediately cancel out his words.

When she pulled into the drive and hopped out, speed walking for the doors, Rio pulled into a spot down the street and opened up his tablet.  The cameras hadn’t been shut down yet, so he’d be able to see her face as she walked in.  It was safer, smarter to keep his distance, when his hands ached to touch her.  When he was a breath away from telling her his anger wouldn’t last.  That she wasn’t just work.  This was why HR departments in most companies didn’t allow office romance, he knew.  The personal bled into the professional.  What should’ve been emotionless was fraught with tension that had his back twisted in knots. 

Flipping the game should’ve been a relief to him and the entire crew.  Instead the crew was freaking out.  At this rate, he was going to have to have to go with the plan he’d come up when he was still actually angry.  He’d have to let it all play out and make them think he was going to let Elizabeth take the fall only to bring the idiot from Fine and Frugal in later, still alive.  Turner would be at risk for having coerced a confession from an innocent woman whose only fault was having sex with a person of interest.  

In his lap, the tablet’s screen blinked from black to white to a color image of Elizabeth clambering into the loft from the window.  He watched her moving around, peered close at the screen wishing he’d gone for HD cameras.  It was hard to see for certain the expression on her face, and it made his hands ache all over again to pull open the car door and jog across the street and up the stairs and pull open the door.  

Rio wanted to see her face struggle to keep still as he came close, to press her body against his, to slide that hair away from her eyes and feel her shiver and sway into him.  He tilted his head back, biting at his lip.  He muttered fuck it, and picked up his burner phone to call her.  Hearing her voice would have to do.  


 

He shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was.  Surprised and disappointed.  Rio could admit it, head tilted to stare out the window watching for Elizabeth to come out of the building.  She was getting better, or colder, every time.  It was almost an affront.  He was the only one feeling twisted up still.  Twisted up enough to make mistakes, to make concessions, to consider how to save her.  

She exited finally, and Rio huffed a breath, tried to settle his shoulders.  He had better things to do than to worry about a new kid who was about to take a fall.  The plan was laid; she had one option since she was too much of a good girl to put one between her rotten egg’s eyes.  When the time was right, he’d get her out and not a second before.  He had shit to handle.  He put the car in gear and turned in the opposite direction, back out to the suburbs.  

On the way, her voice echoed in his mind.  The way it had the first time she’d scolded him back at the start of everything.  You choose not to.  He drummed his fingers on the wheel, steering around the mid-morning traffic.  She was accusing him of being a basic bitch, of not stepping up to protect what was his.  He could’ve done the same.  Could’ve reminded her of all the shit he’d handled, he’d let go.  Could’ve reminded her of how thirsty she’d been the first time she’d broken into his apartment.  How he could’ve taken what she was offering and kicked her ass out after, but he’d been better than that.

He’d been kind, unfortunately, and now while she was keyed up, at least she wasn’t hurting deep the way she had been the night before.  He shrugged his shoulders back, zoomed a couple exits past the one he needed on the freeway, took the off ramp, and then the back roads to the house.  In the neighborhood, a forest green Range Rover waited out front, two guys visible through the front window of the car.  Rio lifted a hand to them and drove past them to the garage.  

The garage door rose as he pulled up, and Cisco stepped out, nodding to him, arms raised to wave the Range Rover to the other spot inside the garage.  Rio sighed, scrubbed a hand over his jaw and then pushed the door open.  He couldn’t afford being distracted by Elizabeth’s mess.  He couldn’t even afford thinking of it as being a mess—it was an opportunity.  

He peered over the top of the car at the men getting out of the Range Rover.  He knew one of them on sight—de facto head of the West Side, Elijah.  The other was a known face, but his role wasn’t.  Rio nodded to them both, and slammed his car door shut.  He walked around the back of the car, kept his hands loose at his sides.  

Pacing up to them both, Rio brushed a glance over the unknown and locked eyes with Elijah.  He was looking rough around the edges, the skin around his eyes drawn tight.  But he gave a calm enough ‘sup man? to Rio extending his hand.

“Let’s get to it, yeah?” Rio asked, stepping back from the hand clasp.  He jerked his chin at Cisco who jogged over to the door and pressed it open.  Rio walked through, heading to what would have been the largest bedroom.  Inside, he’d had a few chairs and a couch placed.  It was incongruous and nothing matched, but nobody on his crew cared about shit like that.  He fell into a seat, and watched the other two do the same.  

Rio sat forward, fingers finding his phone and beginning to twirl it between his fingers.  “Seems like we got a mutual problem.”

The other two flicked a glance between themselves and then the unknown one spoke, “We do.  Though not of our making,” he leaned forward over his knees, eyes narrowed at Rio, head cocked.  “Your broad, that’s the word anyway, lost the money to them.”

“Who’s this Elijah?” Rio replied, eyes holding the other man’s.  He smiled into the unknown’s face, tracked the way he was holding himself too still.  He wasn’t even blinking.  

“Frank.  He dots the i’s, crosses the t’s,” Elijah replied, voice dipping low into a cadence that was probably meant to soothe.  Who was anyone’s guess.  

Rio blinked and let his smile fall.  “My broad,” Rio twisted his lips around the word, distastefully, “is too smart to lose nothin.  ‘Specially not as many Gs as these punks got their hands on.  But,” Rio held up a hand as Frank brushed a frustrated hand over the short fuzz that covered his head and opened his mouth, “it true enough her husband got mixed up with these fools and gave them what wasn’t his give.”

“Your girl is married?” Elijah asked, speculatively.  Rio twitched an eyebrow at him.  He and Elijah knew each well.  The turf was split amicably because neither of them wanted a slice of the other’s pie.  It helped that Elijah looked about as threatening as Winnie the Pooh.  He got to the top through tenacity, though loyalty.  He held onto power the same way.  So Rio ignored the question.

“They got money and we gotta consider that they makin noise cause the feds gave ‘em more or cause we got another crew puttin out fingers.  Testin.”  Rio leaned back in his chair, gestured at Cisco who cracked open a notebook.  

He looked down at it while reading.  “Twenty spots taken over by the new neighbors on the east.  Ten on the west.  Revenue down ten percent in the southeast across all streams,” Cisco glanced up, looked at Frank.  “We didn’t dig deep into your money but we know you gotta be hurtin too.”

“And what about it?” Frank gave the words a snarl that had Rio glancing over at Cisco to keep him from losing his temper.  They had bigger problems than a bean counter hyped up on being promoted.  

“So,” Rio let the word sit there for the space of a breath, “this is when we work together.  Don’t act like you ain’t know what we here to do son.”  

Elijah reached a hand forward, dropped it like a weight on Frank’s shoulder as the man surged forward in his seat.  Rio licked his lips and settled an ankle across his knees, waiting.  He was itching to keep talking, to pin the jumped up accountant so good he went home crying for his mother.  The time wasn’t ideal and he swallowed back the words, and watched Elijah instead.  

“Working together.  Might be we could work something out.  Question would be for how long, to what end,” Elijah’s voice shifted to something more precise after a long pause.  “I will need a guarantee, Rio, that whatever mess you and yours are in with the feds, it won’t affect the running of this city.  We don’t have time for mess, and you know how I feel about it.”

Rio rolled his neck until it popped, considering the words.  They weren’t any less than he’d expected.  “Fair enough,” he replied.  

“Good.  Then Frank here will grab our manifests and books, and Cisco will help him,” Elijah squeezed the shoulder under his hand until Frank stood.  Rio jerked a nod at Cisco and watched them both until the door swung shut behind them.  He swept his eyes from the door back to Elijah and sat forward.  Across from him Elijah stood and paced toward the windows.  

“On the real, what’s up with you man?  You was just waitin for me to ask or what?”  Rio asked the question, trying to keep his voice even.  A deal like this should’ve taken more negotiating, no matter how much trust there was between the two sides.  It was possible, even though the thought of it had his shoulders tightening, that the feds already had their man on the inside.

“Oh are we talking real shit now?  Why don’t you tell me what happened to you then man?  Letting some girl get you so twisted you forget who you are?  That ain’t the Rio I know.  That ain’t the East Side people know not to cross.”  Elijah’s voice carried, a little muffled by the window, but not blunted of the scorn.  

Rio leaned into it.  It wasn’t anything he hadn’t thought a thousand times over.  Perhaps if someone else said it, because no one in his crew had the balls to, then he’d be able to do what needed be done and cut her loose for real.  Take care of the rotten eggs and send her on her way. Yet, part of him recoiled from the idea, despite all the mess she’d caused.  

“Nothing to say?” Elijah’s voice cut through the turmoil inside his mind.  

“What you expectin to hear me say?  That the pussy so good I couldn’t help but fuck up my business?” Rio snorted a laugh, adopted the perfect diction his mama had always nagged to him to put on, “That the love of a good woman made me see the error of my ways?” He stood, walked over to the other man and leaned against the windows to face him.  “She ain’t soft and she ain’t good.  She’s the kind I need to keep me from gettin predictable.”

“So what?  You wanted a partner?” Elijah’s voice rose out of the soft, rolling cadence he used.  “You wanted some greenhorn, soccer mom, WASP bitch at your right hand instead any of the boys and girls who stay knowing how to handle their business?  Who came up with you?  Who was in Baltimore with you?  Come on man.  You can’t be that stupid.”

Rio nodded, drew a smile across his face.  He backed away until he and Elijah were halfway across the room from each other.  “Nah.  What’s stupid is stagnation.  I ain’t tryin to keep on keepin on.  I got plans.  To make ‘em work, I need brains.  She got that.  Everything else she don’t got, Imma be the one to teach her.”

That settled into him neatly, and quite suddenly he felt relaxed.  He and Elizabeth didn’t have to work out quite yet whatever it was that was driving them both crazy.  All he needed to do was focus on what he’d promised her he would do: teaching her.  Teaching her would protect her from making the mistakes of those who’d come before her.  He drew in a lip and chewed on it for a moment and then focused on Elijah, staring at him, back tense and straight, from across the bank of windows.  

“I ain’t gonna argue.  Not about this.  But you and me go way back.  You either trust me to do this right or you don’t.  Which is it gonna be?” Rio asked.

“You know I trust you.  And you also know good and well what needs to happen for my trust to continue is the feds getting off our backs and out of this city.  They’re bad for business.  This Agent Turner’s been sniffing around your girl.  You got a plan for that and we’ll be good.”

Rio considered him for a breath, and then nodded, once and smiled.  “I got a plan.  A teachable moment, like they say.”


“Last one and we done,” Cisco called to him passing him with a box of papers in his hands.  Rio listened to the noise of the shredder start up, and peeled off the piece of double sided tape from the door handle.  He could make out in the dim light the fingerprints transferred onto the surface.  Frank’s and Elijah’s fingerprints.  

Even on the outside chance Elijah was working with the feds, it might still be believable.  After all, gangbangers were all the same.  No honor, no code, no rules.  That’s what the feds believed.  So why not have a narc double cross his contact?

Rio smiled, the amusement fleeting, but the satisfaction that had settled into him remained.  They’d argued late into the afternoon, pounding out how business would be shunted through the crews.  Profit collection and cuts.  What would be collected and by who.  It had been tedious, but he’d gotten what he needed and before long word would spread that East and West were consolidating management.  Then rumors would start and percolate from the street to the offices of the feds, the police, the government, the companies.  And then, like a shot across the bow, West would take the blame for a murder of a federal agent.  All of it unfolded in Rio’s mind, as he scrubbed the house clean.  

Cisco shuffled in the background, taking the ash of burned documents to the toilets and flushing.  When they were finished, Rio straightened, pressed out the creak in his back and stretched a hand toward the phone in his pocket.  He swiped it open and typed out a message to Theodore.  My place. 1am latest.  Bring him.  Then get home and torch this.  

We out here already, boss.  His boyfriend left hours ago.  

Good.

Cisco came to stand at his side, peeling off rubber gloves and stuffing them in his pocket.  He spoke facing out toward the room.  “We could get heat from this too.  Cameras everywhere.  Frank’s anglin to take it all as soon as Elijah let down his guard.  Who knows who he planning tell about all this.”

Rio shifted to face him and studied the other man.  “And all this for a girl who ain’t never know when to shut up is the rest of that, yeah?”  He tucked his phone back into his pocket and waited.  

Cisco shot a look at him, one dark eyebrow raised in acknowledgement.  That was all, but it was clear enough.  

“Yeah, Elijah losin it.  May as well take it from him so he can go down hard and not betrayed from someone on the inside,” Rio paused, sucked his teeth.  He’d been on the other side of the gun.  Had been the one doing the betraying.  It had gotten him here, but that shit was how wars started.  How feuds could begin.  He’d had to do for more than just his boss to ensure no one would be coming back to haunt him.  Frank seemed like the same kind of bastard as he was.  Detroit didn’t need two of them.  

“And her?  You think she gonna cooperate?”

“Cooperate with what?” Rio kept his voice light.  Cisco sighed and shuffled away, swiping up the keys and marching toward the garage.  

Rio followed, slow.  They’d made scans of all the manifests and books Elijah had been willing to share and burnt every scrap of paper that remained.  Now the details of the business were safe in his pocket on two hard drives.  One for him to have on hand and the other to be stashed away.  He patted them, where the laid in his pocket and smiled.  All the new plans were ready.  Elizabeth was ready, too.  The rotten egg she’d nearly been ruined by had turned himself in, Turner was being ignored by the District Attorney, a rival and an enemy were both about to be out of his way.  It felt good.  Good enough to luxuriate in.  

In the garage, Cisco had both cars on and was hauling the stack of license plates into the older Cadillac.  Rio stood and watched him for a moment.  

“We good man?” He called over as Cisco slammed the trunk down on the plates.  

“We always good boss.  Just keep right, don’t get excited,” Cisco replied, shrugging and swinging open the driver side door.  He slipped a foot inside and hovered there.  

Rio pursed his lips, turning the words over.  “Excited?” He asked, finally.  

“You know how you get when things start goin right.  Or not goin right.  You get all...you know,” Cisco stopped, looking at the ground, hands clasped on the car door.  

Rio stared at him, and shook his head.  “Get gone man.  I ain’t gonna get excited, whatever the fuck that mean.  I’m gonna take care of this shit and then we gonna get back in the game.”  Cisco looked up at him and nodded before shifting to sit and shut the door.  Rio slid into his car and backed out first, watching Cisco so the same and shut the door.  In a little while, a nice little half hour blackout would roll over the neighborhood and take care of any city owned cameras that might be used to show which direction their cars were traveling.  Rio focused on that as he drove, trying to ignore Cisco’s words.  Trying to focus less on the heat in his gut that wanted to erupt in a grin.  Combing over details helped keep the smile at bay.

He managed somehow to make it to Elizabeth’s house, going the speed limit and not a bit above.  The last thing he needed was to get stopped.  He wondered, if that was how she’d felt driving that truck for him.  The canary in the coal mine.  He’d ignored her then, when he should’ve had a little more care.  Eased her into the life a little more easily so she wouldn’t jump from go home to kill or be killed.  

But he couldn’t blame himself for her thoughts.  Those were on her.  Just like every missed opportunity to keep her house in order and take care of her rotten eggs had been on her.  He’d thought, since she was a mama, a big girl, she needed more rope to play on, not less.  That wasn’t her need, clear enough.  

He rolled to a stop a little ways down from her driveway, watching the lights turn off, one by one.  She was home; the feds had let her go after checking stories between her and the Fine and Frugal asshole.  He leaned over to pick up his phone and dialed her number.  It rang until her voicemail came on.  

Rio tilted his head back onto the headrest.  He’d give it some time and call again.  

He called after twenty minutes.  It rang.  He hit end.  He called again after thirty minutes.  It rang.  He hit end.  He called again after fifty minutes.  It rang.  He hit end.  Rio sucked a lip between his teeth and started to laugh.  Only Elizabeth.  After a while, he climbed out of the car, tucking his gun into his pants and sidling into the house from the backyard.  

Rio took a moment to think and started at her bedroom because it was late.  It was after eleven, and she’d been through a day, if everything he’d heard was accurate.  The bed, covers neatly tucked, none of her deep blue sheets within sight, don’t hold her.  He peeled out of the room and wandered down the hall.  Down the at the end, light danced along the wall, the glow too bright to be anything other than a TV.  

Around the corner, her hair glinted, reflected the light and Rio stepped close, drawn in.  Until he saw the asshole she sat next to.  

Elijah’s voice echoed in his head, and Elizabeth’s own.  And finally Cisco’s, warning him.  Rio backed away, jammed his hands into his pockets and walked into her kitchen.  He looked around at it, and wanted, as much as he wanted his next breath of air, to smash everything there.  He settled for opening her refrigerator, pulling out one of her beers and snapping the cap off with a knife.  The noise of the cap, flung from the bottle like a missile, satisfied a little of the irritation growing like a wild thing in his chest.  He paced back into the living room and sat on her coffee table nursing the beer and stared at her.  

She was a mother, and married, and as much he knew she wanted to be in the life, he knew she valued her kids over everything else.   But none of that was the trouble.  The trouble was that he wanted her to commit to him.  He wanted to know that nothing, other than the kids, was as important.  He wanted proof that she saw him, and wanted him anyway.  Rio sighed and took a gulp of the beer.  It slid, sour and cold down his throat, and coiled like a stone in his gut.  

He set aside the beer and leaned forward to pry her husband’s hand off her knee.  The man didn’t wake, but he was a dead man walking, marked for an end that would come sooner or later.  Of course, he didn’t wake.  Rio tapped her cheek with a finger and sat back watching her stir.  Her eyes fluttered a quick rhythm and then opened fully.  He brought his fingers to her cheek and brushed her hair away from her eyes as she stared at him.  She didn’t move a muscle, but as his hand drew away, he saw the shiver that rolled through her body.  

“We got business, sweetheart,” Rio murmured to her.  Her face changed, and she pulled her feet off her husband’s lap to rest on the floor.   Rio stood and walked away toward the front door, listening for her steps following his.  On the porch, she pushed the door shut and turned to face him, wrapping her arms around her middle.  

“What?” 

Rio smiled, looking down at her bunny slippers and watched her draw herself away and stiffen in response.  

“It’s late and I’m tired.  If you’re here to argue or yell at me, maybe call me in the morning.  It’s been a long day.”  Elizabeth gazed straight at him, the only sign that she’d been asleep in her mussed hair and over bright eyes.  

“I called you already,” Rio jumped down the steps, threw a glance at her over his shoulder.  “Come on.”

He walked up to her mama van, and tapped a finger on a window.  Elizabeth stepped up beside him and groaned.  “I’d been wondering why I hadn’t gotten any calls from Annie and Ruby,” she sighed and laid a hand on the handle.  Rio placed his fingers on her wrist and tugged her hand away.  

“You ain’t need it.  Come on with me, mama,” Rio let her wrist go, watched her consider his words and nod, a little hesitant.  

He led the way to the car, swung open the door for her, a smile tightening his face.  She ducked in and he moved around to slide into the driver’s seat.  He reached for the starter and pulled away from her house.  They drove in silence for a few moments, Rio trying to press back the irritation with himself, with her, with the mess still scattered between them.  

“Where are we going?”

Rio flicked a glance at her, and drew a lip in between his teeth.  He didn’t want to speak yet.  He shrugged at her and looked back at the road.

“You said we had business.  I don’t see how that’s possible.  You said you weren’t going to help, and then I found you’d put all your stuff into a storage unit in my name.  Room and rooms full of your junk.  And your cash,” she sighed, an explosive noise.  “What the hell was that about?  What was I supposed to do with your clothes?”

“Oh, I figured you was broke and might wanna get something nice for your hubby,” Rio offered.  

“The cash is worthless though, isn’t it?  So why give me that?  To make me think you were helping.  But you weren’t were you?  You never do,” she sighed again and turned a little away from him.

Rio kept silent.  He wasn’t trying to have an argument in the car.  Knowing Elizabeth, she’d find a way to justify jumping out of the car while it was still moving, if it meant she didn’t have to own up to something.  Didn’t have to commit to something.  He shrugged again, and gripped his fingers on the steering wheel.  He wondered, for the first time since he’d had the idea to make her commit, to give her less rope to hang herself with, if she was going to take this the wrong way, same as she did everything else he gave her.  He dug his teeth harder into his lip, flicked a glance at her profile, backlit by the streetlights.  His eyes were still darting over her face when she realized where they were headed.  She whipped around to face him, mouth open.  Rio grinned then, amused despite himself.

“You awake now?”

“I’ve been awake this whole time.  I just didn’t realize we were going back to your… why are we going to an empty apartment?  Did you put all your stuff back since Boomer turned himself in?”  She fired the questions at him, eyes growing huge in the dim light.  

“I’ll show you when we up there, yeah.  Sit tight.  Ain’t gonna be but a minute before we get there,” he replied.  

“Why all the secrecy?   What am I going to see when we get there?  Did you dig up Jeff from my yard while I was sleeping or something?”

Rio sighed, turned into the parking lot for the building and pulled to a stop.  He climbed out of the car, shaking his head and came around to the passenger door.  Elizabeth peered up at him through the glass, lips tensed into a straight line.  They stared at each other through the glass for a moment until she pushed the door open.  Rio extended his arm until his fingers wrapped around own.  He stroked a thumb over the back of her hand, and shifted their hands until their fingers were slotted against each other.  He looked into her face, feeling the echo of the one time he’d held her hand before and the thrill of it was no less this time than it was the first.  He nudged the car door shut with a hip and tugged her toward the building.  She followed him to the doors, feet stumbling over the gravel lot, and up the stairs a little behind him.  

He pulled her close to his side as they reached 3B and he had to pull out his keys.  She sighed against him, all the tension that usually ruled her bleeding away.  Rio closed his eyes.  He was so close to being done with having to put up a front with her.  She needed to just take this step and cross the line she’d drawn for herself.  The line that said, past here all hope is lost.  He slid the key into the lock, turned it, pulled it out and pressed the door open.  With the hand still tangled with hers, he drew her into the room until they stood looking down at Turner.  Her hand trembled within his own, and Rio squeezed it, to reassure her.  To give her the support she was going to the wrong man to find.  

Turner stared up at him, eyes darting between their joined hands, to Elizabeth’s face, to Rio’s own.  Rio smiled.  “How you doin boss?  Lookin a little rough ain’t you?  Guess you didn’t have a good day at work, right?”  Turner blinked, eyebrows drawing down tight over his eyes.  “My girl got her own back, looks like.”

“What are we doing right now?”  Elizabeth, hand still trembling in his own, fingers gripping his spasmodically, turned her eyes up at him and pushed them both stumbling toward the windows.  “What the hell is this?  Why is a,” she lowered her voice from a hiss to a whisper as though she was worried about being overheard, “federal agent tied up in your apartment?”

“Darlin what you think happened to you today?  You think Boomer gave you a get outta jail free card like we playin for Monopoly money or something?”  Rio jerked his head toward Turner, “That’s your problem right there.  Your rotten egg.  Boomer was only part of it,” Rio raised his voice, let go Elizabeth’s hand and stepped around her back toward Turner.  “You was never gonna let her go, right boss?  You been listening to Mary Pat, ain’t you, bout her husband and where he met his final resting place?  You been sniffing around the funny money, and the cars, and if it ain’t today, and it ain’t tomorrow, you still gonna have that hard-on for Elizabeth.”

He swung back to look at Elizabeth who was shaking her head, running a hand through her hair.  “No. No, no, no.”  She paced back and forth, hands squeezing either side of her face.  Rio watched her, squinted to see her face clearly in the dim light.  She was crying.  Rio sighed, shaking his head.  

“This is a gift right here,” he nodded toward Turner and circled around toward the pillar.  “I’m helping you, like you always beggin me to.  I thought you needed me out your space.  Thought you learned best by learning shit yourself.  Then,” Rio smiled up at her and hand squeezing tight around Turner’s jaw, until the other man grunted, “we had this mess with you throwing away the wrong body for your friend Mary Pat.  And paying me to find it and bring it back before this one and his crew could get it first.  So now I’m gonna teach you the right way to handle a problem.”  He stood, tossing Turner’s face away from himself and pacing back toward her.

Elizabeth, the tears done running their course, replied quietly, voice almost distracted.  She stared at Turner.  “I already took care of it.  I already fixed it.”  When he was next to her, she glanced up at him, eyes soft.  Rio smiled at her again, wider this time.  

“Feds don’t never stop.  And he knows it all—every last thing you been doin.  He just gonna keep comin and comin.   You remember what I said, don’t you?  This about settin limits mami.  Nothin more, nothin less.”  Rio reached around and pulled out his gun.  He spared a thought wishing for the poetic justice of having her use the gun he’d gifted her to kill a fed, but his would have to do.  He cocked it, pointed it at the ground and tilted a look at her.  

She shook her head at him, minutely, but Rio smiled at her and nodded as he passed the gun over.  Elizabeth took the piece, hand still trembling.  He took up a spot at her shoulder and faced toward Turner.  He was staring at Elizabeth, like he could convince her with his eyes alone not to kill him.  She twitched away from looking at him and looked down at the gun in her hand.  

“What if I don’t want to kill him?” She asked, voice pleading.  

“You afraid of a little blood darlin?” Rio asked, not looking over at her.

“I don’t want to kill anybody!” She raised her voice at him, and Rio turned to face her.  She was shirking again, and it burned like bad liquor going down his throat.  He shook his head at her.  

“But you want this life, ain’t that right darlin,” he sucked in a lip, chewing on it and watched her face.  Her eyes darted between him, Turner, and the gun in succession.  “This is the price.  You gotta pay to play.  Now come on.  You got this.”

“I don’t got this.  I don’t want this!”  

“Then why you come to me askin for it?” Rio fired back.  

“I didn’t!  I never did.  I just wanted to feed my family.  I just wanted to keep a roof over my kids’ heads.  I don’t want to kill anybody.  If you want him dead, you do it,” she stopped, lip trembling, jerking the gun at Turner.  

“Why I gotta do that mama?  I done everything for you, already.  Breaking rules and crossing lines, just for you and your crew.  This one is on you.  This one you owe me,” he replied and took a step toward her.  She drew back and raised the gun.  Rio leaned his head back, something sharp twinging behind his eyes.  He watched her, gut twisting, back tight.

“I don’t owe you a damn thing.  I paid what I owed you, every time.  I let you earn money with my dealership, let you take whatever you wanted from me.  And why?  Because I thought I meant something to you.  But I didn’t, did I?  I was just another bitch doing your dirty work.  You put it all on me, every time.  Not this time.  This time I’m not doing it.”

Rio glared at her, and threw a glance over at Turner.  “So what you gonna do darlin?  He knows your whole bag of tricks.  He knows what makes your garden grow.  He knows who you are, Elizabeth.  Whatever problem you got with me is nothin like the problem you gonna have if you let him leave here alive.”

Elizabeth blinked, gun wavering in her hand, tears starting in her eyes again.  

Rio gentled his voice, and jerked a finger in Turner’s direction, “Just shoot him and get it done.”  

She looked back at him, tears tracking down her cheeks, and her lips trembled around her reply.  “No.”  

Rio snarled and stepped toward her, raised a hand to take the gun from her.  He was going to drop the fed himself, and then cut her out completely.  He was sick of her in and out bullshit—.  

The gun roared in his ears, and he stared down at his chest.  He raised his head to look at her.  She looked as shocked as he felt.  Then, as the pain started, shock turned to a white noise in his head and he stepped toward her again.  The gun fired again.  And again and then he was on the floor.

The next time he blinked, Turner’s red face was hovering over his and his sausage fingers were digging for his phone.  He showed him the screen, a blurry 9 and 1 floating in a white expanse in the middle of a room that was only growing darker.  Rio strained a hand toward the screen, missing.  Turner’s words registered slowly.  We got a deal? 

Rio laughed, his chest screaming in agony, smile stretched wide over his face.  He couldn’t help but laugh.

Only Elizabeth could see him so well and so poorly all at the same time.  Only Elizabeth could dig herself deeper into the hole she kept saying she wanted out of.  

Only Elizabeth.