“And you’re sure he’ll swallow it?” said Pryor. His mouth was a little open, and the wet swell of his lip was shining where he’d been licking it.
“Oh, he’s a lonely old bastard,” said Johnny comfortably. “Believe me, I've met a hundred like him. Tight-fisted, sure, don’t say I didn’t warn you. But lonely as a crocus on Christmas, and no mistake. He’ll swallow it if we have to shove it down his windpipe.”
“If you say so,” said Pryor, but he wanted to believe it, Johnny could tell. It was written all over his face. Any mark was a sucker who wanted money; but a mark who wanted a story could suck the Atlantic dry.
“Now remember,” he said, though he didn’t think Pryor would forget. “The girl’s name is—”
“Tatiana,” said Pryor. “Tatiana von Primankov.”
“And her father is—”
“Your uncle,” Pryor parroted dutifully, “dead in a fancy estate in France. Say, Renard, you don’t think this is all—a little much?”
Johnny laughed, the way Pryor wanted him to. “A little much? Tom, Tom, if it’s anything, it ain’t enough. Didn’t I tell you how long I’ve been running this racket?”
“Tell me again,” said Pryor, a little pathetically.
Johnny wanted to smile. “Three years,” he said, trying to hide it, “and that’s just in this part of Philadelphia. I got the experience, Tom, and I got the know-how, and I got the money to prove it. And tell you what—if the sucker isn’t eating out of your hand in ten minutes, it’s coming out of my share of the dough.”
Pryor liked that well enough; his porridge-pale eyes were gleaming like the Fourth of July. But all he said was, “Then he’d better come quick. If I hang around South Street much longer with nothing to show for it, the stink’ll get into my clothes.”
Before Johnny could figure out how the hell to flatter that, the bell on the diner door behind him jingled, and he didn’t bother to keep the real delight out of his face. “Speak of the Devil,” he whispered. “Remember what I told you. He’s a stingy S.O.B., but he’ll come through.”
Pryor’s look of pure panic lasted for only a moment; then he squared his shoulders, slid out of his seat, and stuck out his hand. “Mr. Gatz?” he said. “Pleasure to see you again. Allow me to introduce my good friend, Viktor de—Victor von—”
“Viktor von Primankov of Tobolsk,” Johnny interrupted, stood, and bowed deeply to Henry Gondorff. “An honor.”
“The honor is all mine,” said Henry. He said it rather coldly, but then again, he was moving rather stiffly; he was holding a cane, and his long black coat didn’t quite conceal how badly he appeared to be needing it. When he sat down, elbowing Pryor further into the booth without interest, he grimaced.
“I hope your journey wasn’t too unpleasant?” he said to Johnny. “Mr. Pruitt tells me you’ve come a long way.”
Pryor visibly preened at his own false name; it had taken him all of an hour to come up with it. “Alas,” said Johnny, ignoring him, “this is so. Across the oceans and the continents I have travelled to reach this country.” He was riding the accent pretty hard, he could tell; to his left, Pryor was struggling not to roll his eyes, and to his right, so was Henry. “Yet I have farther to go before my journey is complete. Has Mr. Pruitt told you of my situation?”
“Your situation,” said Henry, and pursed his lips a little, looking as if he were trying not to look interested. “A little, Mr. Primankov. I understand you have a sister?”
“A cousin,” said Johnny. “Though she is my sister in all but blood, for now she is my only family in the world. Alas!” he added again, for good measure.
Henry coughed meaningfully. Johnny swallowed his smile and continued, “Her father—my uncle—was the Grand Duke of Tobolsk. But in the terrible revolt of the Great War we were forced to flee our manse when I was but a boy, bringing only what little we could carry on our backs and the carriage: the chests of fine clothes, the boxes of jewels, the fine furniture, the golden plates and dishes, the golden candlesticks, the—“ Now Pryor was tapping his fingers on the table; Johnny clasped his hands to his heart and said, “My uncle and my dear cousin and I fled our beloved homeland. When our friends in Paris took us in, we were forced to sell all of these fine things we had carried. Still, we believed that we could live a modest life—a humble life—with only a small villa in Marseille and several part-time servants—except—”
He paused. After an appropriate period of time, Henry prompted, “Except?”
“Except that my uncle died,” Johnny said, “in March of this very year. And though his will has left all to my beloved cousin, it allows that she should inherit if—and only if—she has married.”
He was slipping from a Russian accent into French at a pretty rapid speed, but that was all right. Henry was looking startled, then thoughtful.
“Married,” he said. “Really. And I expect she intends to marry one of your rich friends back in France?”
“She does not,” said Johnny. “Mr. Gatz, she cannot. For you see, since my uncle’s death, we have fallen into such disgrace! Our impending poverty is made public; none who we once knew will associate with us now. Not unless she wishes to throw herself into the arms of a stranger to earn her keep, like a woman of the streets, may my cousin see a cent. My only friend remaining is this upright businessman.” He reached across the table and squeezed Pryor’s arm, a little too hard. “His generosity—his kindness—I cannot reward him enough, Mr. Gatz; and one week ago he told me that he had just befriended a gentleman, a true gentleman, who might, if he were a man of honor, come to my cousin’s aid.”
Henry looked, appropriately, taken aback. “You want me to marry your cousin?” he said.
“Marry! no!” Johnny exclaimed. “Only perhaps to write to her; to allow her to write to you, if you are inclined to. She is a girl of only twenty-two, Mr. Gatz, and she knows little of men or courting.” He let his lashes drop, a little, and looked up shyly from under them. “But even a hope that there is a man in the world who has not abandoned her—such a hope, Mr. Gatz, would be worth all our family’s fortune.”
He looked at Henry. Pryor looked at Henry. Henry looked at his hands, and then slowly, thoughtfully licked his lips.
“All your family’s fortune,” he said.
Next to him, Pryor grinned. Johnny blinked, a little bashfully.
“It is quite a large fortune,” he said. “I do not know if I have mentioned this.”
“The look on his face!” Pryor crowed, ten minutes later, when Henry had hobbled to the door of the diner and out into the street. “Couldn’t wait to stick his greedy snout into it!” He shivered cheerfully. “God Almighty, it makes you sick to think of it, it really does. Sick old bastards like that running around this city.”
“Don’t it just,” said Johnny amiably. He judged another half-hour before he could make his excuses and escape, and it wouldn’t be the shortest half-hour of his life.
“You were something else,” said Pryor, with great admiration. “I’d never have thought you were from Memphis in a million years.”
“Do you know,” said Johnny, “I near stopped believing it myself.”
“Do you think,” said Pryor, almost shyly, “girls like that are really out there? Displaced duchesses floatin’ around Europe, I mean. Desperate, and all.”
Johnny nearly choked on his sarsaparilla. “Maybe,” he said, trying to sound enthusiastic about it.
“They say that dead princess is still alive out there,” said Pryor. “Hiding from the Reds. S’posed to be queen of Russia, one day.”
“Do they,” said Johnny. “Who’d’ve thought it. Maybe you’ll meet her one day.”
“Maybe,” said Pryor, wistfully. “Maybe I will.”
Henry was buying pickles at a stand a couple blocks away when Johnny found him. He didn’t turn around as Johnny came up behind; instead, when Johnny stopped at his shoulder, he said, “Laying it on a little thick, weren’t you, kid?”
“Pryor thought so,” said Johnny happily. “I thought he was going to keel over about ten times. Boy, you’re lucky how much this guy don’t like you.”
“Grifters don’t get lucky,” said Henry, “we get clever,” and tipped the pickle seller a dime and a wink before he sidled away towards another pushcart. “Carry my cane,” he said to Johnny, over his shoulder, “I’m running out of hands.”
He was carrying a bag which, when Johnny peeked into it, contained pickles, eggs, beets, an orange, flour, a loaf of good brown bread, and four or five purple potatoes. “Why are we doing shopping for every restaurant in town?” he said. “There’s a run on the greengrocers, or something?”
“We’re checking in on Mrs. Belkova,” said Henry. “You want to carry my cane, or you want to stand against the wall while she makes soup for me and not you?”
“Don’t joke about something that serious,” said Johnny, and followed him down South Street, through a couple of shortcuts, and up a narrow, rickety flight of stairs on Montrose to a peeling wooden door, where Henry knocked before removing his hat and standing at attention.
Mrs. Belkova was a woman so short and wide that she filled the lower half of the doorway exactly. “Henry!” she said in a delighted whisper, and stood on tiptoes to kiss him on both cheeks. “Johnny! Come in, come in, if I’d known you’re coming I would clean...”
There was not much to clean. Johnny fit himself through the doorway and into a room which, if called a matchbox, would have been offensive to matches; in one corner was a squat hulking oven and an ironing board covered in half-chopped beets, on which the grimy light of a window fell, and in the other was a little blue bed, where a girl of about eleven was lying, curled on her side. By the bed was a faded blue photograph of a rail-thin man in a pinstripe suit, with kind, dark eyes.
“The fever’s still high,” said Mrs. Belkova, “she should sleep for now, it’s good for her, the best medicine I can buy. Keep your voices low.”
“I’m awake, Mama,” said the figure in the bed. Her voice sounded scratchy.
“Go back to sleep, Annaleh,” said Mrs. Belkova, and raised her hands at Johnny, what can you do? Johnny raised his hands back on instinct, imitating, exaggerating, and she laughed a little and slapped his wrist down.
“Now let’s see what you’ve brought me,” she said, and her hand went to her mouth. “Oh, oranges, you shouldn’t have—you shouldn’t do this, really, it’s too much... oh, we already have so many beets, well, if you had asked you would have known. I don’t suppose you brought milk? No? The dairy isn’t far, we’ll live...” She bustled to her daughter’s bedside, the orange in her square, calloused palm, and dug her fingernail into the peel. “When was the last time you had an orange, Annaleh? Since six years now, when your father had that party? Or before?”
“Last year, a girl at school brought them the morning after the election,” said Anna sleepily, and sat up, her hair a bird’s nest. “I can peel it, Mama, I got thumbs.”
“You lie down,” said Mrs. Belkova, “let me, what else do I have to do all day?”
Anna lay down with a grumble. Henry coughed a little and said, “No luck on the job search, then?”
“What kind of luck should I have,” said Mrs. Belkova, pressing a soft segment of orange into her daughter’s palm, “that man ruining my reputation up and down town? Nothing yet. If you hear about anything, you come here and tell me.”
“If you ever want a job in our line of work,” said Henry, “you just let us know.” Johnny snuck a sidelong look at him; his hands were tucked into the pockets of his long black coat, and his face was all drawn lines.
“Not me,” said Mrs. Belkova, “bless my husband’s memory, he was a good man, he put food on our table, but I can’t lie for a living. I get butterflies in my stomach. In Russian, Yiddish, maybe I could spend my days thieving, but in English things are hard enough without I should make up nonsense besides. Make someone pay me money for telling the truth and I’ll do it.”
“I’ll keep an eye out, Mrs. Belkova,” said Henry. “So will Johnny. Won’t you, Johnny?”
“I will,” Johnny promised. He rarely felt shy, but he felt shy here, before this brick wall of a woman with her ironing board and her daughter and Henry’s silent respect. It set him off-balance.
“It’s not losing the work that hurts me,” said Mrs. Belkova, “okay, losing the work hurts me plenty, but more than the work, the insult. Jobs come and go but a woman only has one name!”
“That’s true, Mrs. Belkova,” said Henry.
“To accuse me of stealing all that cash—” She shook her head. “Me! I never stole a cent from that factory!”
“You didn’t, Mrs. Belkova,” Henry agreed.
“Now, all the fabric that I did steal,” said Mrs. Belkova, “if Tom Pryor had accused me of taking that, would I have denied it? Not on your life.“
“It’s an injustice, Mrs. Belkova,” Henry said solemnly.
Mrs. Belkova stood, patted her daughter’s head—her daughter made an irritated noise—and went to clap her hands free of pulp over the ironing board. “An evil tongue is a sin,” she said, “and that man has an evil tongue in his head as big as a whale. He never liked me, and he never liked Nika, not since he’s met us, and he has hate in his heart and he’ll be rewarded for it.”
Henry coughed. Mrs. Belkova turned and fixed one beady eye on him. “Henry Gondorff,” she said, “what are you thinking?”
Henry hesitated. Mrs. Belkova crossed her arms.
“You’re good men both of you,” she said sternly, “and Henry, you were a good friend to Nika, mayherestinpeace. But you shouldn’t get into any trouble on my account.”
“Never on your account, Mrs. Belkova,” said Henry, and smiled a real smile at her, one of those creaking warm narrow things he only brought out for special occasions. “We only bet with the house’s money.”
Johnny went to Pryor’s the next day whistling. It was a pretty little neighborhood, with white houses clustered together above fresh-painted stoops and flowers spilling out of the windowboxes. Someone was singing Eddy Duchin in a drifting, wobbly soprano, and the sunshine was breaking through the haze in fits and patches along the sidewalk.
Pryor met him at the door, waving a white envelope, his face wide and mean with pleasure. “A letter,” he said, as soon as Johnny was in his foyer, “in my mailbox this morning. To Tatiana von Primankov care of.”
“Oh, we’ll take real good care of it,” said Johnny, and tore it open. It was in beautiful looping longhand, blue ink covering the page, and there was a little photograph enclosed about the size of Johnny’s palm. He’d always admired Henry’s handwriting.
“What’s it say?” said Pryor, cramming in at his shoulder. Johnny ignored him. He hadn’t read it before—Henry had kept it away from him, stubbornly, writing it it in a cramped little corner of the flophouse room and hiding it in his coat when Johnny tried to peek—and he found a little smile quirking his mouth as he scanned what Henry had written: Your cousin’s description of your familial plight moved me, as it would move a man of any honor. With your permission, and the permission of your cousin, I have taken the opportunity to offer friendship to you in a time of distress. I find your courage, tenacity, and perseverance in the face of your pursuers, and your capacity to elude them, to be not only worthy of sympathy but of admiration. Though I am but a humble American entrepreneur, of some means but of no title or family, in time—if my attentions prove agreeable to you—I will confess that I hope to be counted not only as a friend but as a protector...
“He’s hooked,” said Johnny, and scanned it again. To offer friendship to you in a time of distress... “Well and truly hooked. We’d better write him back right away.”
“Right away?” said Pryor. “Won’t the letter take a while to get back from, uh, France?”
“You think he cares about that?” said Johnny. Henry would have said yes, and strung out the game for at least half a week, but Johnny was buzzing, a low glittering itch under his skin, and he wanted to move, he wanted to act, he wanted to dance on the bones of the con until his shoes fell off. “He’s a man in love. Well, he’s about to be. Will he recognize your handwriting?”
“No,” said Pryor doubtfully, and went into his sitting room to rummage for paper and a pen. Johnny followed him, and sat down on his sofa with a thump. It was a nice sofa, dead-grass green and upholstered in velvet. He thought about putting his shoes on it, and then decided that might be pushing things too far.
“Right,” he said, when Pryor had the pen and paper and was kneeling by the coffee table with an expectant expression. “Start like this. ‘To the esteemed Mr. Gatz—'”
“Not ‘Dear Leo’?” said Pryor, his hand hovering over the page.
“No, we’ll get to Leo later,” said Johnny. “Gotta string him out. Make him think she’s a girl with some class. ‘To the esteemed Mr. Gatz... I was delighted to receive your letter, as well as your photograph. They both have been a comfort to me in my torment'—scratch that, ‘my trouble, especially the photograph, which...’”
He trailed off. What to say about the fictional Mr. Gatz—a little old, a little sick, a little fussy, capable of befriending a man like Pryor but not capable of realizing how Pryor hated him, with nothing really to offer any young woman except the money she knew he’d shell out on her? What to put in a letter to charm a man who didn’t exist—to charm him well enough to believe that a girl who didn’t exist either would give him a kiss and a fortune besides?
It wasn’t that he thought Pryor would know the difference. Pryor wouldn’t know charm if it bit him on the leg. But Henry would, and Henry did, and Henry would sit in that corner of their flophouse room and read Johnny’s letter as carefully as he had written his own, and when he looked up to tell Johnny what he thought, Johnny wanted him to say—
—oh, he didn’t know, but something good, something fine; he wanted to see that pleased little spark in Henry’s eye, as if the world had laid itself down at his feet and rolled over for scratches. He wanted to see that wonderful machine behind Henry’s eyes come creaking to life like Billie’s carousel. He wanted to see Henry light up at the work he had done.
He looked again at Henry’s letter to him. To Tatiana, that was. Your courage, tenacity, and perseverance in the face of your pursuers. Huh.
“New paragraph,” he said. “‘While I have spent many years eluding my, uh, my pursuers without aid, I will make a confession to you of my own: it is not disagreeable to me that aid should be offered, nor that I should accept it. For without a partner in my flight I have, in my past, found myself lonely’—no, ‘lonesome, I have found myself lonesome, and longing for the fellowship of a like mind... A man of your intelligence—your perspicacity—”
Pryor’s hand hesitated. Johnny spelled it for him. “Right,” said Pryor. “What next?”
“A man of your perspicacity, your wisdom, and your generosity to the humble would be a kind friend and a boon companion in my travels,” said Johnny, “And in my life. I look forward to cultivating our mutual amity.” He coughed. “With best wishes, I remain, Lady Whatsit, et cetera. Have you got that?”
“Mutual... amity,” said Pryor, scribbling. “Say, you’re a regular Thornton Wilder.”
“Thanks,” said Johnny. “You’ll tell him she’s sent a reply, won’t you? And we’ll set up a meeting to deliver it. Oh, say—” He snapped his fingers, as if it had only just occurred to him. “We oughta get it stamped and sealed. You know all these aristocrats have special seals.”
“Seals?” said Pryor uncertainly.
“Not like the circus,” said Johnny. “Tell you what—I know a guy on Carpenter Street who fakes that kind of thing. Cost you five or ten bucks. I’ll run this over to him if you write to tell Gatz his new girlfriend says hi.”
He held out a palm, expectant. Pryor rummaged in a pocket, pulled out a crumpled couple of bills, and handed them over; Johnny tipped his hat and gave him a wink.
“We make a good team, Tom,” he said.
Pryor visibly brightened. “You think so?”
“I know so,” said Johnny. “I’ll catch you in a couple of days, all right? Let me know about the meeting.”
Henry wasn’t in the room when he arrived back at the flophouse. Johnny busied himself by first combing his hair in three different directions, then practicing his fake accent, then, as night fell and the shadows started to grow in the corners by the bed and the bathroom, practicing the card tricks that Henry had been trying to teach him since they’d caught the train east from St. Louis. He could get the ace under his palm easily enough, but there was a certain stiffness in his knuckles that made his hand shiver and judder; he shook it out, irritably, and tried again, and then again.
“It’s your wrist,” said Henry behind him, closing the door. “You’ve gotta relax it. Let it come naturally, the way I showed you. How’d it go with Pryor?”
Johnny groaned and threw himself back on the bed, letting the cards spill out of his fingers and onto the coverlet. “Fine,” he said, to Henry’s raised eyebrow, “fine, I even got a couple of fins from him on the table there, only how come I gotta be the inside man every con? Can’t you do the sweet talk sometime, and me be the guy a mile away waiting on you?”
“Because you’re good at it,” said Henry mildly. He bent over Johnny to collect the cards; Johnny waited until he had them all, then showed him the ace of spades cupped in his palm, and caught Henry’s flash of a smile. “Because people like you, kid; because you’ve got charm. You’re young, you’re handsome, and you look like a guy who brings flowers to his mother on Sundays. Tough guys think they can knock you around, and tough girls think they can get somebody else to knock you around. That’s how come.”
“Gee, thanks,” said Johnny moodily, and rolled over. A second later, he felt Henry’s hand on his shoulder; then it was gone, as quickly as it had come.
“It’s not a bad thing,” he said. Johnny could hear him crossing to the table in the corner, and the cards rattling down onto the wooden surface. “Would you rather live on your mouth or your fists? And speaking of—I won’t turn down ten dollars, but you ought to be careful how much you take from a mark early on. You want to save his trust for the big scores.”
“The big scores,” said Johnny, and sat up. Henry’s hat was pulled low over his eyes, and the letter sat folded beside the money by his hand, untouched. He was shuffling mechanically, automatically, flipping queens and jacks almost faster than Johnny could catch him cheating at it.
“I guess we got to move into a place with two whole beds one of these days,” said Henry, and gave Johnny a cheerful grin from under his hat. Johnny couldn’t quite catch his eyes.
“Sure,” said Johnny. “I guess.”
They met Pryor in the same diner three days later—that was to say, Johnny met Pryor, and Henry swept in fifteen minutes later in a sober black suit, and carefully examined the letter which Johnny handed to him. He'd put the seal on himself the night before, with a cheap red candle and a pen-knife, but you’d never have known it from the way he hemmed and hawed and eventually sliced one thumbnail under the wax to lift the flap.
“She’s a fine lady, your cousin?” he said to Johnny, after a moment of skimming.
“The finest,” Johnny assured him.
“Hmm,” said Henry. He folded the letter and set it on the table, and put his hands flat on top of it, and looked Johnny in the eye. “Mr. Primankov, I don’t mean any offense, but her writing looks like a man’s.”
Johnny, with great relish, took offense. “A man’s?” he demanded. “A man’s? My cousin is the Duchess of Tobolsk, the heiress to Vakovska and Varinsky. She has been trained in penmanship since she was a girl! And you call them a man’s, a man’s, these letters which she has been practicing since she learned to read—”
“—in Russian—” said Pryor.
Johnny stopped. Henry went still, too, and looked at him. “Sorry?” he said.
“In Russian, the letters,” said Pryor. “Because of how they write, uh, Russian letters, in Russia. And then later she practiced writing in English ones.” He visibly swallowed. “Obviously.”
Johnny gave Henry a look which said, Really? Henry gave Johnny a look which said, If he wants to dig his own grave, let him. Johnny settled back in his seat, and pinned Henry with a withering look. “Obviously,” he said. “Obviously this is what I meant. In Russian and in English.”
“Obviously,” Henry echoed, and sat back himself, and met Johnny’s glare with a skeptical eyebrow. “Like I say, Mr. Primankov, I don’t mean any offense. But you hear funny things in this part of Philadelphia.”
“My cousin’s predicament is no joke,” said Johnny, with the greatest dignity.
“I wouldn’t dream of implying it was,” said Henry, but he looked no less skeptical. Johnny looked at Pryor; Pryor looked back at him, helpless.
“Mr. Gatz,” said Johnny regally, “you yourself are a stranger to me. How do I know that you are, as my friend Mr. Pruitt claims, a respectable man of wealth? I have heard terrible tales about your American confidence tricks. Of course—I do not mean any offense.”
“Of course,” said Henry. They stared coldly at one another, until Henry cleared his throat a little, and said, “Tell you what. We’ll meet tomorrow. And over lunch, well, why don’t we get to know each other a little bit?” Johnny looked blank; Henry prodded, “Don’t you aristocratic types always have some kind of signet ring, or a monogrammed handkerchief, or some papers? And I’ll bring a business card of my own, and you can make all the inquiries you like, Mr. Primankov, and I’ll tell you what: so will I.”
He smiled into Johnny’s eyes. “And then you and I can finally trust one another.”
“What the hell happened in there?” Johnny hissed at Pryor, as soon as they were out of the diner.
“I don’t know!” Pryor yelped. “I thought he bought it! You said he would—”
“You didn’t even bother to make your handwriting girly?” Johnny snapped, before Pryor could finish that particular thought. “And what was that bullcrap, going on about writing in Russian letters?”
“They do write in Russian letters!” said Pryor. “In Russia! I’ve seen it!”
“That’s not the point,” Johnny hissed. “The point is that I was turning the tables on him, I was getting him on the defensive, and you went ahead and undermined me! Goddam it, Tom, if the mark hasn’t realized there’s a hole in the story, you wait for him to figure it out on his own. You don’t go and set up a signpost!”
Pryor’s ears were going red. “I didn’t think—" he started.
“No,” said Johnny, “you didn’t think, and that’s the problem. Maybe you should go ahead and trust me from now on, huh?”
Pryor said nothing, but his ears stayed red all the way up South Street to 10th, when he pulled himself together enough to look around. “Where are you going?” he said.
“We’re going to Carpenter Street,” said Johnny. “Didn’t I tell you I have a friend there who fakes papers? And if we’ve gotta turn into Old World aristocrats by tomorrow, I can tell you one thing: we’re gonna need all the friends we can get.”
The shop on Carpenter Street was so little and worn-down that an unobservant pedestrian might have mistaken it for abandoned. An observant—and suspicious—pedestrian might have noted the scrapes and scratches through the grime in front of the door, as if furniture had been dragged in very recently. It featured a long counter, a ragged red carpet, two rotting bookshelves filled with bottles and loose papers, and an elderly, bushy-eyebrowed man named Lester Fitz, who was peering through a thick jeweler’s loupe at a five-dollar bill lying on the table before him.
He looked up when Pryor pushed through the doorway, and raised his eyebrows at Johnny behind, who laid a finger alongside his nose and winked. Fitz let the loupe drop from his eye and said, “What a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Renard. And this is...”
“Lester, allow me to introduce Tom Pryor,” said Johnny, with malicious pleasure.
Fitz’s bushy eyebrows jumped higher. “What a pleasure,” he said again, in a decidedly less friendly tone. “And how can I help you today?”
“Mr. Pryor here is helping me run a romance scam on a gentleman from uptown,” said Johnny. “One of my classic romance scams, Lester, you know how it goes, and Tom here's my butter and egg man. Only the mark’s getting suspicious, and he wants some kind of proof that the girl is who she says she is.”
“A Russian princess,” Pryor chimed in, apparently trying to be helpful.
“Duchess,” said Johnny, cutting him a sidelong look. “Is there any way you could get us some kind of papers that say I’m the grand-nephew of a cousin of a czar by tomorrow? Ones that stand up to inspection, for preference.”
“By tomorrow!” said Fitz, apparently horrified. Johnny grinned at him behind Pryor’s back, then put on a wheedling face and propped his elbows on the counter.
“Please, Lester,” he said. “I know it’s short notice, I know it won’t be easy, but we’re friends, ain’t we? And we’ll pay as much extra as we’ve gotta, only say you can do it, Lester, be a pal and say yes.”
Fitz looked admirably reluctant. Johnny waited a few seconds, then elbowed Pryor in the ribs. “Tom, don’t you got any cash?” he hissed.
Pryor went red again, and dug in his coat pockets and came up with a wad of paper. Johnny threw some of his own money on the table—counterfeits, but Pryor didn’t need to know that—and eyeballed the real stuff: six or seven twenties. He coughed, and elbowed Pryor again, until Pryor sighed and dropped a whole hundred-dollar bill on the pile.
“How’s that?” he said, aggrieved. “Enough for you?”
Fitz hummed, held up the hundred to the light, and pursed his lips. “Come back tomorrow morning,” he said, after some time. “If you want papers that stand up to inspection, then that is what you shall have.”
“I’ll never forget it, Lester,” said Johnny, shook his hand enthusiastically, and ushered Pryor out of the shop. “There,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you to trust me? And now we’ll have it all sorted out long before lunchtime.”
“And I’m down nearly two hundred and fifty bucks,” said Pryor, sour-faced.
“So’m I, but I’ll tell you what,” said Johnny, “you’re up nearly fifty thousand once that bastard starts coughing up dough. Didn’t you see him with the letter in there? Couldn’t keep his hands off it. Once he sees how good these papers are, he’ll be bleeding money out his nose.”
That made Pryor’s eyes light up, as Johnny had known it would. “What a little louse,” he said, rubbing at his stubble. “God, I can’t wait to see him get what’s coming to him.”
“You and me both, Tom,” said Johnny, thumping him on the shoulder. “Now, I’ve gotta run, but I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I? And then you and I are gonna be in the money.”
“In the money,” Pryor repeated with some determination. “See you tomorrow, Renard.”
Johnny split off north for a block or two, then doubled back and swung down Carpenter Street again, and, once he’d checked Pryor was nowhere near, back into the little worn-down shop. Fitz was waiting for him behind the counter, and so was Henry, leaning against a bookshelf with a cigarette between his teeth.
“I don’t think he’s happy about it,” said Johnny, “but he bought it, and I bet you anything he’ll buy it again tomorrow. You all right, Lester?”
Fitz shook out his shirtsleeves and produced as if by magic a rolled-up piece of paper. Johnny took it, unrolled it, and examined it: the top said, BY THE ORDER OF THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE, and the bottom was stamped with a double-headed eagle and about twenty flags.
He whistled, and gave it back. Fitz tucked it under the counter and crossed his arms. “So,” he said, “have you boys heard from Ruthie Belkova lately?”
“She’s all right,” said Henry around the cigarette. “You oughta go over to Montrose Street and check on her, Lester. Give you something to do.”
“Besides forging papers for grifters who don’t need them?” Fitz inquired. “Still—that’s a pretty penny there, Gondorff. If this job needs any more slipshod counterfeiting, you go ahead and let me know.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Henry, “but I’ll take these for now, if you don’t mind,” and he peeled four twenties off the pile of cash on Fitz’s counter. “Don’t make that face, Lester, you’ll get it out of my share.”
“Well, if you can’t trust a con man to pay you back,” said Fitz. “What’s it for, anyway?”
“Haven’t you heard?” said Henry. “I’m going courting.”
Johnny tried to follow him up to the jewelry shops, but Henry stopped him once they hit Lombard Street. “We don’t want anybody to see us wandering all over together,” he said reasonably, “and it’s Pryor’s city up there.”
“You just want to keep me out of all those expensive shops uptown,” said Johnny.
“Maybe,” Henry said. “Maybe I’m afraid you’ll ruin my reputation.” Johnny’s face must have done something, because he cracked a smile. “Ah,” he said, “don’t take me so serious, kid. I’ll meet you in the room.”
But it was a long time before he came to bed that night. It was usually a long time before he came to bed; Johnny was used to him sitting in the corner for hours and hours, reading a paper, or practicing his card sharping, or just sitting in the chair with his legs sprawled open and his hat over his eyes and his mind going so fast that Johnny could hear it from across the room.
Johnny was also used to the thought that Henry was avoiding him. Or not him, necessarily, but—the fact of the bed, of its size and singularity. They’d both slept in worse places, and in tighter quarters: the train car to Cincinnati, where they had been pressed up not just against each other but against about a hundred snorting cows; the hostel in Kansas City, where Henry had killed four different cockroaches inches from crawling onto Johnny’s thigh; even that street corner in St. Louis, when the job had fallen through and the money was long gone, and Henry had pushed himself up against the alley wall and murmured something about his old bones, and his head had fallen onto Johnny’s shoulder as he slept.
But this was different, and Johnny didn’t quite know why it was different, had been trying to parse how it was different for the whole month they’d been doing it. He knew they’d rent two rooms, once they had the money for it; he thought he was looking forward to it as much as Henry was. But he didn’t let that make him circle the room like an anxious animal, waiting until his partner was asleep or pretending to sleep, before finally, surreptitiously taking off his shoes and shirt and sliding into the sheets beside him. He didn’t let that make him avoid Henry; not the way Henry was avoiding him.
It was about one in the morning before he finally heard the door click open, and felt the bed dip beside him and Henry’s warm, lean body settle next to his. Johnny didn’t turn over, but the urge was in him, suddenly, to sit up, to see Henry lying there in the moonlight. Henry smelled like alcohol—not a stinking drunk sort of smell, but there all the same, sourness and bread. Something else, too: something earthy, clean. Johnny opened his eyes in the darkness and looked at the wall, and listened to the rain starting up on the roof above them, a quiet clatter like stones. It wasn’t until he felt Henry’s breath even out against his back that he let his eyes slide shut again.
The rain hadn’t stopped by morning, and by the time Johnny made it to the diner, he was soaked to the skin. “Some Russian duke I am,” he said to Pryor, trying ineffectually to stick his hair down with his fingers where it wanted to stick up. “You got the papers?” Pryor produced them from his coat pocket, and Johnny went over them carefully with one finger, mouthing the words as he read, as if he’d never seen the document before in his life. “Very nice,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you Lester could pull it off? Hell, I half feel I oughta go to the Soviet Embassy and ask for money.”
“That’d go well,” said Pryor.
“Wouldn’t it just,” said Johnny. “Ah, here’s the sucker now.”
Henry was looking more severe than ever, his mustache drooping over his mouth, his umbrella a sharp black weapon he shook out by the door. “I have my business card, Mr. Primankov,” he said to Johnny, laying his cane across his lap. “Whatever you brought, I certainly hope it was waterproof.”
“We have our ways, Mr. Gatz,” said Johnny grandly. He liked that phrase; of all the ways not to say very much, it was a pretty showy one. He unrolled the document on the salt-scattered surface of the diner table, and held out his hand. “Your card?”
Henry really had had a card printed, which was funny. Johnny examined it closely, wondering where the telephone number went to, and only when Pryor coughed did he look up. Henry had apparently finished with the papers, and he had set on the table another envelope and a wide, flat box wrapped in blue cloth.
“A gift,” he said, to Johnny and Pryor’s inquisitive faces. “An apology. Mr. Primankov, I am sincerely sorry for questioning your reputation. Please convey this to your cousin as a token of my—” He hesitated. “My admiration.”
Johnny reached out and slid the box to his side of the table. “What is it?” he said, so curious he nearly forgot to put on the accent.
“A gift,” Henry repeated, “for your cousin.”
Johnny hesitated, his fingers resting on the thin blue fabric. Mr. Gatz didn’t want him to—and Pryor, nearly vibrating with anxiety in the seat beside him, didn’t want him to—and Viktor von Primankov wouldn’t have cared—and Renard wouldn’t have pushed it—but Pryor was the mark, and Mr. Gatz wasn’t here, and when Johnny’s hand curled over the box, Henry’s eyes crinkled up at the corners.
“I would like to see this gift which you have given my cousin,” he said. “To see if it is worthy of her.”
Henry’s mouth tightened. He said, quite coldly, “It’s not for you.”
“Mr. Gatz,” said Johnny, in the highest dudgeon he could manage. “Surely you do not think a noble of the Russian Empire is tainted by greed?”
He turned the box over. The cloth was fastened by a little piece of twine, which he undid; beneath it was a black cardboard box, the sort jewelry came in, just out of the store. He lifted the lid.
Sitting on a bed of crumpled crêpe paper was a necklace of pearls. Each one was white and smooth and perfect, and each of identical size, except for a single larger one at the bottom of the necklace, across from the clasp. Johnny swallowed. He wasn’t a jewelry man, but he knew quality when he saw it. He reached out to touch the pearls—
“Ah!” said Henry. Johnny glanced up; Henry was staring at him with suspicion and some anger. “Keep your fingerprints off it, Mr. Primankov, if you don’t mind,” he said. “I’d prefer your cousin to receive it in a more pristine condition than that.”
“Whatever you like,” said Johnny, though he did mind, a little, and carefully replaced the lid of the jewelry box and wrapped the fabric around it again. “I will send this to my cousin along with your letter, Mr. Gatz. She will be delighted to accept it.”
“I certainly hope she will be,” said Henry. He looked no less suspicious, though, and after a few moments he said, “Here’s a question for you, Mr. Primankov. What does your cousin look like?”
“Oh! A famed beauty,” said Johnny. “Her admirers would tell her she had hair like the sun and eyes like the stars. This was before our disgrace, of course.”
“Of course,” said Henry. “Well. Do you have a picture on you?”
Johnny looked taken aback. “A picture?”
“A photograph,” said Henry. “Une photo. Or one of those little necklaces with a portrait in it, like you folks have in novels, even that’d do. What I want to know is, can I get a glimpse at this girl I’m writing to?”
Johnny stuttered. “I do not carry a photograph on me,” he said, “but I, uh, I,” and glanced at Pryor for help, hoping he would take the cue.
“But we’ll get one to you the next time we meet up!” said Pryor. Johnny silently thanked God, and gave Pryor a look that said, What the hell are you doing? Pryor gave him a look that said nothing at all, because he was a fool, and turned back to Henry. “She’ll have her photo taken in France,” he said, “and she’ll send it with the next letter. How’s that?”
“That would be acceptable,” said Henry. “But Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Primankov, I must insist: in this photograph, Tatiana should be wearing the necklace.” He wiped his fingers on his napkin. “After all,” he said, “I would hate it to be, ah, lost or mislaid along the way.”
“Her photo taken in France?” Johnny demanded of Pryor outside on South Street, under Pryor's umbrella. “I’m supposed to get him a photo from France, now? And I can’t sell the necklace? What kind of a con is this?”
“Hear me out!” said Pryor. His whole washed-out face was alive with excitement, and Johnny took a moment to admire the picture of it, this shallow-minded little man lit up with this idea he thought he’d had all by himself. “What if—it didn’t need to be a photo from France at all?”
Johnny let his mouth drop open a little bit. “You mean...”
“You can hire a model!” said Pryor. “A model, right here in Philadelphia! And find a photographer to take her picture while she’s wearing the necklace! And sell the necklace after he’s done!”
“Pryor,” said Johnny, “you’re a savior. I know just the gal.” And he did, too; Red Eleanor had been the lynchpin of their last job, and taken some heat for it, and hadn’t minded taking a supporting role in this racket one bit. “We’ll get her up in her Sunday best and make her a princess like you’ve never seen. Gatz will fall head over heels.”
“Aw, it’s nothing,” said Pryor, but savior had gotten him right where he liked to be got, Johnny could see it in his eyes. “When can you get all this set up by?”
Johnny counted on his fingers. “Thursday,” he said. “The photographer ought to be about twenty or thirty bucks an hour... put that together with some jewelry for the girl, plus paying them both to keep quiet if anyone asks...”
Pryor slapped money into his hand. He still looked happy, but a little less happy than before. “I’ll meet you Thursday at the photographer’s,” he said. “Just let me know the time and place.”
So when Johnny got a note on Wednesday night telling him to meet Pryor at the diner on Thursday morning, he got worried almost immediately. “I don’t know,” he said to Henry, who was lying on the bed, reading yesterday’s newspaper. His suspenders were down around his hips, and his hat was askew over his forehead. “I don’t like it. I don’t like him.”
“I hope you don’t like him, you’re fleecing him for everything he’s got,” said Henry calmly, and turned the page. “Does he say what it’s about?”
“He doesn’t,” said Johnny. “Henry, he’s dropped about four hundred dollars on me. What if I turn up there and it’s the cops?”
Henry folded the newspaper, sat up in bed, and knocked the hat up his forehead to look Johnny in the eye. “It won’t be the cops,” he said. “You know why?”
“Why?” said Johnny.
“Because he’s dropped about four hundred dollars on you,” said Henry, “and now he wants to believe you were worth it. Give any mark half a chance, kid, and they’ll beg you to let them throw good money after bad.” He unfolded the newspaper again, and tilted his hat back down. “Besides,” he said, a little muffled, “if you get arrested, I’ll have you out on bail by dinner. Atlanta’s nice this time of year.”
Johnny tried to catch his eye over the day’s stocks, and failed. He looked back down at Pryor’s scrawl, and thought about the letter Henry had given him—given him and Pryor, that was; that page of lovely writing, covered in the evidence of Henry’s affection.
“Where did you go the other night?” He hadn’t meant to ask, but it burst out of him in a sort of rush; he stared determinedly down at the note, and ignored the rustle of Henry slowly folding the newspaper back up again.
“After I bought the pearls? To a bar,” said Henry, mildly. “Why do you want to know?”
“No reason,” said Johnny, and then, “Was it a good bar?”
Henry hesitated. “It was all right,” he said. “Not your kind of place, I don’t think.”
Johnny counted his breaths, one, two, five, and then made himself say it: “Henry, if I’m ever in your way, and you’ve got—a girl—”
“A girl!” said Henry. He sounded so genuinely surprised that Johnny glanced up. Henry’s ice-blue eyes were wide in his face, and he had dropped the newspaper onto his lap, stocks forgotten.
“Or if you want any kind of privacy,” said Johnny. His heart was beating very fast, and he didn’t understand why. “Henry, all you’ve got to do—”
Henry laughed a little, and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Believe me,” he said, “wanting privacy isn’t a problem. No, Hooker. No girls.”
“Good,” said Johnny, and then corrected himself: “All right. If you say so. But if you ever ask—“
“I won’t,” said Henry. “Now why don’t you get back to worrying about your own date? Or better yet, don’t worry at all, and get some sleep instead. I don’t want Twist telling me I’m running you ragged tomorrow.”
“So what is it?” Johnny said to Pryor ten hours later, thumping into the seat across from him. “Pearls turn out fake?”
“No,” said Pryor, “no, no, they’re as real as you and me, but I’ve been thinking, Renard. Aren't we pushing this a little too far?”
Johnny stared at him. “Tom, are you going yellow-bellied on me?”
“No!” said Pryor hotly, “no, just—“ He shrugged. “Gatz is suspicious already. I don’t like it. I don’t like him. Why are you smiling?”
“Oh, no reason,” said Johnny, and then, “Tom, let me tell you something a wise man once told me: there’s nothing wrong with not liking a mark if you’re fleecing him for all he's got.”
“Still,” said Pryor, “I don’t know. I mean, we already got the necklace—maybe we oughta call it quits, Renard. I don’t want to get too much attention on me. I'm a pillar of this community. I have a reputation.”
“Sure you do,” said Johnny, “but let’s do a little mathematics for a second, huh? How much have you and I spent on this racket? Four C's, each?”
“Sure,” said Pryor.
“And that necklace is worth, oh, eighty bucks?” said Johnny.
Pryor frowned. “If you say so.”
“So why do you want to throw our money away?” said Johnny. “You ain’t trying to make a profit, or something? Because if you ain’t, Tom, tell me right here and I’ll find some other guy who wants to act like a professional—”
“No!” said Pryor uncertainly. “No, I want to make a profit.”
“And you want to screw that sumbitch Gatz out of all he’s got,” said Johnny.
“And I want to screw that sumbitch Gatz out of all he’s got,” said Pryor, more strongly.
“There’s the guy I know,” said Johnny, stood, and clapped him on the shoulder. “I gotta go to the photographer’s now, get everything set up. I’ll meet you at noon.”
In fact it was some time before he made his way over to the storefront that Henry and Twist had spent the last week putting together. Instead, he bought a fish cake dog, and a bottle of Coke, and a pack of cigars for Henry, and went wandering along 5th Street in the coolness of the March sunshine.
Pryor wasn't happy. Of course, no one was happy every day of the week; but it was Johnny's job to keep a mark happy, Johnny's job to keep his heart and his head running smoothly, and any spanner in those gears felt like Johnny's failure to own. He wanted to talk to Henry, and he wouldn't be able to, not for hours. He loved Twist—he hadn't seen him since Kansas City, and he’d spent the last month dying to work with him again—but Henry was the man he had a responsibility to, and Henry’s was the face he was longing to see.
When he finally wiped the mustard off his fingers and turned west, he felt fortified in body, but no less unsettled in spirit. The false shop wasn’t far. Henry had put some art into it, more than he had into the forger’s: a fresh-painted door, a pair of curtains over the window, even curling gold letters which said EUGENE LEE, PHOTOGRAPHY.
The door at the bottom of the steps was open. Johnny slipped inside, and shrugged off his coat onto the counter before he called into the back, “Twist? Ellie? It’s me.”
Red Eleanor appeared at the counter a moment later in a clatter of heels. “Where the hell’ve you been all morning?” she said, and gave him a swift, dry kiss on the cheek. “Twist was starting to worry something had happened to you.”
“With the mark,” said Johnny, “and he’s jumpy as a cricket, so keep your cool—” He took a step back and blinked. “What about you? That’s what all the princesses in France are wearing these days?”
“It’s the latest thing, haven’t you heard?” said Eleanor, laughing. She was in a long, green silk dress with a checkered man’s shirt over it; he could see lipstick stains on the cuffs, where she must’ve blotted her mouth. A pair of suspenders were dangling from one hand, and a curly blonde wig from the other. “Relax, I was just changing in the back, I brought my costume here from the shop. Go back there and say hi, why don’t you? How close is the mark?”
“Not far,” said Johnny. “You’d better change fast. You’re doing all right? You couldn’t bring the dress from home?”
“I’m fine,” said Eleanor, firmly. “Go back behind the counter, Hooker. Have a family reunion.”
With some trepidation, Hooker pushed through the swinging panel in the counter and slipped in to the hallway behind it. There was a thumping noise in the darkness; then a door at the end opened, and a tall, white-haired figure stepped out, a number of long metal sticks tucked under his arm.
He stopped instantly when he saw Johnny. “Kid!” he said, and opened his arms, heedless of the poles clattering to the floor. Johnny embraced him, laughing, and knelt to help him pick them up when Twist had squeezed him to his heart’s content.
“I thought I’d see you before today,” said Twist, as they emerged into the light of the shop, where Eleanor was tugging on a pair of high heels. “Things got so busy with Gondorff—you two aren’t seeing a lot of each other, are you?”
“We sleep in the same room,” said Johnny, rolling his eyes. “We see plenty. But I’m not supposed to know him, out around town.”
“Seems a shame,” said Twist. “Lend me a hand with the camera, will you?”
Johnny lent him a hand with the camera. It was a heavy little thing, and they had to set it up to point to the corner, and build a stand for it to be set up on; they talked all the while, Henry and Philadelphia and Eleanor’s club and what Johnny had been doing in St. Louis and what Twist had been doing in Boston, and when they were done, Twist stood over it, humming and fiddling. Johnny watched him with interest.
“How’d you learn to take pictures, anyway?” he asked.
“I used to work for a man who sold dirty ones in Illinois,” said Twist, “nine or ten years ago now. It was how I met Nicky Belkov, as a matter of fact. We folded up after the crash.” Johnny made the appropriate noise of sympathy, and Twist waved a hand: “It was a good thing, in the end. It got me to Chicago, when all’s said and done, and the dirty pictures were a bad business; or anyway, they were a bad business the way this man ran it.” He glanced at the door. “Running a romance scam,” he said, “that’s a bad business, too. There’s men all up and down the railroads tricking little old ladies out of their savings, just by doing what that man is doing to Henry.”
“Lucky for Henry it’s me doing it, too, then,” said Johnny, and settled into one of the little chairs on the side of the counter nearest the door, and shrugged off his coat and rolled up his shirtsleeves. He stretched, ostentatious and catlike, and groaned, and let his eyes flutter shut; it had already been a long morning.
When he opened them, Twist and Eleanor were both watching him. Eleanor’s lipsticked mouth was a little open, and Twist’s eyebrows were up.
“You’re gonna put Henry Gondorff in an early grave,” he said. He was smiling, a little, but his eyes were deadly serious.
“Not a chance,” said Johnny. “It'll all come off fine, you’ll see.”
“It’s not the con I’m talking about,” said Twist, and refused to answer any of his questions.
Eleanor slipped into the back, after a little while, to fix her underthings and her hair. With her gone, the talk turned to Chicago: old friends, new cons, the police, the grifters. “Erie’s gone home,” Twist told Johnny, “all the way to Buffalo; he has a kid brother there he wants to teach a few tricks. He says he’ll be back, but I don’t know. I think he likes it up there.”
“I got a letter from Hickey said he wanted to run out West,” said Johnny, “meet up with Billie in Santa Barbara. He ever do it?”
Twist laughed. “No,” he said, “he was putting you on, he can't take the sunshine. But you’d be surprised where everyone’s gone to. I even heard a rumor the other day that—“
The door swung open. Johnny spun. “Tom!” he said, loudly. “Good to see you. This is the photographer.”
Twist, when he turned back around, already had a pair of spectacles on, and a thoughtful, austere look on his face. His shoulders were hunched, and his eyes were narrow.
“The client?” he said. “I see. Please, sit down. The model will be out of the back at any moment. You have the necklace?”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Pryor, looking a little taken aback. “Sure, uh—” He produced the string of pearls from his pocket, gleaming in the low light from the windows. Twist plucked it from his hand.
“El!” he called.
Eleanor appeared behind the counter, a vision in green. She took the necklace from Twist’s proffered hand, fastened it around her neck, and shook back her false hair.
“Are we ready?” she said to Twist. “Am I royalty now?”
“You sure look like it,” said Pryor fervently.
“You’re Pryor? Yeah? Well, I guess you’re the expert,” said Eleanor, and swept to the seat in the corner, in front of the camera.
The picture-taking itself took a surprisingly long time. Twist arranged Eleanor at all sorts of angles, set the camera in one place and then another. The light was wrong, then the shadows were wrong; the bulb hissed, flashed, and popped.
“So how’d you get into this business?” said Pryor. He had his elbows on the counter, his chin propped on his folded hands, and he was watching Eleanor with fascination.
“Modeling?” said Eleanor, lifting her chin a little at Twist’s crooked finger. “Oh, you know, I knew a girl who knew a girl. It’s not bad money. Why, you interested?”
Pryor spluttered a little, which was wonderful to watch, until he recovered enough to say: “No, not modeling. Unless—you aren’t saying you make enough to live on sitting for pictures?”
Eleanor’s carefully arched eyebrows arched further. “Maybe I do,” she said. “What’s it to you?”
“Oh, nothing,” said Pryor, subdued, “nothing,” and Johnny heaved a sigh of relief, until five minutes later, when Pryor said, leaning forward again, “But with your looks—you aren't—haven't I seen you dancing?”
Eleanor stared at him very flatly. “Sure,” she said. “I go to dance halls all the time with Betsy the Belt. You know her?”
“Oh,” said Pryor, “no. Uh—which dance halls?”
Eleanor smirked a little. “Come to think of it,” she said, “you wouldn’t know ‘em.”
Pryor looked insulted by this; Johnny coughed loudly. “How is Betsy?” he said. “I haven’t heard from her since the fourteen-spade game in February. She lying low?”
“But you work for dance halls,” said Pryor. “You do, don’t you?”
Eleanor fixed him with a look. “Why?” she said, through a bright smile. “You’re aiming to write my mother about it?”
“I don’t know your mother,” said Pryor, sounding confused.
The lightbulb popped. Twist ducked out from behind the camera, tilting his hat back over his forehead. “I think that’s the last one,” he said.
“Really?” said Johnny, but Eleanor was already up from the chair and into the darkened hallway, the door in the counter swinging shut behind her. Pryor stared after her, his mouth a little open.
“Gee,” he said, “she’s gorgeous.”
“Hmm,” said Johnny neutrally. “Eugene, I don’t suppose you can deliver these to Mr. Pryor’s house?”
“Sure can,” said Twist. “For an extra fee.”
It took a while to get Pryor’s home address; he haggled and argued while Johnny leaned on the counter, catching the incredulous looks Twist shot him over Pryor’s shoulder. When Pryor had been talked up to what he clearly thought was a bargain, Johnny clapped his hands.
“It was good seeing you, Eugene,” he said. “Really.”
“Good seeing you, kid,” said Twist warmly. “I’ll catch you around. Don’t be a stranger.”
“How do you know all these guys?” Pryor asked Johnny, fascinated, once they were out into the brisk March afternoon.
“Oh,” said Johnny vaguely, “you meet all kinds of people, in this business. Hold on a second, we’ve still gotta pay—hey, here she is.”
Eleanor was climbing the steps, now in trousers and her checkered shirt, shrugging a ragged old coat over her shoulders. The green silk was draped over the crook of her elbow, the heels tucked under her arm. The pearl necklace had vanished entirely. She peeled off the wig as she reached the street, revealing a short-cropped red bob underneath.
“Hi, Orphan Annie,” said Johnny, grinning at her.
She rolled her eyes. “Do you need me for anything else?” she said, directly to him. “Only it’s getting late, and I’ve got to drop all this off where it came from before I meet Betsy, and she’s been waiting for me at Lula's club since two o’clock already.”
“Not a thing,” said Johnny. “Thanks, Ellie. I appreciate it.”
“Anytime,” said Eleanor, and put out a hand and wiggled her fingers. “Forty dollars.”
“Forty!” said Johnny, surprised; he’d expected her to jack up her rates, but not quite so much. “For two hours’ sitting?”
Eleanor made a face at him, half-amused and half-apologetic. “I should've told you before,” she said, “it’s this new racket, about two months now it’s been going on. You've gotta rent all your glad rags and blush and your paste pearls from this two-bit swindler over on 15th Street; none of us ought to do it, but he has all the nightclubs and the shops in his pocket, because of some friend or other he used to have who was in with the mob. So they’ve cut a deal with him, and so me and Betsy and all the other working girls have got to pay the club, and so the club’s got to pay him, and so you’ve got to pay me, or it’ll cost me fifteen bucks to do an honest day’s work.”
“Twenty-five bucks for a rental dress!” said Johnny, after he’d counted on his fingers. “That is a racket. How do you and the girls make any money?”
“We don’t, mostly,” said Eleanor, “but what are any of us going to do about it?” She laughed a little. “We oughta go on strike.”
“Well,” said Johnny, cheerfully, “give me a call when you’re on the picket line. Tom, do you have any dough?”
But Pryor looked as if he had swallowed a lemon. “This man,” he said. “He’s on 15th Street? That’s not far.”
“It ain’t,” said Eleanor, without looking at him. “I’m going there to hand over these clothes just now, as a matter of fact.”
“Well,” said Pryor, “since it’s so convenient, why don’t we take a trip to see him together?”
Eleanor’s eyebrows shot up. Johnny nearly groaned aloud. Hadn't he thought Pryor's jumpiness would come back to bite him? He just hadn’t expected it to be quite so soon.
“Say, Tom, Ellie’s a friend,” he said. “How about we take a walk around the block? You and I can—”
“No,” said Eleanor, coolly. “No, you can come along.”
Johnny stared at her. “Are you sure?”
“Sure,” said Eleanor. “In fact—Tom, ain’t it?—I think you ought to meet this guy. I think the two of you would get along like a house on fire.”
That meant trouble, but there wasn’t much Johnny could do about it, and there wasn’t much he could say to Eleanor walking towards 15th Street with Pryor huffing and puffing along at his shoulder. There was a hard, bright kind of look in her eye; the last time Johnny had seen that look, she’d been about to turn over a poker table.
Pryor was oblivious. “Now tell me,” he said breathlessly to Eleanor, “your friend Betsy. Betsy the Belt? Does she have a beautiful voice, or something?”
“Like an angel’s,” said Eleanor.
Johnny, who knew that what Betsy had was a hell of a right hook, cleared his throat. “Eleanor,” he said, “you said this guy was in with the mob?”
“He isn't,” said Eleanor, “only he used to be the button man for an uncle or a buddy or something who was. He ain’t much to be impressed by himself, I’ll tell you that for free. Stubborn as a bulldog, but without the dog’s brains.”
“I was just thinking,” said Johnny, “Tom, maybe you ought to wait around the corner.”
Pryor, predictably, looked outraged. “Around the corner!” he said. “But the whole point of coming along was to—”
“To what?” said Eleanor sweetly.
Pryor glanced at her, then back at Johnny, then back at her. Johnny took pity and leaned in, over to Pryor’s ear. “If she pockets a penny of the cash I’ll take it back from her myself,” he whispered. And then, leaning back, “Only these are some tough types.—I’m not saying you’re not tough!” when Pryor seemed about to interrupt. “You just oughta be careful, Tom, mixing yourself up with guys like this. In with the mob? You never know what they might take offense to. Hell, I once knew a man who got thrown out a window for implying that a gangster was wearing his hat backwards.”
Pryor’s hands flew up to check his hat. “All right,” he said, considerably more nervously. “But you’ll call for me if anything goes wrong, won’t you?”
“I’ll sing like a bird,” Johnny promised. “Trust me, I’ve talked to gangsters before. Maybe I can even get your dress rental down, Ellie.”
“Good luck with that,” said Eleanor, skeptical. “The turn’s here, if your friend wants to stand by the streetlamp. Come on.”
They left Pryor at the corner, looking bereft. Johnny waited until they were just out of earshot to say, “So tell me honestly—how much trouble is this guy?”
“You oughta have let me sic him on Pryor,” said Eleanor. “The nosy little ratfink would've gotten his face punched in.”
“He’ll get what’s coming to him,” said Johnny, “don’t you worry. But is there anything I should be scared of, coming in with you?”
“Since when have you known when it was smart to be scared?” said Eleanor tartly. “Here—this way.” They turned between a pair of buildings and down a little grey alleyway, scattered with newspapers. At the end was a bare wooden door, with NO ENTRY scrawled on it in big, childlike letters. “But Floyd isn’t much to be scared of,” she added, over her shoulder to Johnny. “Just let me pay him off and he won’t even notice you’re there—what’s the matter?”
Johnny had stopped dead in the middle of the alley.
“This Floyd,” he said. “He wouldn’t happen to be—dark hair, square face, flat nose? Ears like a jug?”
“Sure,” said Eleanor. Her hand was already on the doorknob. “What, you’re friends or something?”
“Oh, a little,” said Johnny. “Only he thinks I got shot by the FBI in Chicago.”
Eleanor looked up, startled; he tipped his hat, already turning. “It was great seeing you, Ellie. I gotta go—“
He whipped around and sprinted towards the end of the alley. He was nearly into the street when he felt a tug from behind, stumbled, and nearly tripped over a trash can. Someone had caught his collar from behind, and someone’s grip was very strong.
“Hi there,” he said, without turning. “Long time no see.”
“Long time no see, Kelly,” said Floyd flatly. “Is it Kelly?”
He was turned and set down firmly. Floyd’s mug was uglier than it had been in Chicago: he’d acquired a scar under his lip, and his nose had a kink in it Johnny was almost certain hadn’t been there before.
“Renard,” he said. He hadn’t heard Pryor coming any closer, but you never knew. “Mickey Renard. Say, Floyd, what are you doing so far from Illinois? I thought you and the Chicago mob were going steady.”
“I was,” said Floyd, “until my boss told me he can’t pay me any more.” He grinned, humorlessly. “Y’see, somebody leaned on him to make a bad bet.”
“Ah,” said Johnny, and took a few steps back.
“I wonder who coulda done that,” said Floyd. He advanced, slowly.
“Ah,” said Johnny, again. “Well. Who can say.” He stepped back, into the street. A few more feet and he could catch the side of a passing truck.
Floyd ambled forward. One of his hands was in his coat, gripping something invisible to the naked eye. Johnny eyed it warily; Floyd saw him looking, and grinned.
“I wouldn’t try and start running if I were you, Mickey,” he said.
Johnny held his hands up, placating. “All right,” he said. “I hear you. I’m staying put.” Over Floyd’s shoulder, he could see Eleanor, her eyes wide as saucers; as he watched, she ducked in through the door of the building. Smart girl.
“I heard somebody was running a big con around here,” said Floyd. Johnny’s eyes flew back to his face, and his stomach sank: Floyd was still grinning. “A pair of somebodies, as a matter of fact.”
Hooker thought quickly.
“Only guy on the big con around here is me,” he said. “I’ve been doing for myself since Chicago, Floyd. Don’t you keep your ear to the ground?”
“Sure I do,” said Floyd. “That’s why a couple of birdies told me you and some other guy have been running all over the south side of town, drafting enough old grifters to invade Pittsburgh. So here’s my question.” He fixed his eyes on Johnny. “Who’s your partner?”
“I told you,” said Johnny, affectedly patient. “I work alone.”
Floyd narrowed his eyes and ambled a few steps closer. He was right up against Johnny now, and his other hand had come out of his coat, and it was curled into a fist.
“You know what I think, Mickey?” he said. “I don’t think you’ve worked alone a day in your life. I think you’ve got a boss, and he’s the one who calls the shots.” He took one more step forward, and jabbed a meaty finger into Johnny’s chest. “And I think I’d like to take a cut of the action out of him.”
“Floyd,” said Johnny, spreading his hands, “I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
“Yeah?” said Floyd flatly. “Maybe we ought to head around the corner and discuss it more thoroughly.”
“Oh,” said Johnny, more bravely than he felt, “I think whatever you wanna say to me is a-okay to say in the street.”
“Okay,” said Floyd, and slugged him in the stomach.
All the breath went out of Johnny at once. He swayed, sank down, overcome by nausea; Floyd caught him by the shoulder, hauled him upright.
“Where’s the guy you’re working with?” he said. “Where’s the real money here?”
Johnny had no air to answer him with. He mouthed a few words, indistinguishable, and shook his head. Floyd sighed a little. Then he smacked him across the face, quite hard, with the back of his hand.
“The brains of the operation,” he said. “There’ve gotta be some. It's that guy from Chicago, the professor? It’s the professor, right?” Johnny shook his head; Floyd smacked him again. This time his nails caught Johnny’s skin. Johnny could feel the bright, cool tang of blood.
“Floyd,” he said, weakly, “haven’t you heard of loyalty? What the hell is anybody gonna do with a confidence man they ain’t got any confidence in?”
“Haven’t I heard of loyalty,” said Floyd, a little softly, a little disbelieving. He shoved Johnny, hard. Johnny stumbled, fell, and went to the pavement, hitting his hip.
He rolled to his knees. “Aren’t you worried about the cops?” he said. “It’s broad daylight out here.”
Floyd did look a little worried, for a moment, but his mouth flattened out. “Nobody’s gonna call the cops,” he said. “Nobody’s that stupid.”
“Are you sure?” said Johnny. Floyd was blocking out the sun; he held up a hand anyway as he climbed to his feet, squinting a little. “This isn’t Chicago, friend. How long have you been in the city? A month? Two? You might have a deal with the clubs, but I don’t see any pals here to back you up. You wanna spend the night in stir over some nobody like me?”
Floyd considered this; Johnny could see the wheels turning behind his eyes. Then he shook his head and punched Johnny in the mouth.
Johnny staggered, nearly fell again, spat blood. “Floyd—” he began, but Floyd grabbed his shoulder and socked him in the stomach, the face, again, again, until Johnny was sagging into his grip, his ears ringing, shoving weakly with his hands to get free and failing.
“I don’t wanna hear you talk me into anything,” said Floyd, into his ear. “I just wanna hear you say who’s funding the big con, and where I’m gonna get my money.”
Johnny’s throat worked a few times.
“Come on,” said Floyd. He sounded almost kind. “Just tell me who your partner is and it’s all gonna be okay.”
There was, in the haze of brightness that was Johnny’s vision, a blur of movement. Behind Floyd’s shoulder, something moving quickly, growing was larger. A flash of red. The gleam of glass—
Something went thunk. Floyd sank to the ground. Eleanor dropped the beer bottle beside him, panting.
“Oh,” said Johnny weakly, and sat down hard on the sidewalk. “Hi.”
His vision was beginning to clear. Behind him, the front door of the building was open; Eleanor must have run out of it. The window shutters along the street were beginning to open, curious faces poking out of them one by one.
“Hi,” said Eleanor. “Christ, you sad sack. Ain’t you ever learned to throw a punch?”
Behind Johnny, there was the patter of running footsteps; Pryor appeared, panting. “Are you all right?” he said. “Say, you weren’t kidding about those guys being rough.”
Johnny exchanged a look with Eleanor. “I'm jake,” he said. “Thanks for the help, Tom.”
“Did he have a gun?” said Pryor, sounding alarmed.
“He wasn’t gonna use it,” said Johnny, and leaned over and patted Floyd’s unconscious body until he found the gun. He offered it to Eleanor; she made a face, but took it, and tucked it into her own coat pocket. “He just wanted to know who my partner was.”
“Oh,” said Pryor. “Uh. You didn’t—”
Johnny looked sidelong at him. “What are friends for?” he said.
Eleanor walked him home, though Johnny protested, and took ages on the front step of the flophouse to let him go. “You don’t want to see a doctor?” she said. “Harry Houdini got punched in the gut—”
“I know about Harry Houdini,” said Johnny. “I’m fine, Ellie, I’ve had worse, honest. If anything hurts too bad I'll talk to somebody. Don’t you have a girl to see?”
She hesitated, but she left eventually, and Johnny climbed the rickety stairs with an aching face and a bruise blooming on his thigh. Henry was in the room, for once, writing on a scrap of newspaper, and looked up when Johnny shut the door behind him, and immediately dropped his pen on his trousers.
“What happened to you?” he said. His voice was a little choked.
“Floyd,” Johnny said heavily, and explained while he shrugged out of his jacket and shirt. “And we’re lucky Pryor thinks he's the brains of the operation,” he finished, “or we'd have two angry lowlifes on our tail instead of one. Have I got blood all over my face?”
“On your forehead,” said Henry, “and up by your temple, and a little on your—” He gestured to his mouth. “Not so you’d notice, unless you were—” He cut himself off, abruptly.
“Looking?” said Johnny. “Well, all right. Maybe I’ll do better with running water and a washcloth.”
Henry followed him when he went to the washroom, and Johnny could see his reflection behind him, a blurry mass of blue shirt and warm skin in the cracked mirror above the sink.
”I ought to have known he was in Philadelphia,” he said. “I ought to have asked around.”
”He hasn’t been here long,” said Johnny, prodding gently at his lip with his tongue. “About as long as we have, maybe. We ought to do something about him, Henry; Eleanor’s going to catch it, if she hasn’t already. And it’s a rotten deal that he’s got with the clubs.”
”You’re right,” said Henry.
”Once the job’s put away, though,” said Johnny. “Pryor’s scared enough already.” He smiled a little into the mirror. “Forget my face—you should have seen his.”
Behind Johnny’s ear, the blur of color that was Henry shifted. “I'm sorry,” he said softly.
“Sorry?” said Johnny, startled. “What do you have to be sorry for?”
Henry said nothing. After some time, he cleared his throat. “And Eleanor was all right? And Twist?”
“Eleanor was fine,” said Johnny. “Twist was back at the store, hasn't heard a thing about it.” He laughed, a little, and winced when his ribs moved. “He told me I’d put you in an early grave. Now why would he say a thing like that?”
“I don’t have a clue,” said Henry, quietly.
Johnny paused in what he was doing, which was attempting to scrub off from his mouth what he suspected was a bruise. It wasn’t going very well. Behind him, Henry wasn’t moving. He was just standing there in the doorway, with his arms crossed, watching Johnny in silence.
“Henry,” Johnny said, quite casually, “the light isn’t so good in here. I don’t suppose you want to help me out?”
He turned, and offered the wet washcloth. A little jerkily, Henry moved forward, and took it from him.
“I guess I ought to,” he said. His voice was gruff. “Lean back a little.”
The washcloth swept along his temples, his hairline, the soft skin at the corners of his eyes. It was scratchy, and warm from Henry’s hand. Johnny could feel Henry’s fingers beneath it, skating over his face, just lightly, never lingering anywhere too long.
He tilted his face up without being asked. Henry’s free hand went to the place under his ear where his jaw ended, anyway, and tilted it up a little further. The washcloth moved to the edge of his mouth; to the softness of his lip. Maybe he’d had blood there after all. He let Henry touch it, gently, moving occasionally to wet the washcloth behind Johnny’s back. He was bracing himself above Johnny now, his hand on the sink by Johnny’s bare arm. In his eyes was a look of startling focus, which before Johnny had only seen when Henry was dreaming up a new scheme, or watching as one fell like dominoes into place.
His hand moved down to Johnny’s other lip. Johnny was quite sure that there had been no blood remaining there. He let his mouth fall open, a little. He would have shut his eyes, if he had thought he could bear to stop looking at Henry’s face.
Then Henry swallowed hard—Johnny could see him swallow—and dropped the washcloth in the sink, and stepped back.
“All clean,” he said roughly. “Except the bruises. I guess you’ll need rest and a few weeks to get rid of those.”
He turned abruptly and went out of the washroom and back into the room with the bed and the chair. Through the doorway, Johnny saw him pick up his pen again, and set it to the newspaper without moving it. His grip was so tight that his knuckles were white as bone.
“Thanks,” said Johnny, just loud enough for Henry to hear him. Henry inclined his head, but said nothing. Johnny turned back to the mirror, and stared at his own reflection, his hair tousled and damp at the edges and his mouth as red as if it had been bitten.
What? he mouthed at himself in the mirror. The mirror didn’t answer.
He left the next morning before Henry woke, and spent the fresh hours of the morning stretching his aching legs on 5th Street again, peering into the store-fronts of tailor shops and laundries and watching as the whole shambling enterprise of the neighborhood shuddered to life. He was growing to like the place, tight-packed and bewildering as it was, and he’d be sorry when they left for another city, another town. He’d liked St. Louis, too, and Cincinnati. He’d liked the railroads in between. There wasn’t much in this country, he was discovering, that he didn’t like going to; or maybe it wasn’t the country at all, but the act of the going, and the company in which he did it.
He’d known, of course, what men did to each other on trains and in shantytowns; or more precisely what men did with each other, when there were no women nearby. A few of their acquaintances had taken it upon themselves to warn him, or to tell him stories about the narrow escapes of their friends of friends who had been traveling by railroad, or hopping trains, or working little cons in cities miles away from the storyteller. It had always seemed as distant as another world. He had never thought to connect those stories with Henry; and when he tried now, in the cool light of the morning, he couldn’t manage it. None of the men he had pictured, blurry figures with reaching hands, seemed to be anything like the man who he had slept beside in a little bed in a little room for nearly a month. Who had brought him to city after city, and given him stories to tell, and let him tell them with his whole heart until he and they were spent. Whose hands had, in point of fact, reached out for him, and touched him; and whose hands Johnny had missed, when they were gone.
“Is everything all right?” said Pryor, when Johnny met him at the diner. “You look strange.” He was carrying an envelope in his hands, which Johnny took from him. He ought to have followed Pryor back to his house, and helped him write another love-letter. But he hadn’t thought to. He’d only gone home to Henry, instead.
“Oh, fine as fiddles,” said Johnny. “Only thinking too much, is all.”
He stood when Henry arrived, and bowed very low. “Mr. Gatz,” he said.
“Mr. Primankov!” said Henry. His face was a picture of surprise, but he wasn't quite meeting Johnny's eyes. “Are you all right?”
“I was set upon,” Johnny said, “by Soviet spies! In New York, I might have expected such a thing, but here, in the heart of your famed American democracy—beside the Liberty Bell itself—”
“Soviet spies,” said Henry, with rather less enthusiasm than Johnny would have liked.
“All the way from Moscow,” said Johnny. “An outrage!”
Henry raised his eyebrows. “Do you have the photographs?”
“Your famous American love for small talk has been greatly exaggerated,” Johnny observed. Henry’s mouth went tight for a moment; his face said, Not in front of the mark. Johnny shrugged, and looked at Pryor. “The photos?”
Pryor slid the envelope over to Henry, who opened it, pulled out the letter, scanned it with disinterest, and then turned it over to shake out the glossy photographs. “Careful,” said Johnny, leaning over with interest despite himself. “These have gone to a great deal of trouble to reach you.”
Henry's fingers hesitated over the photographs. “Mr. Primankov,” he said, “if you aren't safe in Philadelphia, maybe you ought to leave.”
Johnny stared at him for a moment: What are you doing? But Henry's face was as shuttered as a window.
“I could never leave while Tatiana is yet in need,” he said. “For her sake, I would suffer far more than the fists of thugs and criminals, however vile or dangerous. No risk is too great.”
Henry's mouth quirked—amused or unhappy, Johnny couldn't tell—and he looked down. His eyes kept flickering back to Johnny while he flipped through the photographs, though—to the bruises on Johnny's arm, to his mouth. Then he swept the photos back into the envelope, along with the letter, and folded it shut.
“Well?” said Pryor eagerly. “Are you going to write back?”
“I believe,” said Henry, and cleared his throat. “I believe so. Yes. I will. She says she liked the necklace?”
“She likes many fine things,” Johnny offered helpfully. “Jewels. Beautiful clothes.”
“A woman of taste,” Henry murmured. “I’ll spend the morning in the shops. And—she says here she would like to visit?”
“To visit America, yes!” said Johnny. “But alas, to obtain a visa, the cost is so high; all our savings were spent to bring me here. When she is married, of course, the inheritance will make such things easy. But for now...” He let his voice trail off meaningfully.
“I understand just what you mean,” said Henry, and pulled a little book from his pocket and a pen. “Would you take a check, Mr. Primankov? To whom should I make it out?”
“Me,” said Pryor immediately.
Henry looked up, startled. Johnny coughed a little. “As I have no bank account in this country,” he said mournfully, “a dear friend of Mr. Pruitt’s, Thomas Pryor—that’s Pryor with a Y—thank you—he has helped me with my finances. Truly Mr. Pruitt’s generosity is unparalleled.”
“Pryor with a Y,” muttered Henry, scribbling. Pryor was going red; Johnny glared daggers at him over the table, for the fun of seeing him go redder. “And for how much?”
“A thousand dollars should do,” said Johnny, “for now. Mr. Gatz, I cannot possibly express my gratitude, nor can I reward you enough. When my sister arrives, I am certain she will feel the same. You are a paragon among gentlemen.”
Henry’s hand went still.
“Your what?” he said.
There was a long, sick heartbeat of silence.
“His cousin!” said Pryor brightly. “His cousin, he means his cousin! Ah, Viktor, English isn’t your first language—or your second—no, Mr. Gatz, wait, don’t—”
But Henry was tucking his checkbook back in his jacket, and capping his pen. His face was thunderous.
“Here’s what I’d like you to produce, Mr. Primankov,” he said, very quietly. “I’d like you to produce a witness. A friend of yours from Russia—any friend—who will tell me they know your cousin, and that they know you, and that your papers and your photograph are as real as my right hand. Can you manage that?”
“Mr. Gatz,” said Pryor, apparently on a roll, “you can’t possibly expect a destitute aristocrat to pay for a total foreigner—”
“I’ll be happy to reimburse the travel expenses of any friend of Mr. Primankov’s,” said Henry, “after I meet one. And if a friend never materializes—“ He put the pen in his pocket and pushed himself upright, leaning on the cane. “Then I suppose I won’t be paying a cent.”
He hobbled from the diner. Pryor let out a long groan, and buried his face in his hands.
“What’d you have to go and do that for?” he demanded, apparently of the salt shaker. “We had him! We had him!”
“We have him,” Johnny snapped back. “We’ll have him! He’ll pay out as soon as he’s got his friend, you heard him! And then we can ask for more jewelry—and Tatiana can have her problems with her visa—”
“Once he’s got his friend,” said Pryor despairingly, “but how are we supposed to find one of those? What if he asks questions? What if he brings along an expert? We can pay some girl off the street to be a model, but we can’t pay one to be a Russian—”
“Hold on,” said Johnny, slowly.
Pryor lifted his face from his hands. He was hungry for it already, Johnny could tell; even the prospect of Johnny having a plan was like water in a desert to him. “Yeah?” he said.
“We can’t pay a girl off the street to be a Russian,” said Johnny, “but we can pay a Russian to be a friend of ours, can’t we? How will Gatz know the difference? I'll find some guy around here ten years out of Moscow, tell him the whole story, offer him a cut of the money, and we’ll feed him to Gatz for lunch. He’ll be signing the check within the hour.”
“A cut of the money?” said Pryor suspiciously, but his eyes were bright with hope.
“Well, a cut of some of the money,” said Johnny, and grinned at him. “Maybe we don’t need to tell him about all of it.”
“Now you’re speaking American,” said Pryor, with pleasure.
Johnny’s good mood lasted all the way to the end of the street; then he spotted Henry’s black coat in the street crowd, and it collapsed like wet cardboard. He fell in a little behind, just outside of the edge of Henry's vision, crossed the street with him, and slipped a hand into Henry’s coat pocket. There was a book of matches—no, two—and a pen and handful of loose change, and the smooth edge of one of the photographs, and—
—and Henry’s hand, which had caught Johnny’s by the wrist and was tugging it out of his pocket with astounding force. “Ouch,” said Johnny, outraged. “Lay off, will you?”
Henry’s face was a picture of surprise. “You’ve got some nerve, kid,” he said. “What were you planning to buy with that score, half a sandwich? I thought I trained you out of that kind of thing.”
“I don’t know,” said Johnny unhappily. He really didn’t know. It was only that he’d seen Henry, and Henry hadn’t seen him; and for a moment every nerve in his body had lit up, with anger or alarm or he didn’t know what, and he had wanted to do something to Henry, anything. To get in close to him.
“What am I going to do with you,” Henry said. He sounded really disconcerted. Johnny might have knocked him into the street like a ninepin.
Johnny shrugged, and looked away. “Are we going grocery shopping again?” he said. “Or can we go back to the room? I want to write my note before the mailman comes.”
They climbed the steps of the flophouse in near-silence, Henry in front of Johnny. Johnny watched the little sliver of skin between Henry’s hat and his upturned coat collar, the dark hair at the nape of his neck. In the room he threw himself down on the bed and fumbled for Henry’s old newspaper. “You got something to write with?” he said.
Henry’s hand went to his pocket, and came out empty. Johnny flicked his hand, and Henry’s pen appeared in it, uncapped. He grinned at Henry, but Henry didn’t grin back.
“You’re better than a pickpocket,” he said. “You know that, kid, don’t you?”
“Jeezus, I got one over on you,” said Johnny. He felt unaccountably offended. “It happens.”
“You think I’m jealous?” said Henry, and shook his head, and dropped down into the little chair by the table.
“Fine,” said Johnny, “you're not jealous. You just look it.”
“Anyone can learn to have fast hands,” said Henry. “Hell, I have the fastest hands out of anybody I know, and that’s after the decades and the drink. But you’ve got a talent it takes some men their whole lives to learn, and some men never learn at all.”
Johnny groaned and threw himself lengthwise on the bed, dropping the hand with the pen in it over his face. “Charm,” he said, stretching the word out like taffy until the consonant snapped.
“Someone like Mrs. Belkova,” said Henry, “she can’t make a living off of all of this. She’s at the mercy of people like Pryor, kid. People like us.”
Johnny turned his face towards Henry. “We aren’t the same kind of people as Pryor,” he said.
“Depends on who you talk to,” said Henry, reasonably.
“I’m talking to you,” said Johnny. “Didn’t Mrs. Belkova say, what was it—an evil tongue’s a sin? What we do, it isn't sinning.” Henry made a cut-off noise; Johnny pressed on: “Or if it is, it isn’t the kind I’d say sorry for on Sundays. I’m not ashamed of it, Henry.”
“You aren’t ashamed of much,” said Henry. His voice was a little rough.
"Should I be?" said Johnny.
Henry looked startled, then wary. "You're asking me?" he said.
They were talking towards something, Johnny thought, towards but not quite touching. He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.
“You don't feel ashamed of much, either,” he said.
"Sure I do," said Henry. "Only there aren’t many people whose good opinion I’d be sorry to lose. Billie, when she's around me. Twist, maybe." He shrugged, and looked away. "Not enough to run a big store on.”
"That's not many," said Johnny.
"No," said Henry. "It's not."
Johnny swallowed. His heart was thundering in his ears.
“But don’t you ever get lonely?” he said.
Henry looked up very fast. Johnny was very sure now that he understood it, this strange not-game they were playing, with stakes so high that Johnny couldn’t quite see them, and he thought for a moment that Henry might stand or turn away from him, or even leave the room; but instead Henry's hands went still on his knees, and he leaned forward.
“Guys like us,” he said, “we live lonely, mostly. It’s the price we pay, in exchange for the big con. We have people we like well enough, sure, we have other grifters—we always have other grifters— but when we stop watching our backs... So we learn to like it. Or—” He shrugged, a cut-off, helpless motion. “We don’t. One or the other, kid. You’ve got to choose.”
“But can’t someone else watch your back for you?” said Johnny. “Or can’t you watch his?”
“You can,” said Henry, “and you can get killed for it, if you like, or find yourself in the slammer, or in the kind of debt nobody pays their way out of. You know that well enough already.”
“You’re saying I can’t run a two-man con?” said Johnny. “Because I know you don’t think that’s true.”
“I’m saying the next time some thug asks you my name, you ought to tell him,” said Henry, fast and hard. Johnny scoffed, and Henry's hands flexed on his knees, and he said, “I'm saying you can't just trust people. Kid—what would you do if I decided to pull a con on you?”
“I’d find the guy making you do it and I’d hand him over to the mob,” said Johnny immediately.
“Then be smarter,” said Henry, a little desperately.
“From where I'm sitting,” said Johnny, “it doesn't look like there's anyplace smarter in the world to be.”
“I can put a bodyguard on you,” said Henry, “but I can’t put a bodyguard on the inside of your head. You’ve got to do that yourself, kid. You’ve got to do it before the world does it for you.”
Johnny’s heart was abruptly racing. He stood, and took a step towards Henry, and then another, until he was standing in front of Henry’s chair. “Henry,” he said. “What would you do if I decided to pull a con on you?”
Henry looked away.
“Hooker,” he said quietly, “if you ever decided to pull a con on me, I’d fall for it. Every time.”
“Oh, well,” said Johnny, “why didn’t you just say so?” and climbed into Henry’s lap and took his face in his hands and kissed him.
Henry kissed back immediately, hard and hungry, so much so that Johnny thought he must have been starving for it. He put his hand on Johnny’s waist, and then on the back of his neck, and tilted his head to get the angle just right; Johnny sighed a little and melted into him, his body against Henry’s warm wiry body, fingers in Henry’s hair where he’d been dying to touch. Henry’s arms were strong and his mustache was rough against Johnny’s lip, and he nipped him, a little, right where the washcloth had been yesterday, and Johnny made another noise of total contentment—
—and then one of complaint, when Henry pushed him back, and leaned away. His hat was askew, and his eyes were blown-dark and wild.
“Johnny,” he said, “haven’t you heard anything I’ve been trying to tell you?”
“Sure,” said Johnny. “You’re saying I’m the best inside man you’re ever gonna have,” and kissed him again, and felt Henry chase his mouth for a second before he cursed softly and pulled back.
“Hooker—” he said.
“No,” said Johnny, “maybe it’s time you got smarter, Henry. How could I ever shut you out? How could I be ashamed of you, any more than I could be ashamed of grifting?” Henry hesitated, and Johnny added, soft, “Don’t you think I know that you’re one and the same thing?”
Henry closed his eyes. “Twist was right,” he said. “You’re gonna put me in an early grave.”
“Sure,” said Johnny. “But at least I’ll be in there next to you. And in the meantime, won’t we have fun?”
Henry sighed, and Johnny knew he had him. “Or,” he added mischievously, “you can huddle in the corner on your own and stay up until dawn writing me a new love letter—”
“That was for the mark,” said Henry.
“Sure it was,” said Johnny. “Now, do you want to keep sitting in this chair all night or what?”
Henry's gaze went clear and pinpoint-focused. He cupped Johnny's cheek in his hand, his thumb under Johnny's jawline. Johnny leaned into it, unexpectedly breathless under the weight of Henry's regard.
“What's the alternative?” said Henry.
“Well,” Johnny said hoarsely, “you could take me to bed with you.”
“Could I,” said Henry. Johnny licked his lips a little, involuntary, and watched Henry track the motion with his eyes.
It took Johnny a while longer than he thought it would to get his clothes off, once he was doing it; he found himself almost bashful, unbuttoning his cuffs, and then surprised at his own bashfulness. Lord knew he'd done this before plenty often—or not exactly this, of course, but near enough, with others; but this was Henry, and Henry mattered, in a way others didn't. What was it he'd said? The number of people whose good opinion he'd be sorry to lose—
“Have you done this before?” he said. “With—”
“—men?” said Henry.
There was an odd note in his voice. Johnny looked round at the bed and caught his eye, and thought suddenly of Henry crawling into bed beside him the other night, smelling of whiskey and unfamiliar cologne. He could see Henry realize when he realized, and he could see the coolness that came over his face when he did, which Johnny knew well enough by now meant he was masking fear.
“You'll have to tell me what to do,” he said, and stepped towards the bed, in between Henry's bare legs. “And I guess I'll learn as I go.”
Henry's eyes flickered shut for a moment. “All right,” he said, raspy. “Why don't you try getting on your knees.”
Johnny knew how this went well enough, though only from the other end, and the only girl he'd ever done it with was Crystal, who'd said she didn't like it very much. It had made sense to Johnny at the time; but now, looking up at Henry's dark eyes and how the color had come into his face, Johnny didn't understand what she'd been saying at all.
He leaned in, a little, and tasted. Then, emboldened by the cracked noise that resulted, he licked up Henry's cock, and bent his head at last to fit the head into his mouth.
“Not all at once,” said Henry said. His voice was rough. “You can work up to it. You can use your hand, Hooker, just the way you would on yourself... oh, Jesus. Jesus—”
He didn't seem to be able to talk any more. That was more than all right. Johnny kept his eyes open and watched how Henry's face changed, how he gasped and kept gasping, the way his hands flexed in the bedsheets and his mouth fell open and his head fell back. Crystal hadn't let him put his hands in her hair, but Johnny wanted that—wanted it very badly, without warning, Henry cupping his head, telling him without words where to go, what was needed—but he didn't want to stop doing it long enough to say so. It was all right. He would tell Henry, when they did it again. There would be time.
After some while, Henry choked out, “I'm going to—” and Johnny pulled off, and Henry fell back on the bed and came with a sigh. Johnny crawled up onto the bed next to him, and Henry kissed him back, sloppy but no less fervent for it.
“Give me a minute,” he said, his eyes closed.
“It's all right,” said Johnny, surprised by the unfamiliar sensation of speaking through the roughness in his throat. It felt good. He already had his hand on himself, slick and hot, and he wasn't long from coming, just from the look on Henry's face, just from the taste of him still on the back of his tongue. But Henry shook his head, and pushed himself up to one elbow.
“Don't,” he said. “I want to get my hands on you.”
Johnny didn't want to; he didn't think he could bear it. But he let go of himself, achingly slowly, and waited for Henry to sit up and reach for him, and when Henry did he hitched his hips against Henry's hand and whispered “Please—please. Henry, please,” until Henry stopped moving and smiled into his face.
“Are you running a con on me?” he said, soft and fond.
“Please,” said Johnny again, wide-eyed and trembling, and Henry laughed and bent to kiss him, and Johnny met him halfway, already laughing too.
The sunshine woke him the next morning, spilling warm and insistent across his face. He stirred, comfortably aware of his body: the ache and stretch in his muscles and tendons, the leftover pleasure in his joints like an echo. The familiar old roar of his living heart.
Henry was gone, but he’d left a note: he’d meet Johnny at the diner when it was time, and he’d see him after. Johnny read it, and smiled, and dressed himself and shaved and put on his hat and coat and stepped into the brightness of the day.
Pryor was waiting for him in their usual booth, looking like he hadn’t slept a wink. Maybe he hadn’t. “Did you find someone?” he demanded. “A witness?”
“Oh, I found one no problem,” said Johnny, sliding across from him. He was facing the door, and Pryor wasn’t; that was good. He liked a head start. “Friend of an old friend. Didn’t have much of a chance to explain the situation, but with the money I promised—oh, watch it! Here comes the mark now.”
He wondered that Pryor didn’t turn and stare at him, because it felt like his heart had leapt out of his chest. Henry limped to the booth, slow and dignified, his mouth tight and unhappy, and slid in next to Pryor, trapping him inside.
“Well?” he said. “I see no witness.”
“Mr. Gatz, you must have patience!” said Johnny. “My friend is but delayed a little while. On such short notice was my letter; there has been a journey from the estate in Rhode Island, a mansion of such beauty—"
“I have no interest in your friend’s mansion,” said Henry curtly. “I am interested only in your friend’s location. What’s the reason for the delay?”
“The driver,” Pryor broke in. “They were crossing the New Jersey border when they were accosted by, uh—by more Reds. They paid him off to ditch the car—”
“—and my friend was forced to catch a train,” said Johnny. “Like a commoner!” He was nearly impressed by Pryor’s improvisation. The man might’ve made a decent grifter, if he’d had ten years training, or any heart.
Henry settled back, giving off the impression of a man wound tight enough to burst. He pulled his checkbook from his coat pocket, and set it down on the table; Pryor’s eyes followed it like a hungry dog’s. “Then I’ll wait,” he said. “But let me tell you, Mr. Primankov, if this friend of yours doesn’t show up in the next ten minutes—”
Johnny let his face spring into a picture of delight and relief. “There is no need to worry, Mr. Gatz,” he said. “Here she comes now!”
The door of the diner opened, with a tinkle. Both Pryor and Henry turned around.
“Uh,” said Pryor.
Johnny stood, and waved. “Hello!” he called, and had the exquisite pleasure of watching Pryor’s face go first white, then gray, as Mrs. Belkova advanced like an oncoming train towards their table.
When she was within earshot, Henry held up a hand before she could speak. “I will not take up too much of your no doubt valuable time,” he said, lofty as anything; Johnny watched Mrs. Belkova’s eyebrows shoot up. “I only have one question for you—and I must insist you tell the truth.”
"Please do not worry, Mr. Gatz," said Johnny. "This is a woman of impeccable character."
“Say, Mr. Gatz,” said Pryor. “Could you slide out a second? I need a breath of air—”
“Is this man,” said Henry, pointing to Johnny, “a Russian aristocrat by the name of Viktor von Primankov?”
Mrs. Belkova looked from Henry to Johnny, who was smiling blithely at her, and then from Johnny to Henry again, and then at Pryor, his eyes wide and horrified; and then she put her hands over her face and began to laugh.
“Madam!” said Henry.
“Mr. Gatz—” said Pryor.
Mrs. Belkova wiped her eyes and pointed to Johnny. “This man,” she said, “is a grifter, and a professional thief, and one of the worst liars I ever met in my life; and the man across from him is a hundred times worse than he is. And that’s the truth.”
“Oh boy,” said Johnny, and slid out of his seat to go.
But Henry’s hand was around his wrist faster than he could blink, pressing so hard it hurt. Johnny tugged, and tugged again, and was amazed to discover that he really couldn’t get away if he tried.
He looked down at Henry, who had his other hand firmly on Pryor’s shoulder. “I can explain,” he said.
“Oh,” said Henry coldly, “I don’t think you’ll have to. Madam, thank you for your help. Feel free to go.”
Mrs. Belkova gave Johnny a look which said, If you don’t tell me this story start to finish, Johnny Hooker, there’s going to be trouble. Johnny gave her a look which said, Later!, and also, Thanks.
“Mrs. Belkova,” he said pathetically, “I thought we were friends.”
“Next time you want somebody to lie for you, you should ask Tom Pryor,” she said to him. She was smiling a little. “He has experience,” and she swept out of the diner.
Henry looked left, at Pryor. “So,” he said. “Tom Pryor. That’s your real name, is it?”
“It was all his idea!” Pryor cried, pointing to Johnny. “His name’s Mickey Renard and he came up with the whole plan—he’s the grifter, Mr. Gatz, not me, I swear—"
“Why, you dirty rat!” said Johnny. “After all I did for you! Mr. Gatz, he’s the one who wanted to screw you over in the first place, swear on my mother’s grave—"
“Mickey Renard,” said Henry, looking startled. “I’ve heard that name before. Say,” his eyes narrowed, “I’ve heard that name before! I knew I'd heard something funny. You’ve been running this scam in this part of Philadelphia for three years now!”
“He’s a crook down to his soul,” said Pryor virtuously, “Mr. Gatz, you wouldn’t believe the kinds of things—”
“And you,” said Henry, turning to him. “I’ve heard your name, too. You work at a factory uptown. You’re some kind of big shot there!”
Pryor went very pale again. “Me?” he said. “No. Who?”
“How much was it?” Henry barked. “How much were you planning to swindle out of me with this princess romance crap, huh? Ten thousand dollars? Twenty?”
Pryor looked at Johnny. Johnny looked away. “We thought we could get you for about a hundred grand,” he said, in a small voice.
Henry let go of Pryor’s shoulder. Pryor didn’t move. He looked like a wind-up doll of himself, frozen and pale in the seat.
“So,” Henry said grimly, “The way I see it is, the next thing I do is, I hand both of you over to the cops. Where you—” he pointed at Johnny— “will be going away for a very long time, and you—” he pointed at Pryor— “won’t ever work in this town again. Or, if I decide to bring this to the newspapers, in any other.”
“No,” said Johnny, “please, Mr. Gatz, please don't, I can't go back in—isn't there anything—”
“My job,” moaned Pryor, “my job, my reputation, my job—”
“Anything!” said Johnny. “Work—money—” He tugged again at Henry's hand, and Henry raised an eyebrow at him which said, Yes, do it now, keep going. “Money! I don't have much on me, but all I have, please—”
“Well,” said Henry. “There's an idea.”
“Yes!” said Johnny. “Just let go of me, and I'll search through my pockets—”
“No,” said Henry. “No, I think we'll do this, instead. I think we'll all three of us go to the bank. And then you can go ahead and withdraw one hundred thousand dollars.”
Pryor looked at Johnny, bug-eyed. Johnny looked back with the same expression. “Tom,” he said, “it's this or the bail bond.”
“A hundred thousand dollars?” Pryor croaked.
“Each,” said Henry.
Johnny followed the two of them down South Street with a spring in his step. The bank wasn’t far, and Henry made him wait outside while he and Pryor went in, with a few snarled threats about what would happen if he bolted. In the sunshine, Johnny leaned against a streetlamp, and lit a cigarette with Henry's book of matches.
The two of them came out with a suitcase clutched in Henry’s hand, and Pryor grey as oatmeal. “Now you,” said Henry to Johnny. “You can run along, Pryor, if you don’t want to stay and watch.”
“Mr. Gatz,” said Pryor, “with respect, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am: I hope I never lay eyes on you again.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” said Henry. “Go on, run and hide. And believe me, Pryor: if I hear your name again, there’s going to be trouble.”
They watched Pryor shove his way into the crowd, his nostrils flared in misery. A moment later, he had disappeared.
Henry turned to Johnny. “Well,” he said. “Are you ready for your forfeit?”
“My forfeit!” said Johnny. “My arm’s going to have bruises. What else could you possibly want from me?”
Henry’s eyes crinkled.
“We have a delivery to make at Montrose Street,” he said, lifting the suitcase. “But after that, well. I can think of a few things.”
“Things like dealing with Floyd?” said Johnny suspiciously. “Or things like going back to the room?”
Henry smiled at him.
Johnny grinned back, and sidled in next to him, and tucked his arm through Henry’s. “All right,” he said. “Tell me the plan.”