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Ragnatela

Chapter Text

 

 

It was funny, the things you noticed, when you couldn’t quite believe what was happening to you.

Patience could feel the smooth leather against her bare back, like snake scales, feel it squeak across her skin with every movement. She could feel the sweat sticking to her back. She could feel the heat of unshed tears well in her eyes as she stared down a dark gun barrel in the shadowed interior of the car.

More than anything, she could feel the searing, tearing pain between her legs.

Her legs were spread obscenely wide, panties hanging limply from her quivering leg. His heavy, solid body weighed between her thighs, taut abdomen muscles pressed against her trembling, smooth belly. The tears on her face glimmered in the dim light of the streetlamps.

The barrel of the gun pressed just slightly against her forehead, the metal a pinprick of cold on her trembling brow.

A strangled gasp tore from her throat as one particularly bad angle made the neck of his cock press bruisingly against her tender wall.

He adjusted his grip on her leg, finely manicured fingernails sinking into her pale thighs. “You should be quieter,” he rebuked her gently, as if she were an unruly child that had gotten into mischief. “If you cry and struggle enough, my finger could pinch the trigger. And you now what would happen then, don’t you?”

Fear coiled deep in her belly as the tip of the gun moved lower, to nudge the edge of her quivering mouth. She tasted cold metal, a hint of coppery blood.

“You really have made a big mistake, haven’t you, darling girl?” He punctuated his words with a soft, fond laugh that echoed around the car.

Patience tried to tune out his voice, but his words struck to her heart, piercing like an arrow.

She should never have gotten involved with the mafia.

She should have stayed in her town, and married a laborer or a constable, and raised her children in the familiar cobblestone streets and sun-bathed rows of houses…

And the blood that seeped into the crevices in the floor…

And the familiar soft hand that had cradled her cheek, that soothed her cuts and bruises, lying limp on the floor

No, she thought abruptly. I don't want to think about them. Not while this is happening to me.

She arched her back in an unconscious spasm as one deep thrust made a shiver of pleasure start to spark deep inside of her.

“No….”

Perhaps he had noticed that she had started taking involuntary pleasure from her rape, because a satisfied smile was beginning to spread across his face.

Patience’s body was consumed by pleasure, blazing like a fire out of control. Her legs shook and quivered, ankles straight and toes pointed at the ceiling. Her nipples brushed against the fabric of her blouse, suddenly sensitive like someone had ran a feather across them.

Her entrance tightened around his thick cock, as if it were trying to pull him in deeper. She could barely keep herself from gasping, short cries of pained pleasure escaping from her mouth.

His stiff fingers gouged her soft center.

Patience’s heart leapt instinctively as his blunt fingertips caressed her clit.

His soft voice whispered sweetly in her ear, “Mia mignotta…:”

The sharp tip of his fingernail pressed on her bundle of nerves, sending a hotly pleasurable sensation shuddering through her thin body. I want to die, some distant part of her realized. I wish he would pull that trigger. I don't want to feel this. I don't want to feel any of this!

As his passionate strokes increased speed, a whimper burst out of her throat as his abdomen ground against her.

All she could see his eyes, the color of a dark, polluted river, and the glimmer of lantern light against his golden curls, and the soft curve of his red lips, as if he were observing an interesting butterfly impaled on a pin.

A scream welled up in her throat, but she forced it down.

He rutted like a bull in heat, not letting up for a second. Patience’s mouth had fallen open, lips trembling as if she were sobbing silently.

“Oh…oh…”

Those were was the only words she could utter with her body paralyzed with pleasure. Her red-rimmed eyes rolled to the ceiling of the limousine as humiliation, pleasure and misery wracked her body.

He gently lowered his head so that his breath tickled her lips, and pressed a chaste kiss to the edge of her trembling mouth. The sweetness of his cologne flooded her nostrils, made a gag rise up in her throat.

Something wet trickled down her soft thighs.

He sunk deeper into her, so deep she almost screamed. The head of his length bore hard inside of her like a knife sliding through her flesh, so hard and thick she wanted to scream herself hoarse. She seized the side of the seat in front of her as he relentlessly pummeled and thrust into her.

Her gaze turned into starbursts as she squeezed her eyes shut tight. He thrust deep inside her body one last time, and came a hot stream of semen.

Patience opened her mouth in a silent scream the moment she felt the warm liquid inside of her, her mind nearly bursting as his cock nestled inside her.

He was still above her, his low breaths sinking into her ears, and he suddenly pulled away from her. The head of his cock withdrawing sent a flare of pain from her, and Patience tried to draw her limp legs together, trembling.

“You will never again meddle in the affairs of cosa nostra,” he whispered in her ear, cold fingers tilting her chin to meet him. “Do you understand?”

One last spasmodic thrust into the back of her vagina. Her hand grasped the seats of his car, blunt fingernails sinking deep into the soft leather. Her lipstick-stained lips briefly gaped open in pleasure, then she swallowed and pressed them shut.

His soft hand gently traced the line of her jaw, the edges of his fingernails lovingly skimming her rosy, sweat-stained skin. They gently cupped the side of her face in a facsimile of affection, thumb rubbing along the teary dampness below her leaf-green eyes.

“Dolcezza,” he cooed gently, lapsing back into his mother tongue.

Then the door clicked open, and she was being shoved backward. Suddenly, the cold autumn air was freezing against her skin.

The concrete was rough and hard as she crashed against it, her back muscles spasming and bruising as she fell heavily and mercilessly against the stone road. She scrambled up and backed up a few steps, legs trembling.

Patience looked up at him, at his dark eyes, reflecting the light of the blue night, just a blank mirror above his contented smile

“Go home,” he told her gently, his voice barely audible above the rumble of his car’s engines. He was sitting back down, redoing his belt, zipping up his pants and smoothing back his golden curls.

“Never trouble us again. Or the fate that will befall you will be far worse.”

His black car revved, and then he was speeding away. The only memento of his presence was the dust of the gray gravel that clouded in front of her face.

Patience felt hot liquid begin to trickle down her thighs.

Watching the black car speed away from her, she felt a heavy, despairing sob finally begin to well up deep within her body.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

United States, 1959

Seven days earlier

 

The solid oak doors of Merrimont Public Bank hovered in front of Patience’s eyes. She tried to block out the traffic, the noise of the crowd, and focus on them. She was waiting for a balding forty-year-old man in a brown suit—ill-fitting as well, according to the photograph his wife had provided Patience—to come out of the door.

She had been waiting nearly an hour outside of his workplace. The man often stayed late—again according to his wife, a scrawny, fox-faced woman with dyed blonde hair and makeup barely concealing the cracks at the edges of her eyes. And if the woman was right, he would come out, get into his car, and drive to see his mistress, a woman who worked at the bank he went to, a young lady with scarlet hair and an actress’s smile that would always flirt and stare at him coquettishly under long lashes whenever he came in.

Patience would bet half her salary—inasmuch as it was, barely enough to live on—that he would come out two hours later, get in his car, and drive straight home. The only reality his wife would have to confront was the one that her husband was slowly but surely becoming distant from her.

Patience rested her cheek on the steering wheel and blinked slowly. Drowsiness was starting to creep into the edges of her consciousness. For the third time that day, she cursed her decision not to have a second cup of coffee before she headed out the door. With how poorly she always slept, an extra cup was always a good idea.

The leather of the steering wheel felt good against her face. The sound of the crowd faded away into a dull buzz, and the honks and rattles of the cars seemed a thousand miles away. In a way, it was nice. Being with so many people. Surrounded by chatter and laughter, hearing the clack of high-heeled shoes on the sidewalk… so much better than sitting in her cold, empty apartment, staring at the ceiling, trying to sleep with the oppressive silence almost deafening around her.

“Hey! Hey, lady!”

The sudden voice jerked Patience out of her doze. She yanked her head up to see a man in suspenders and a dirty look on his face standing outside her car.

“You’ve been hea' nearly an hour. You’re starting to block traffic. Either get outta the car and do what you need to do, or beat it.”

She noticed that the space up ahead where the errant husband had parked his car was empty. Cursing to herself, she started her car and reversed.

***

Later, after all was said and done and a disappointed wife was left sobbing in the foyer, Patience came home exhausted and weary, but seventy dollars richer. It was night by the time she came home to her small rented apartment, and the building was dark and empty.

Patience took the elevator and leaned her head against the faded wood as, with an audible groan, it began its journey upward.

The apartment building she lived in was an ancient horror with peeling wallpaper, elevators that didn’t work half the time, and a hideous green rug the color of pea soup. She had always thought of private investigators as working out of polished offices with fancy lettering spelling out their name above the door, but five months living in this hellhole cleared that misconception up quite a bit. It was half struggling to pay her rent and half chasing cheating spouses.

She felt bitterness well up in her. This wasn’t what she was supposed to be doing. This wasn’t the reason she had fought and scrounged her way through university to get her hands on a criminal justice degree. This wasn’t the reason she sold her childhood home and moved out of the town she had known all her life, only to come to a dirty, gray, dingy city crawling with the worst of the worst with barely more than her shoes and the criminal justice degree clutched in her right hand.

The elevator reached its destination with a groan, and Patience stepped out. The hallway was empty. Her heels thumped quietly on the hideous green rug as she continued to her room, and when she opened it, she was so exhausted she practically fell inward.

The silence there settled over her head like dust. All she could hear was her breaths, coming in harsh and quiet but so loud in the empty room.

She picked herself up and slammed the door shut, then kicked off her shoes as she headed for the bedroom. She couldn’t afford much what with rent and all, but had managed to pony up enough for a cracked table and two wooden chairs in the “kitchen”. A beaten-up sofa and chipped coffee table made its home in the living room.

Patience rolled onto the bed, still in her work clothes, and thank god she was tired enough to fall right to sleep. She’d had too many sleepless nights to afford another one.

***

By the time the phone call came she was well used to suspicious spouses and worried parents, and answered it with an “Office of Patience Winslow, how can I help you?”

She was also well used to the quavering sort of voice on the other end. “You’re a pr—a private investigator?”

”Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you…can you…I would have contacted another investigator, but I thought…since you’re a woman, perhaps you would understand…”

“Ma’am, I can investigate if your husband is—“

“Not my husband. My daughter. She’s…she’s…gone. She was working for—for—“ the woman’s voice dissolved into sobs.

Her interest piqued, Patience stayed silent, waiting for her to go on.

“Could you—could you meet me at Café Bellanta on Fifth Avenue? In about half an hour? I would be wary to—to tell you this over the phone—”

“Absolutely.” When Patience hung up, her heart was thumping in frightened anticipation.

She took the time to fix herself in the mirror, straightening her clothes and brushing her unruly hair behind her prominent widow's peak—she had wavy, mousy brown hair that perpetually looked as if she had gotten out of bed. It was long enough to reach her mid-back, shining a rich chestnut in the dim light of the window coming into the bathroom.

Patience had thin, pink lips, and a smattering of freckles across her pale cheeks. She had a small, straight nose and a gentle, heart-shaped face. Her eyes were pale green, the color of light clover. She had gotten them from her father—the only beautiful thing about him, her mother had teased. But they never were like her father’s twinkling, mirthful eyes—hers had dark bags under them, her eyelids permanently drooping.

Patience was more cute than attractive—which she sorely regretted, as it made her look as if she were in her early teens. People never took her seriously.

She was a short girl, but not stout by any means—she found herself skipping meals to pay for utilities, and was underweight enough so that her ribs poked out beneath her breasts.

Patience took another deep breath and raked her eyes over herself in the mirror. Her hair was still a little messy, and she could do with some makeup to obscure the shadows under her eyes, but she was presentable, at least. Her pencil skirt was a little rumpled, but her white lace blouse was neatly ironed, with a crisp navy bow at the neckline.

On her way out the door, she paused by the photo that was standing by the door. It was of a young couple, a freckled woman with sparkling eyes and wavy hair holding a baby in her arms, and beside her, a well-dressed young man, his hair neatly combed under a constable’s cap, sitting beside her and smiling into the camera.

Patience brushed a kiss onto the pad of her thumb and pressed it onto the surface of the faded photograph.

Then she was out the door.

***

Café Bellanta was a small, run-down café in the industrial part of Garland City. It was where workers’ wives stopped on the way to meet their husbands, and where poor schoolchildren nervously met their sweethearts.

It had a balcony overgrown with ivy over a stone patio, where dented metal chairs and small, one-legged tables were scattered.

The only patrons were a fusty-looking old man in a heavy coat who was sipping coffee with a newspaper in his other hand, and what looked to be a woman in a long red button-up coat, a cloche hat perched precariously on her head.

Patience carefully made her way over to the table and took a seat opposite her. “Madam?” she ventured.

The woman lifted her head, and Patience caught sight of her face for the first time.

She was not old—not even middle-aged, with large, pretty brown eyes and red bow-lips. Her hair was red and in loose ringlets, only a few stray curls escaping from her hat.

But her face…it was ages older than the rest of her. Stress and worry lines gathered on the edges of her mouth, and there were bags under her eyes. Her brows were drawn together in a permanent frown. She looked as if she had aged fifty years in a week.

“Patience Winslow?”

“Yes. And you?”

The woman took the handle of her teacup in her trembling white glove and raised it to her lips. “My name is Flora Haywood.”

“What use do you have for my services, Madam Haywood?”

Madam Haywood fell into silence again, and Patience took the time to order herself a pastry and a cup of coffee.

When the waiter walked off, the woman leaned forward and spoke, her voice quavering. “I want you to find my daughter, Caroline.”

A missing person? This was new and exciting.

Madam Haywood handed over a faded photograph, of a young woman with smooth blonde hair, in a modest puffed-sleeve dress, sitting at a table with her chin propped up on her hand and a shy smile on her face. Patience could see the resemblance between other and daughter, the elegant sweep of her chin and her bow-shaped lips. But while the daughter looked as young and vibrant as could be, the mother was exhausted and damaged by premature worry, her eyes drooping and mouth permanently downturned.

“Could you tell me circumstances of her disappearance?” Patience questioned, trying to keep the growing interest out of her voice.

Madam Haywood turned her gaze down. “The reason why—the reason why I contacted you was because, my daughter, before she disappeared, she was involved in—indecent things. I was afraid, perhaps, a male investigator might have refused to—”

“It’s fine, Ma’am,” said Patience gently, suspecting quite well what the “indecent things” were.

It would have been hard enough for the girl’s mother to admit her daughter was involved in prostitution.

“Please, go on. How did she disappear?”

“She was involved with some…unsavory people before she vanished.” Madam Haywood met her gaze again, and her voice fell to a whisper. “I suspect they were… they were… mafioso.”

The table lapsed into silence.

Patience’s mind was whirring and rejoicing. This was it. The break she had been hoping for. The whole reason she had become a private investigator…

As her mind worked overtime, the waiter brought her a Danish and a watery cup of tea. As she bit into her stale pastry, Patience watched as Madam Haywood brought out a creased, crumpled piece of paper.

“Before she disappeared, my Caroline gave me this,” she said, unfolding it and sliding it across the table. “She said she was fearing for her life. This place isn’t on any of the official maps…”

Patience squinted at the faded piece of paper. It was roughly drawn, labeled with directions—on the city limits, near the river, a large spot that she had previously thought to have been wilderness but was filled with blocky, hastily scribbled buildings.

“Do you think she is being kept here?” Patience asked lowly.

“I don’t know. Oh god—I don’t know!” Madam Haywood’s voice erupted in a heavy sob, and she reached across to grip Patience’s arm. “Please find her, Miss Winslow! Find my little girl! She’s all I have, after her father left us—Please, please find her!”

“I’ll do everything I can, Madam Haywood,” said Patience firmly, gripping the woman’s trembling hands in her own. “I promise.”

***

The electric light flickered in the shabby inside of the apartment, illuminating the scuffed hardwood floors. Patience’s nightgown trailed over it as she paced back and forth, fist pressed against her chin.

The table in front of her was strewn with photographs and papers, outlining a complex network of relationships—shady, unofficial, suspected connections between the rough men whose mugshots were on her table. Almost like…

A spiderweb.

On the end of one finger, torn with nail-chewing, she traced from the row of photographs to the next tier, where there were much fewer, and finally the last one, where only three paragraphs remained.

One was blurry, showing two men talking on a street corner, their coat hems turned up to shield half their faces. The first one had his hair concealed by a hat, but one could faintly make out the hatefully curled mouth and downturned lips. He was standing tensely, legs spread slightly in subtle intimidation.

The other man had his back turned to the camera, and from under his hat, you could faintly make out the edge of loosely curled blonde hair. His head was bowed, and his body was relaxed, shoulders slumped in reassuring calmness. From his posture, one would think he was merely speaking to a friend he had met on the street. It was altogether an unremarkable photo, except for the fact that the other man had never been seen again.

In the next photo, the figure of the blond man was clearer, though too distant to make out many details of his face. He was behind a table in a courtroom, posture calm and attentive. He was dressed in a well-tailored black suit, his blond hair nicely styled, mouth in an impassive line and eyes staring coolly ahead.

And the last one was a mugshot of the man in both photos, back when he was a young man, fresh off the boat in Garland City. His hair was ruffled and unkempt, and a dark bruise stained his fair cheekbone. But the lines of his face were softer, more boyish, with remnants of youth softening his cheeks and chin.

He couldn’t have been older than fourteen. He had an unreadable expression, somehow similar to the adult sitting in the courtroom, placid and disarming, as if he was having a family photograph taken, instead of a mugshot. He was a truly adorable youth, with delicately curled blond hair, full lips, and big, innocent eyes framed by long eyelashes. Like a little cherub.

A devil in angel’s clothing, Patience thought bitterly. She clenched a fist, staring at the photo with trembling eyes.

And now here he was. Head of the massively dangerous and influential Borghese crime family. From what she could figure out, they had a big slice of the prostitution and gambling parts of Garland City, and were on very good terms with some renowned politicians. From tracing influential arrests to the next criminal down the line, and from that, exhaustively trawling records of arrests in newspaper articles at the Garland Public Library, Patience had zeroed in on the man she knew was behind it all. An influential and yet shadowy figure, innocuous in the public view and yet with the corners of his cobweb stretching from the end of the city to the other.

You just wait, Leonardo Borghese. You’ll spend the rest of your days rotting in prison…if I don’t get to you first.

That night she could not sleep, as was normal for her. She laid awake, her body wracked by tiredness but unable to drift off, silent in loneliness and bitterness. She imagined the face of Leonardo Borghese, as an adult, then as a young man, both very different, but similar in the veiled cruelty their blue eyes held.

She stared at the ceiling, arms spread out and eyes sunken and bleak. Her mind was anxious and whirling until the sun began to peek above the horizon. Then she drifted off into an uneasy doze, and dreamed of blood on her bare feet, and dinner on the table, and the scent of gunpowder in the air, pungent and smoky.

Chapter Text

The edges of Garland City were usually highly metropolitan, filled with commuters who couldn’t afford to live in the center of the city. Save for the edges of the peninsula, where the land met the sea and swampy brush made it impossible to build homes.

Patience had never been to this part of the city before. She drove on and on, until the asphalt street met hardened dirt and the enormous Ironground Bridge, a landmark that always told her where she was, disappeared from her rearview mirror. She parked her car on a back road and arranged some branches artfully on its top to make it seem as if it had been there a while.

Then she turned and began to fight her way through the undergrowth, holding the map perilously in front of her.

She followed it as best she could, stamping on rotten logs, squelching though foot-deep mires, and batting away thick, wet branches.

A few times Patience thought she was lost, but she fought on, grimly enduring the filthy conditions and overgrown forests. She had a mission to do. And by god, she would finish it. If not for Flora Haywood, then her own parents.

It was a great relief to her when she stumbled upon the outskirts of a village. She had been walking for hours at that point, only consulting her poorly-drawn map, and when her foot met cracked concrete, it was a great relief.

She straightened up. This town was obviously abandoned, with tarnished No Trespassing signs nailed to the chain-link fence that surrounded the perimeter.

Patience cursed her decision to wear heels. Foolishly, she had thought that the town would be a civic place for her to stride easily into. She grabbed the fence and began to haul herself up over it. It shredded her pantyhose to ribbons, and by the time she struggled over, her skirt was fully destroyed by the barbed wire, and her legs were leaking blood down her thighs.

She walked on, trying to ignore the pain that jabbed her legs. On through the jungle of abandoned houses, of crumbling concrete blocks.

The light of the moon grew dimmer. As she traveled on, the ground became wetter, more pliable. A pungent scent began to permeate the air, making her wrinkle her nose.

The heel of her shoe sunk into something solid.

When Patience glanced downwards, she saw the pale, rotting face of a human, her slender heel stuck into his gaping eye socket.

She launched herself backwards, a scream bubbling up in her throat, and her bottom crashed into the murky earth. She stared ahead in horror as the moon peeked out from behind a cloud, illuminating the dozens of pale bodies half-sunk in the boggy mire.

The smell hit her full force, the thick, rotting scent piercing her throat. She gagged and retched, her thankfully empty belly convulsing as she lay on her hands and knees.

When she staggered up, she knew she had something big on her hands.

Here had to have been the infamous body dumping ground of the Borghese crime family. All the unfortunate people that stood up to them, mobsters that needed disposing of, prostitutes that had outgrown their worth, policemen that couldn’t be bought off…

All right here, in this mire of corpses.

Carefully picking her way through the maze of bodies, she gingerly nudged heads aside with her foot (she would have to get rid of her shoes, she could never wear them again after this), looking for…

Oh no.

A limp body, sprawled on her side, wearing a sinfully short, sequined dress rolled up above her knees. A hunk of hair came off as Patience rolled her head to the side to get a better look at her. Her skin was waxy and gray, her eyes rotting masses of worms, but Patience recognized the full lips, the straight blonde hair.

Caroline Haywood.

Patience slowly let the girl’s limp head fall to the side, and backed up with trembling legs. The thing she had been fearing had come to pass. The mafia had not simply been holding her…they had killed her.

Patience thought of Flora Haywood, and what she would tell her. That her only daughter, the light of her world, was dead.

Tears welled in her eyes as she stared at the decomposing body. For a moment she was reminded of her own mother, splayed across the wooden floor, blood pouring from the bullet hole in her forehead.

Patience lifted her sleeve and wiped her eyes, mentally shaking herself. Now was not the time. She needed to get to the police, to inform them as soon as possible. And after that, the press. This was big. The location where the Borghese family had hidden their corpses had been a mystery for years.

The victims of other crime families—the Campiones, the Di Scarpettas— usually ended up buried deep in the woods, or in the Boone River, or just left where they were lying after shooting them in dark alleys or houses. But the Borghese had been meticulous in their body disposal, almost fastidious. Not a pinch of evidence or a spot of blood had been left at any of their crime scenes. Their victims had completely disappeared into the ether.

But not anymore.

She began to get to her feet and turn back, until she heard the distant revving of a car coming from the jungle of cracked concrete buildings.

Why would someone be all the way out here? She thought for a moment, confused, before reality caught up to her with a sickening lurch.

She broke into a run half across the field of bodies, tripping across a skeletal hand—the skin tore off it in a disgusting slough, sticking to the end of her shoe—and threw herself behind the nearest bush that lined the field. It was dense enough so she could hide in the tangle of branches and leaves, and Patience curled her slim legs and stilled herself, eyes closed tightly and pink lips pressed together.

The car—a lacquered black affair— rumbled out onto the edge of the concrete, and a shouting, protesting man was dragged out.

The light of the headlights silhouetted the figures that had emerged from the car—most wearing hats that obscured their features, in dark suits with the sleeves rolled up to their elbows. The man on the ground was struggling to get up, speaking rapidly and sobbing in a language she didn’t know. One of the suited men spoke a few harsh words—stai zitto!—and gave him a kick to the ribs. The man collapsed heavily, his body still shaking with sobs.

The back door of the car slowly creaked open.

Almost as if a switch had flipped, the men fell into silence. Almost imperceptibly, their attention turned to the car. Even the man on the ground stopped sobbing and stiffened as a tall figure slowly stepped out of the car.

Patience’s heart was thumping, drumming against her breasts as she lay heavily on her stomach, the stench of corpses in her nose. Her breath was frozen in her throat.

It was a straight, still figure with his hands behind his back. He was very slim and tall—stately, she would say. It was dark—she couldn’t make out many details—but she could see the headlights shine faintly off tousled golden curls, frosted with white on the ends. He was wearing a lighter suit—it might have been gray—but it fit him well, the tie neatly tucked into the front. It was sharp and fashionable, very formal, outlining his curves well.

When he spoke, it came to her as a surprise—he did not utter harsh words. In fact, he did not even seem angry. His tone did not even hold a hint of displeasure.

“Did you really think you could speak and get away with it, Carlo?”

His tone was really more of an amused question. The man—Carlo—dissolved into sobs once again. “Please, boss, for the love of God, she wasn’t gonna tell anyone, I made sure—“

“Carlo. When you were sworn in—to this thing, this thing of ours—then did you not make a vow? A vow of silence? To uphold omerta?”

“Yes, I did. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’ll never utter another word again, you can sew my mouth shut, I don’t care, please just don’t—“

One of the dark suited men gave him another kick. “Shuttup, you stupid cocksucker. The boss is talkin’.”

“Mind your language, Stefano. If you’re going to swear, do it in Italian.”

The blond man—and Patience was beginning to get an inkling of who he was, and it made her heart begin to chill—slowly bent his knees until he was face-to-face with Carlo.

His voice dropped, but it carried across the field, piercing her ears. “Do you remember when you became one of us, and you burned the image of a saint? You swore that if you ever broke our law, our code of honor, that your flesh would burn just like the saint.”

Patience could barely breathe. She felt as if she were in the middle of a sacred ceremony, a sealed room where the words that fell from their mouths were as the deepest secrets.

“It would be appropriate, then, to fulfill that oath.”

The man began to scream.

The other man—Stefano, probably Stefano Rizzo—gave him a kick to the ribs that Patience could hear across the clearing. The snapping of ribs made her wince.

The blond man spoke up once again, tone congenial. “Do not worry, Carlo. You will not be alive to experience it. You are a made man—you deserve more respect than that.”

In one swift movement, he drew out a gun from his breast pocket and shot him in the head.

The blast deafened her. She couldn’t hear her own scream. That was probably a good thing—if she couldn’t, the rest of them undoubtedly wouldn’t.

Carlo fell backwards, blood spurting from a hole in his forehead. On the ground, he twitched, his brain synapses sending their last signals to dying muscles, then stilled.

The blond man snapped his fingers, and one of the dark-suited men pulled a can from the back of the car and handed it to him.

The blond man unscrewed the can and sloshed dark liquid over the dead body. The smell of gasoline hit Patience’s ears and made her eyes water. She had been lying still in that position for half an hour, and her arm, trapped under her body, was beginning to go numb.

“You knew the punishment for violating omerta, Carlo,” were the man’s quiet words as he lit a match.

The moment the flame flared to life, it illuminated his face for the first time.

Patience felt her throat paralyze.

Warm, rich light reflected off of the soft curves and planes of his skin, the ripe fullness of his red lips, and his sapphire blue eyes. She had heard him called “The Angel Don” and it wasn’t wrong. His face was strikingly beautiful in the way only figures of legend were; his soft flaxen hair falling in sun-kissed curls over his brow.

He had the countenance of a Greek god. A slender, straight neck, above collarbones as sharp as knives. A stately, arched aquiline nose in a face that was both pretty and regal, as if it were sculpted out of marble. He had high cheekbones and a well-defined jaw, with thinly arched eyebrows and eyes the color of the darkest evening, dark and familiar, like an unfathomably deep lake...

Oh God. It was him.

The memory of what happened years ago was suddenly brought to the forefront of her mind in a sickening flash. She could hear the gunshot in her ears, a phantom noise, hear the scream of her mother only to have it cut short by another gunshot…

Leonardo Borghese threw the match.

The body flared to life in a whoosh of flames, sending a wave of heat all the way across the clearing to wash over her. The sudden burst of flame illuminating the pitch-black clearing made an unconscious, strangled squeal escape from Patience’s throat.

She saw one of the men—dark-haired, with thin spectacles— jerk his head up. She clenched her jaw shut, terror forming a tight ball in her stomach.

“Did you hear that, boss?”

“Stefano?” Borghese’s voice quirked in a question. His tone seemed unchanged for someone who was watching someone’s body burn in front of him. The smell of cooked flesh reached her nostrils, and bile rose up in her throat. She choked on her own vomit, her throat burning and tears dripping out of her eyes.

“Nothin’…just thought I heard someone. Prob’ly just a bird or somethin’.”

They boarded the car and left soon after, leaving only a charred, slowly roasting corpse and car tracks in the muck and mire. As she heard the sounds of the engine grow fainter, she slowly stood up and wiped some muck off the front of her shirt.

As repugnant as it was to admit, she was getting used to the smell of dead bodies. She remembered the impassive aloofness of his face while he threw the match, as if he were merely burning old newspaper.

Well, she had him now. Not only could she lead the police to the body dumping ground, but she was an eyewitness that could decisively tie Leonardo Borghese to the scene.

This was it. She had done it. He was going to rot in prison for the rest of his life.

Even with the smell of cooked body in her nose, Patience couldn’t repress a triumphant smile as she began her long walk back to her car.

 

Chapter Text

“What do you mean you’re not going to need my testimony?”

Patience’s sharp voice barked in the empty room, accusingly making the receptionist cower on the other end of the line.

“I mean… since the charges on Mr. Borghese have been dropped….”

“You dropped the fucking charges?!” Her voice was getting louder and angrier. Wrath boiled up inside her body.

“Yes, madam. When the police went to the…the alleged body dumping ground, they found no evidence. And you need to make an appearance in the Courthouse on Tuesday. You’re being charged for trespassing.”

“So you’re just letting him go? I saw him! I have testimony to give!”

“The alleged sighting of one eyewitness cannot be used as evidence in a case this big.”

Patience slammed the receiver down and swept it off the table in a fit of fury. She snarled in frustration, clawing at her messy hair and slamming her fist on her cracked table.

She should have known. She should have fucking known. Leonardo Borghese had the entire god damn police force in his pocket. Someone had to have tipped him off. And all his politician friends must have convinced the court not to go ahead with the case.

And now he was getting out scot-free, out of what should have been the biggest crime trial in the history of Garland City.

The events of a day prior flashed in her mind. The face of Flora Haywood, her face crumpling, the raw despair in her sobs as she sank to her knees. Her heart-wrenching wails as Patience informed that she had found her daughter’s body. The utter misery that wracked her thin figure as she lay prone on the ground, robbed of the last thing that had any meaning in her life. Patience remembered looking around her house and seeing, on the neatly embroidered tablecloths and counter, countless photos of her daughter, from when she was a chubby baby to a bright-faced child in her playclothes, up until her blossoming as a young woman.

And now she wouldn’t even be able to bury her only daughter.

She threw on her heels and stomped out of the house, not even bothering to lock the door behind her. She didn’t have anything valuable anyway, nothing worth burgling for.

But like hell she was going to let Leonardo Borghese get away with this.

***

The Courthouse was white and stark in the grayness of the autumn day, looming with its domes and arches like a swan in the middle of a gray lake. Two men descended the steps, both dressed for a cold day with heavy coats and leather gloves.

There was a large crowd, some with cameras, ready at the bottom to start questioning him—as far as they knew, a prominent Garland City socialite and philanthropist, about the heinous charges leveled against him.

Bright sunlight glinted off of tousled curls, and thin red lips quirked into a smile as the tall man turned to his companion.

Leonardo Borghese was wearing an ankle-length black coat to protect from the chilly autumn weather, its neck hem pulled up to his nape. It was tightly buttoned up to the chest, only open enough to get a glimpse of a gray suit and black tie—the same as when she had seen him burn that man's dead body. The memory made even more fury obscure her vision. She elbowed her way through the crowd.

“Leonardo Borghese!’ she shouted. He started and turned around, and his sapphire eyes focused on her.

His lawyer turned to her as she stomped up the steps. “Ah, you must be a report—“

She shoved him bodily aside, making him stumble

In a moment she was on Borghese, right in front of him. “You son of a bitch,” she hissed at him, grabbing his lapels and pulling him closer. “I know what you did! You think you can pay your way out of anything, but I have news for you, Borghese: You can’t hide from the law forever.”

The man beside him, a silver-haired lawyer with a smile like a xylophone, said sharply, “You do realize you have committed assault.”

Borghese held up a hand, silencing him. He was staring at her, his eyes unreadable but focused on her, mildly shocked. He said nothing.

She gripped his lapels harder and shoved her face closer to his, so close that she could feel his soft breath tickle her lips.

“I’m not going to stop until you’re either locked away forever or six feet under. Never. I’m going to get you, Borghese. I swear to God, I’ll never stop.”

He said nothing, staring at her with contemplative, liquid blue eyes, their dark irises holding something she couldn’t name.

She was so close to him she could smell the tart cologne he was wearing, and feel the silky fabric bunching under her fingers. He was so much taller that he had to tilt his head down to stare her in the eyes. She lifted her chin defiantly and poured every modicum of hatred, of fury, of boiling disgust she had in her gaze, right into his blank, night-colored eyes.

His mouth parted ever so slightly, as if in surprise, then slowly began to curve into a smile.

She let go of his suit, letting the fabric uncrumple, and whipped around—she saw the lawyer standing to the side, looking mystified—and began to stomp down the steps, her fists clenched at her side and her messy hair streaming in the chill autumn air. She pushed through the crowd at the bottom of the steps, who were all chattering and gazing at her

Fuming, she had reached the end of the street when she heard a call behind her. “Hey—Hey, Miss!”

“I’m not answering questions!” she shouted, speeding up. She heard a clatter behind her and a hand closed on her upper arm. She violently shook it off and whipped around, ready to give whoever it was a piece of her mind.

What she saw was a short, scruffy man, a bulky, unwieldy camera slung over his shoulder and a pad and pencil clutched in his hands. He straightened up and gazed at her, panting, eyes big and owlish behind his thick eyeglasses.

“Madam, whoever you are—Please don’t leave! I just wanted you to know, I saw you confront him, and I—I thought I was the only one! Please stop and listen to me! I know he’s a part of the mob, too!”

Shocked by his raw words, she paused in her attempts to wrest his hand off her arm and stared at him. He caught his breath and straightened up, extending his hand. “Michael Sheehan. Junior editor of the Merrimont Post. I think you and I have a lot to talk about.”

***

“My God. You have him all figured out.” His voice was one of horrified fascination.

They were in her apartment. He was looking through her documents, eyes wide and trembling behind his glasses.

She leaned against her doorframe, dressed in a simple blouse and rumpled skirt, drinking coffee and gleefully watching as he sifted her portfolio.

“I only had the barest outline of the crime families—“ he said. “Do you know that they call themselves families?”

She grinned. “Sure I do.”

“But this…this is the most in-depth investigation I’ve every seen on a crime family--and that’s including the police chief’s files I’ve seen.”

“Well, what do you expect? The Borghese family has the police in their pocket. Their files should be wiped clean of anything indicting them.”

“Not just them. The Di Scarpettas have them in their pocket too, from what I’ve seen.”

“You’ve done your own investigation?” Patience approached him, setting her mug down on her coffee-stained table.

“Yes. Well—no. Not anything in-depth. Just offhand stuff, from what I’ve been reporting on. You notice trends—trends that just don’t get into the newspapers. How the hell were you able to get this much information on them?”

“Even if what they do doesn’t get into the papers, you also notice certain trends, working with the police office as often as I do. It’s all a matter of following up on them.”

He looked at her, the piece of paper trembling in his hand. “I can’t believe you and I believe the same thing.”

“It’s like we’re crazy, aren’t we?” She took a photograph and held it up to the light.

He pointed to the second tier. “Stefano Rizzo. I thought he was working as a hitman? But he’s actually part of the Borghese crime family?”

“Yes. If you follow the timeline, you notice that around here—“ she pointed to her list of dates “he stops meeting them in public places, and starts coming around to members’ houses. The only way they would let him do that—“

“Is if he officially joined the Borghese family,” he finished. He sat down heavily, the chair scraping across the floor. “This here, this right here holds the secrets to the Borghese crime family. We know who answers to who, who does the dirty work for who—“

“What about you?” she interrupted, taking a seat in her lopsided chair. The sunlight bathed her table in bright light, particles of dust whirling on the top of the documents. “How did you find all this out? Surely it can’t just be ‘trends’ that got you onto the tail of organized crime.”

“Well—it was, sort of.” He wiped his brow, glasses. “A couple of years ago, when I was just a correspondent, I noticed we had some stories that weren’t getting into the paper. About murders that only got a brief obituary, no mention of murder or cause of death. I tried to follow up on it, but the Editor in Chief told me to leave it. Every time I tried asking questions, they threatened to fire me. When I got the story about a whole family killed in their home, and they refused to even run the story—I knew something smelled bad. I had to follow up on this. For them.”

He paused and looked away. “A whole family. Shot to death. The father was tortured. Open and shut case, they said. It was the mother’s former lover. But he was two states away! There was no way it could have been him. But they convicted him anyway.”

He looked back, and his eyes were hard. “That’s when I knew. This whole conspiracy of silence, from all levels of the government—I had to break it, somehow.”

“But how?” she burst out. “They’ve got the press in their pockets. The police as well. The politicians are relying on their funding dollars. What can we do? You’re just an editor, and I’m a penniless private eye.”

“Ah.” He grinned, and held a finger up. “That’s where you’re wrong.”

He stood up and began to arrange the papers back in their original position. “Patience, will you come with me to my house?”

“I don’t know. Will your wife be okay with it?”

He winced. “Don’t have a wife. Had a girlfriend—but, ugh, she got driven away. I was too focused on this, know what I mean? I just didn’t have time.”

She stifled a giggle. “I can completely understand.”

***

Michael Sheehan lived in a small one-story house in a borough of Garland City very close to Merrimont. His table was scattered with a thousand papers—like hers.

“It’s not much—“ he started.

She browsed through his files, her heart slowly swelling with the amount of information contained therein. “This is amazing. You know who each and every crime family is. I had no idea—the Lavorgnas? The Andreottis? Who are they?”

He scratched his head, looking bashfully proud of himself. “Like I said, it’s not much. All I have is a collection of people who may or may not be part of the crime families. But I think—I think—I can identify each and every crime family in the city.”

She spread some papers over his desk, looking through for people she recognized. The extra-important photographs were marked with black tape—one was a picture of an old man with a lumpy nose and a thick jaw, and the other, a picture of a young man with pitch-black hair and look on his face that said he wanted to lunge through the photo and start strangling the photographer.

She set down his files and turned to face Michael, leaning against the desk. “But, we can’t do anything with this. All this is great—but if we take it to the police, they’ll confiscate it. We’re helpless.”

“Who said anything about the police?” he grinned.

He walked over to sit down on the sofa and indicated the armchair opposite him. She sunk into the soft leather, listening intently.

He leaned forward, eyes gleaming. “Do you remember when Senator Remington Isaacs was indicted on corruption charges a few decades ago?”

“Yeah, I think I learned about that in Criminal Justice school. Wasn’t it because a book had been published—or something, by his ex-wife, that actress—“

“Yes! Exactly! And—get this—she had a ton of evidence. Nothing official. No police stuff. But it was used as evidence to convict him. He got life for corruption, with the key piece of evidence being that sole book.”

She was beginning to see what he was getting at. “So you think—“

“Yes! We can run the story, it’s too big not to run. The Merrimont Post will pick it up, we can publish it, and it will be too important not to lead to convictions and criminal trials. We have to outline all of it, the structure of the families, we have to put everything, every bit of evidence of we have and then some.”

“That’s genius!” Patience leaped up and stepped forward, grabbing him by his lapels. Her heart was about to burst. This was it. This was it! The very thing she’d been working toward for years. She had a game plan now.

“When are we going to publish it?”

He coughed and looked away. The bright and exhilarated atmosphere of the room dropped by several degrees.

“Well…that’s the thing.”

“What do you mean? We have everything. We have photos. We have articles, a timeline, an outline of their criminal doings—“

“But no hard evidence.”

She stared at him, shocked, for a moment, before her mind (and criminal justice degree) caught up with her. ‘Damn!”

She sunk back down on the sofa, her head in her hands. He leaned over and patted her shoulder. “Don’t despair just yet. We can get that hard evidence. With my connections, and your expertise, we can make an effective team.”

She looked up at his idealistic smile. He grinned and squeezed her shoulders tighter. With his glasses off, she could see he had soft, sparkling gray eyes, and that when he smiled, two dimples appeared on his cheeks.

“I’m an editor, I have all sorts of people feeding information to the newspaper. I would know where to go and what to do. And you’re a private eye—you know what it’s like to get down and dirty. If we work together, we can gather the hard evidence we need to publish.”

She stared at him for a moment and clasped his hands on her shoulders. “Do you think we can do it?”

He nodded. “I know we can.”

He stumbled as she lunged forward and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

”Wh-whoa, don’t knock me down! You’ve got some muscle on you for a small girl!”

She gave a watery laugh and wiped her eyes. She couldn’t remember being this happy since…since…

“Well, I’d better be heading back home,” she said, looking toward the door. “I can meet you next weekend, if you like, and we can start to hammer our plan of action out then.”

“That sounds swell.” He bent down to grab her coat. “Hey, Patience—“

”What?” she was shrugging it on, hand on the doorknob.

“Just…thank you. Thank you too. I feel like I’m a little less alone in the world now.” He rubbed the frame of his glasses with his coat tail, trying to obscure his face for some reason.

Her face broke into a radiant smile. “Me, too.”

***

“Okay, so. You know Leonardo Borghese runs clubs across the city, right?”

They were sitting at Michael’s breakfast table that morning, papers spread from side to side with only two patches bare were their bagels were.

Patience took a long draught of coffee, eyes narrowing. “Yeah. That’s how he makes most of his ‘legitimate’ money, right?”

“Not so. I’ve come on good information that it’s also where he makes most of his gambling money.”

“Well, that would explain a lot.”

“This club in particular—the Black Bull Club—is where I think his headquarters are.” He handed her a photograph of a skuzzy-looking club, with broken neon lighting flashing words with letters missing, on the corner of a dingy looking street. “I have it on good authority that it’s also an illegal gambling hub. I ran a story about illegal gambling a while ago, and kept in touch with someone who knows the ins and outs of the business. I got in contact with him, and he gave me some instructions on how to get in.”

“Shoot.”

“Password’s ‘red rooster’.” Go up to one of the bouncers and say it. They’ll take you to the back part of the club, where the gambling goes on. From there, you can find a back room—that’s his office.”

He held out a tangle of wires. She eyed it warily. “What’s that?”

“The microphone. You’re going to implant it beneath his desk. From there, we’ll get the first of our good hard evidence.”

Her mouth made a line and she nodded. “All right then. I’ll go tonight.”

She stood up—ready to make her preparations—but startling her, he lunged forward and grabbed her arm.

“Please be careful, Patience. Please. If things start to go sideways, you get the hell out of there. Even if you haven’t planted the bug. Just—care about yourself, first and foremost.”

She laughed and closed her hands over his. “Don’t worry, Michael. I’ll be fine, promise. Yeah, I’ll get out of there if things get hairy. But I’m not going to quit if some bouncer starts giving me the side-eye. Got it?”

***

The Black Bull Club was even mangier up front. A faded sign hanging above it had a caricature of a snarling bull on it in peeling paint. Set on some curb in the red-lightest of the red-light district, it was a place where you ended up, not went. Women and men with nothing to live for but drink staggered in, and zombie-eyed drunks staggered out.

Patience was dressed nicely—but not too nicely, that might raise suspicion. She was wearing a navy blue cocktail dress that exposed just a little too much of her cleavage, and high-heels even higher than the ones she usually wore. She had decorated her eyes with whorish black eyeshadow, and her lips were a queasy shade of pink. She blended in perfectly.

She paid the pittance of a fare to get in, and began to elbow her way through the mess of drunken bodies. It was a real horror of a clubroom, with peeling purple wallpaper and a cracked bar counter, with numerous cheap alcohol available behind the dusty glass cabinet. The scent of bodily fluids and sweat overwhelmed her, and she wrinkled her nose.

She spied a bouncer at the corner of the room, looking bored, and approached him, smiling fakely. “Hey, there,” she cooed until she was close enough to whisper, “Red rooster.”

His previously bored eyed widened, and he turned around, leading her along the edge of a room to a door to a restroom marked “out of order”.

With a cursory glance around, he ushered her in to a dark hallway. She groped around until her hand closed on a door handle, and she wrenched it open. The hall was flooded with light.

Behind the door was a dim series of tables and lanterns—men and women were there, dressed, some fashionably, some modestly—the modest ones seemed at their wits end, and some were pleading with some impassive men in suits at the side of the room.

She tugged her dress strap over her shoulder and took a step in, covertly looking for the office of Leonardo Borghese.

There were pinwheels and blackjack sets set on the dark pool tables of the room. She pretended to be interested, wandering near. Her sharp eyes sought out a dark door, in the corner of the room. Was that the entrance she was looking for?

A cry echoed from the side of the room. A man was sitting there, hands clasped, trying in vain to plead with the men in suits at the side of the room.

She had to move fast, while there was a distraction. As she was heading for it, she heard a low, smooth voice echo behind her. “Is there a problem?”

She knew that voice.

From that night—the smell of roasted flesh in her nose—

To that day so long ago—

“Please no, not my husband!”

Her knees buckled, and a wave of nausea and anger swept over her. Her breaths came in soft pants.

As she looked over the room, she saw the maestro of her miseries, standing there, elegant and aloof.

It took all her self restraint not to leap around the room and wrap her hands around his throat.

He was well-dressed that day, in a slick black suit that outlined his slim waist nicely, his hands thrust casually inside his pockets. His golden hair was neat and combed against his skull, eyes blue and cool as ice as he stared dispassionately at the man hugging his legs.

Patience felt her heart burn in familiar loathing as she gazed upon his beautiful face. This was the face that would kill men and women, of no use to him anymore, and leave them unburied in a mire. Kill a constable who had done nothing but give testimony against him, and leave him and his wife bleeding on the floor, and his daughter trembling in the cabinet.

She mentally slapped herself back to reality. She forced herself to turn away, and began to make her way to the door. Its bodyguards were gone, to help their boss deal with the situation at hand. She slipped the door open and groped her way through the dark—if she turned on the light they would notice.

Unseen in the velvet blackness, she stuck the microphone under the desk, waiting for it to stick to the underside of the wood, then crawling out.

As she emerged, she saw that the commotion had disappeared and people were back to their gambling. A thrill of fear pierced her heart, until she saw that none of the men in suits were looking at her.

She edged along the room, trying to look normal, taking cursory interest in the gambling on the green tables, until she reached the door to the Black Bull club.

With a careful glance around, she disappeared through it.

And cold hands grabbed her, closing around her arms and legs and muffling her cries.

***

”Start driving,” was his order. Calm but authoritative. The car began to move immediately.

She stared ahead as the street began to move, not daring to look sideways at the man sitting beside her. Her breaths were in terrified gasps, her dress torn up to her waist, a strap of her dress snapped and hanging down her shoulder.

Her arms and legs ached where they had grabbed her. She was sure fingerprints of bruises would show up later.

She could feel Leonardo Borghese's presence, radiating calmness and ease. But her own body was tight and cold, waiting, anticipating his voice.

It came.

“I was watching you, ever since you stepped into my club. Did you know that?” his voice quirked into a question.

She stared down at her lap, eyes focused squarely on the navy blue of her dress. It’s the same color as his eyes, she thought suddenly.

“Did you think I wouldn’t recognize you? I can find anyone in the city. What made you think that the young woman with the rumpled suit and grudge against me would be beyond my gaze?”

Patience kept a tight gaze on the outside of the window. The scenery was flashing by, poverty-stricken districts of Garland City. Concrete cracked and lamplights flickering.

Would she come out alive? She didn’t know.

“Brazenly coming into my club, planting a bug in my own office. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Did you really think?”

She felt the tips of his fingertips brush the nape of her neck. She refused to turn around, even as he shifted closer in a slow moving of leather seats.

His hand closed around her chin, turning her to meet his gaze.

He looked like an angel in the lamplight silhouetting him, his soft curls brushing his collar and the light illuminating the tips of his long eyelashes. He tilted his head to the side and gently brushed his thumb over her lips.

“In fact, I bet you were the mystery witness, weren’t you? The one who claimed she had seen me kill a man and set him on fire. Ah…I would have found out sooner or later, but to have her, right in front of me, with no witnesses—what a stroke of luck this is.”

She heard a clicking sound, and then saw the polished shine of a revolver glimmer in the lamplight.

This was it. She was going to die.

The knowledge of her impending death, strangely, did not terrify her—only the thought that Leonardo Borghese would get away with his actions did.

The gun pressed against her jawline. She straightened up a bit and looked him in the eyes, in his cold, impassive eyes, and snarled out what she was sure was her last words. “Go to hell, you bastard. And when you finally get there, I’ll be waiting.”

He paused for a moment, and she squeezed her eyes shut, anticipating the bullet to go through her head and end her life.

Instead, in the darkness of the car, she began to hear a laugh.

“Oh, oh, mia dolcezza! You are simply too much!”

She snapped her eyes open as his laugh reverberated around the car. The cold pressure on her jaw lessened, and she saw him withdraw his gun.

“When I saw you on the steps, I thought to myself, what a foolish woman. Brave, but foolish. I had never conceived of a woman to come right up to me and push her face into mine, and shout for the whole world to hear about what a criminal I was. I find it endearing. I find you endearing.”

She watched him, breathless, as his rich, high laugh continued to escape from his lips. Was he…letting her go?

His laugh faded, and he looked at her fondly, eyes glittering. He leaned closer—too close, what was he doing—and his face pressed close to her, until she could smell his cologne in her throat, and feel the brush of his curls against her face.

His lips pressed to hers in a quick, affectionate kiss—they are so soft, she thought, like a woman’s. His finger skimmed her clothed breasts.

Then she was upended—her world spun—and suddenly his heavy body was pushing between her legs, hands pinning hers to the car door.

“You amuse me, darling girl. You amuse me so greatly.”

As his hands began to shove her dress up—and as a finger hooked around her panties, pulling down—she felt a hysterical scream well inside her.

Oh god. He wasn’t—was he—

God no. Not this. Please, god. Not him—not this—

She kicked out, trying to catch him in the chest. He avoided her deftly, putting his weight on her waist and trapping her legs with his. She felt the coldness of his belt buckle press against her pubic mound, and her struggles got harder.

“But, that does not mean that I can set you free without punishment.”

She groped for the door handle, hand scrabbling against the door, and felt the tip of the gun press against her forehead. She let her hand drop, paralyzing fear overcoming her as she looked up at his wretched smiling face.

A finger closely traced her lower lips, caressing her twitching clit, and then slowly spreading her lips open.

She heard the sound of a buckle being unfastened.

His face nosed beneath her breast, a childish, delightfully happy expression on his face. He inhaled her scent, eyes half closed, and rubbed his forehead into her chest. It was a strange sight--she thought she hadn't ever seen anyone that happy. He rubbed her clothed breasts with his face, like a baby seeking its mother.

Then he jerked his head up.

And he sheathed himself within her in one agonizing, painful thrust.

Chapter Text

It was a long and humiliating walk back to her apartment.

The warm wetness of his semen dripped down her legs, down her ankles, a reminder of him every step she took.

The space between her legs, torn and violated, stung with every step. Every person she encountered stared at her in disgust, as if she were a whore, and not even one respectable enough to keep her business to herself.

When she came into view of her apartment, her feet hurt, her legs ached, and blood as well as semen had begun to leak down her legs. She took the elevator, praying that the nosy old lady downstairs wouldn’t see her—she was humiliated enough without her entire apartment building knowing of her shame.

When she staggered into the safety of her room, she slammed the door shut and began stripping. The only thing on her mind was the wretched uncleanliness of her body, and the feeling of congealed semen splitting apart when she moved her legs.

Leaving her crumpled, stained dress behind, she stepped into the shower and turned on the water. It was cold—it always was, the water heater was broken, always had been—but she didn’t care. All she cared about was getting the vile remnants of the man out of her body.

The chill water streamed over her slumped shoulders, her hair. She could feel the dried blood and semen start to flake off and wash down the drain. It felt like a worm slithering down her legs.

Patience dropped to her knees, sobbing spasmodically.

She rolled onto her side, her face pressed against the smooth tiles, and let the agony and horror of the past few hours overwhelm her.

The entire inside of her body felt as if it had been torn up and turned inside out. Like the devil had stuck his long claw inside her and just scraped. Even with…with the pleasure she had gotten in the last few seconds…

Her body convulsed with sobs as she curled up. Water streamed over her body.

He had taken her, brutally fucked her without regard to her body or mind. Made her stare into his eyes as he lay between her legs, thrusting into her without mercy.

The very man that taken the lives of her parents. The man she had devoted her life to bringing down.

As she struggled to her knees, she felt more disgusting semen squeeze out of her. Another thought occurred to her.

What if she became pregnant?

The very concept put a thrill of fear in her heart. Being raped by Leonardo Borghese was one thing. Having her body swell with his child was another. She looked down at herself in horror, then struggled up. She had to get every ounce of him out of her.

She forced herself to sit up and lean back against the shower wall. She gingerly spread her legs open and looked down at herself.

The lips of her pussy were red and inflamed. Cracks spread from the edges of it. She held her breath as she reached down again and stared to trail her body over her belly.

She forced her hands to travel lower, delving in between her legs and spreading her lower lips open. Squeezing her eyes shut, she forced a finger to dab at her entrance, then slid it further to scrape the semen out of her.

The moment she did a harsh stab of pain wracked her belly, and the more she bent her finger, the more the pain grew. Another sob welled up inside her. She cracked her eyes open, and saw white and red liquid run down the drain, swirling like a whirlpool, the liquid of life and the liquid of death.

He had injected it as far as it would go—far enough to bathe her womb. No matter how much she tried to scrape it out, if she was destined to get pregnant, then she would.

Panicking, she tore deeper inside herself, ignoring the pain that wracked her belly. She just wanted him out of her.

Her salty tears mingled with the shower water.

***

When she went to sleep, she slept more deeply than she ever had in months.

***

“Mommy!”

Mommy looked away from where she was at the stove, and smiled at the sight of her little daughter in her nightgown, rubbing the sleep away from her eyes.

“Mommy has a surprise for you today.”

“What?” Patience bounced forward, her face lit up with excitement.

“Just sit down and eat your eggs. I’ll tell you when you’re done breakfast.”

She ate her eggs in a hurry, and no sooner did her fork clatter on the plate then the door swung open.

“How’s my little Patience?”

At the sound of the light, affectionate voice, Patience flung herself off the chair and ran towards her father. As he scooped her up in his arms, she buried her face in his neck, laughing. “You’re back! You’re back!”

“How could I miss my baby’s birthday?”

“You certainly did last year,” said Mommy frostily, but Patience didn’t pay her any mind. Daddy was home, and she was going to have her birthday with him. That was all that mattered.

She inhaled the familiar scent of sawdust and gasoline that clung to his skin, and closed her eyes happily. His arms were warm and tight around her, and the sun shone off his hair, tousled and brown in the bright morning sun. His stubble scraped across her face as he kissed her. “Now, is that eggs I smell? Why don’t we all sit down together and have breakfast?”

***

During the next few days the phone rang nonstop, but she didn’t answer it. She stayed huddled beneath her blanket, the curtains drawn and the familiar scent of darkness and mustiness in her nose.

Every time she moved her legs it made stings of pain pierce her belly. She didn’t even want to look under her covers. She dozed off intermittently, only awaking when the claws of a nightmare sunk into her brain, and then she forced herself to stay awake, staring into the darkness. She was afraid of falling asleep again, her dreams haunted by the sickly sweet smell of cologne.

She lived in fear that the man himself would stroll through her door, smiling his disgusting fond smile, and humiliate her again. Whenever footsteps passed her room she froze in fear and huddled underneath her blankets until they faded away.

But as humiliation led to self-pity, and self-pity led to fear, so did fear melt into anger.

It took a few days, but eventually the quivering lump of terror inside her solidified into a seething ball of hate.

Just thinking of his arrogant face, the statuesque way he stood—as if he were looking down on everyone in his vicinity—made her eyes swamp with a haze of anger. Just thinking of the way he had violated and tossed her aside—as if she had been a soiled bit of trash—

Like her parents.

A sudden banging her alerted her that someone was at the door. For a moment, fear overtook her—was it Borghese, come back to finish the job?

But she heard a cry, “Patience! Patience! Are you there?” and she knew who it was.

“Michael?” she cried out groggily. She stepped out of bed—the first time she had in days—and the world spun around her. She stood still to get her bearings—an unpleasant sting of pain made its home between her legs—then went over to the door.

As she opened the door, Michael burst in. “Jesus, Patience!” he shouted. “I thought you were dead! Why didn’t you answer my calls? I was so worried!”

He hit the lights—the sudden dazzling brightness hurt her. She rubbed her eyes. “I—“ she started, her voice cracked. Then she thought about what had happened. Did she really want Michael to know?

Looking at his round, worried, relieved face, she knew she didn’t.

”He caught me. He beat me up pretty bad,” she managed.

“He did? How bad? Christ, Patience—why didn’t you go to the hospital?” He was still raging with worry, gripping her shoulders. She shook him off instinctively, not wanting to be touched by a man.

“It wasn’t that bad. I thought I could sleep it off—“

“How much are you hurt? Any broken bones? If you don’t want to go to the hospital, I have some people who can see you—‘

“No. No! Michael, just let it go. I’m fine. I’m ready to keep on going with the investigation.” Her voice was forceful—perhaps too much so, judging by the way he retreated and wilted. He stayed silent for a second, then took a seat at the table.

“So I guess you weren’t able to plant the microphone. Well, I have a better idea now. A great one, in fact.”

He brightened up considerably quickly. “I have a theory. A theory that I think makes sense, and would fit in with all we know about the gangs in Garland City.”

“All you know. My expertise begins and ends with the Borghese crime family.”

“Well,” he continued. “I got to thinking-- I’ve had my suspicions for a while. Hasn’t it been odd that there hasn’t been a single outburst of violence for a decade?”

“What do you mean? The mafia has been murdering for far longer than that.”

“No, what I mean—before a decade ago, there was a whole lot of interkilling in the mafia families. Massacres in the street, in broad daylight. Gang wars resulting in dozens of death. Hits put out on the crime family heads—back when we knew who they were. Now…nothing. We might get a killing between— and inside— the families, but it’s all so…civilized. Nothing like the wanton murder and destruction of the Montevorgnese War.”

“Montevorgnese War…” she whispered, the word sounding familiar to her.

“Well, that’s what the press dubbed it, before the mafia clamped their hands on it and they stopped reporting on it altogether. I think what was happening was that all the newly-arrived Mafioso—coming in the wave of immigrants—started from the ground up, and began to form a rudimentary imitation of what they’d had in their homeland. Of course, a thing like that doesn’t happen overnight, and all the factions started to war immediately, each tearing each other apart to get a piece of the pie. Eventually, it all quieted down. But why?”

“Why indeed?” she murmured.

“Well, I think a sort of—ruling body was established. One that kept in contact with each other and smoothed over all the disagreements their families had with each other. Like a commission of sorts.”

“That makes perfect sense,” she said. It was as if a light had went on in her head. Then suddenly another thing occurred to her. “Michael—“

“But, the only thing we need to know is where they have their meetings. But, they probably keep it really hush-hush, so we’d have to—“

“I think I know where their headquarters are!”

Michael looked at her, his mouth agape. “How—“

“Haven’t you forgotten? I’ve been keeping tabs on Leonardo Borghese for years. One thing I’ve noticed—though I didn’t think it was important at the time—he always goes into a bar with a couple guys once a month. The weird thing is, none of these people are part of the Borghese family. And he never interacts with them outside these meetings. So I think—“

“Brilliant!” he cried. “I swear to god, Patience—you and me together are better than pecan pie! We’re the best sleuths in Garland City!”

He leapt up and leaned over to kiss her—she leaned backwards instinctively, a chill of fear trembling across her skin. He continued on as if he hadn’t noticed. “So tell me, where is this pub?”

“Antonio’s. It’s a seedy bar on Barclay Avenue. We’d have to plant a microphone there—and not screw up this time.” Screw up. Bile rose to her throat.

“But Michael, the thing is, it’s always guarded. 24/7. There’s always these skuzzy looking men outside in long coats. We’d have to get them at a time when they weren’t there.”

“So when would that be?”

An unpleasant memory surfaced inside her. “Well…every month, Leonardo Borghese comes from church, and he’s the first person there. Punctual fucker. Just before he gets there, the men leave. That’s a space of five minutes.”

“That’s too little time! We can’t plant a bug there in five minutes!”

Michael paced the room, tearing his hair out. Patience looked down at her hands, clenched on her lap. They looked so sickly in the dull yellow of the lightbulb.

“Michael…” she started, but her voice got stuck in her throat. The fear and pain of that day came back on her in a wash of nausea. She squeezed her eyes shut, her breaths coming in in pants. She could hear Michael stomping on the floor—thud thud thud.

She forced the terror and apprehension inside her away. Now was not a time to feel weak. She had to take revenge on the man that had killed her parents in any way she could.

Sweat trickled down her brow. She took a deep breath.

“Michael, I can waylay him on his way from church. I think I might be able to distract him for long enough so you could plant the bug. He would probably brush you off, but I’ve met him. He knows me. He would be…interested in what I would have to say.”

His footsteps stopped. He turned toward her, and his face was worried. “Patience, it’s too dangerous. What if he decides to kill you?”

“He wouldn’t. Not in broad daylight, and especially not in front of a church.”

His face was sallow in the sickly light. “Are you sure? Jesus, don’t do this if you think you might be harmed.”

She forced a smile. “I’ll be fine. Let’s set the date, Michael.”

His face broke out into a warm smile. “Please…it’s Mike.”

 

Chapter Text

The day was bright and warm, unusually for autumn, but she felt cold inside--like her insides had been encased in ice.

Patience was dressed in her Sunday best, a long black dress that had once belonged to her mother, and a large green plumed hat that her next-door neighbor had given to her to get rid of. The dress was too big and the hat was crumpled, but she looked at the very least presentable.

Her hair was neatly brushed and swept into a bun on the back of her head. She had put a dab of lipstick on her lips, and it shone vivid against her milky pale skin.

The Cathedral of the Holy Virgin was a miracle of architecture, with statues painstakingly carved into its marble face. The white cathedral towered above all the buildings in its vicinity, its great domes and spirals reaching into the sky like the hands of an errant sinner.

It was easily three stories high, its great arches looming far above her head as she passed through it.

The inside was just as stunning as the outside. Rows upon rows of red, polished wood benches lined the massive interior. An enormous pulpit loomed above the benches, hung with tapestries of red behind it.

Stained windows cast vivid patterns of color on the wooden floor. The shuffling of a hundred feet sounded in the enormous hall, underscored by lively chatter as the churchgoers took their seats. A young priest with dark hair was welcoming the parishioners, and he smiled at her as she went through the doors.

Patience was not a Roman Catholic. She had been raised Lutheran. She had not even gone to church since she was a young girl. The atmosphere of this church was strange and alien to her. Most of the people here were immigrants and children of immigrants, bringing their deeply ingrained beliefs from their homeland with them. Patience heard snatches of conversations in different dialects, all brought together by their shared faith. Old women clutched their crucifixes to their necks, pulling along their grandchildren. Young men and women, dressed their very best, took their seats, eyes fixed on the pulpit.

Tilting her hat so it would conceal her eyes, Patience searched for the man she had come for. His golden curls were a standout—and she located him almost immediately.

He was taking his seat near the front, kindly helping an old woman take her seat beside him.

The mafia boss looked positively angelic—as always. He was wearing a black suit, subdued but modest, with a waist-length black coat buttoned tightly around his waist. His hair was nicely combed, and he ushered the woman into her seat with a gracious smile, waving off her thanks.

He gave off the air of a nice young boy, someone respectful of his elders, well-mannered and well-heeled. When he took his seat, he sat without slouching, his eyes firmly on the pulpit in front of him. He had a gentle smile on his face—a familiar smile—

The glint of lamplight on his golden hair—

And the slow, fond smile curving his face as his hips thrust over and over—

She averted her gaze, her mouth dry and bile welling up in her throat. She focused on the priest as he took his position on the pulpit, his dress pure white and red. He spread his arms, welcoming his flock to the cathedral.

She kept her gaze on the priest for the rest of the two-hour service, though she kept stealing glances at Leonardo Borghese. Unlike many of the congregation, he kept his eyes firmly fixed on the priest, never removing them. Borghese seemed genuinely caught up in the sermon, his hands steepled and his mouth a thin line as the priest’s voice rose and fell.

How could a man who had committed so many sins even deign to be in a place of worship? It made no sense to her. The very tenets of his religion condemned killing. How could he brutally murder a man and turn up the next Sunday for a service?

After an interminable two hours—she had spent the whole time half-listening and half keeping an eye on Leonardo Borghese—the congregation finally began to get up and leave.

Borghese talked familiarly with some people, smiling and congenial. He was the epitome of an innocent man, gently chatting and asking his fellow churchgoers how their lives were going.

But she couldn’t help but notice, he was alone.

He had come in with no one, and he left with no one. His community service done, he left by himself, a lone figure silhouetted against the arched door of the cathedral.

She hurried after him, tripping over the feet of old ladies and offering half-hearted apologies as she continued to chase him. When she burst into the sunlight, she was going so fast she collided into someone.

“I’m so sorry—“ she started, then her apology died on her lips.

The familiar scent of leather and cologne flooded her nostrils. For a moment she couldn’t move, trapped in the arms of the one man she hated most.

“What a coincidence that we happen to go to the same church,” he whispered into her ear. “I had no idea I would run into you here off all places, dolcezza.”

A sudden to compulsion to free herself from his tight grip overwhelmed her—every muscle in her body screamed at her to run. But she remembered Michael—working feverishly to set up the bug, time ticking away. And she swallowed her terror.

“Let’s find ourselves a private place, shall we?” he whispered. “Away from the prying eyes of all these people.”

Holding her arm firmly, as if he were merely a concerned son escorting his mother, he led her across the steps and behind a massive white statue of the Holy Virgin. They were in a cranny that blocked them from view of the leaving congregation—a sort of triangular space where the only things visible were a small slice of the lawn and the edges of the Holy Virgin’s robes, flowing onto the ground.

His polished leather shoes squeaked on the marble floor as he pressed her against the wall of the cathedral. His figure blotted out the sunlight as he leaned over her, so close—too close—that his breath tickled her face.

“Seems you can’t keep yourself away from me, girl. I feel we’ve gotten somewhat acquainted in our short time knowing each other. Tell me, darling…what’s your name?”

He can’t do anything to me he can’t do anything to me we’re in broad daylight he can’t do anything to me “I—my grandmother goes here. I had no idea that you—“ she was tripping over her words, fear making her legs shake.

“You’re lying. Bugiarda, bugiarda. A native girl like you wouldn’t go to a Catholic church. Tell me the real reason why you’re here.”

His voice took on a harder tone, and as she saw him, his deep blue eyes looked like the cold stained glass that graced the top of the cathedral.

“I’m telling the truth,” she whispered, her lips trembling. “My grandmother does go here. I don’t have any intention of bothering you ever again. I’ve learned my lesson…”

Borghese stared at her, eyes unreadable, his normally smiling mouth set in an impassive line. His eyes bored into hers, clear and hard like the ice that froze the top of Boone River, and hiding infinitely more secrets that what lurked beneath the surface of the cold, dark river.

“Bugiarda, bugiarda. I can see you have no intention of letting go. I can see it in your eyes. You have such hatred in them…”

The blond man leaned closer, his gaze never leaving hers. She felt the compulsion to flee, but forced her feet to stay planted. She needed to do this. She needed to distract him. Her entire goal hinged on this.

He bent down his head so his lips caressed the crook of her neck. His entire body was pressing against hers, knee forcing itself between her legs.

Her fingertips bit into the marble wall of the cathedral behind her.

“Why? Why do you have such a hatred for me? I admit, I wish to know very much about you. Why, after I pointed a gun at you, after I violated you, do you continue to follow me? What do you want? Who are you?”

His hand went to cradle the back of her head. A twinge of his fingers and her long, russet brown hair was loose past her trembling elbows. He raked her long, smooth hair between his fingers, clenching the long strands in his tight fist.

Finally breaking, she kneed him in the midriff, forcing him a step back.

“Go to hell, you motherfucker,” she hissed.

He straightened up. “Such a mouth you have. Didn’t your mama ever tell you that swearing was unladylike?”

The memory of her mother surfaced in her mind—her soft arms, her gentle rebukes, and she hesitated.

Suddenly, Borghese was in front of her again, pinning her against the wall. His lips pressed against hers. She began to struggle, but his body was rock solid. His tongue licked the seam of her lips, trying to force entry even as she clamped her mouth shut. His scent—sweet, sweet, so sickly sweet—made her choke.

He gripped her jaw, forcing her head to turn toward him. His tongue broke into her mouth and he sealed his lips against hers. His smell, his lips, the soft brush of his curls against her face—it made her gag. She struggled harder, but his fingers bit into her waist, holding her firmly against him.

Finally she bit down, and he jerked his head back. A stream of red dripped down the corner of his mouth. His eyes flashed hard for a moment, then changed to something not fond, but dark and unreadable.

Maybe even a little… sad?

As she watched, Borghese lifted a thumb to his mouth and dabbed at the spot of blood.

“You’ve got such spirit. It reminds me of someone…who was very dear to me.” his voice was contemplative and quiet, tinged with a soft sort of sadness around the edges.

The man reached forward, and his bloody thumb traced her cheek fondly, sliding down to leave a line of blood clinging to her skin.

His arms closed around her waist, but instead of his grip being hard and relenting, it was soft and gentle. He drew her into his arms, and she found her face pressed against his shoulder. The fabric of his suit was soft against her cheek. She blinked, frozen in surprise.

His hold was…tender, gentle. He didn’t clasp her tightly, or jerk her toward himself. He embraced her lovingly. Affectionately, like she was his favorite daughter.

Borghese's arms slid around her back, and stayed there. He pressed his face into her hair and let out a deep breath, tinged with sorrow.

Then his grip loosened. He stepped away from her, his warmth disappearing like a dream quickly forgotten. He turned away.

Patience realized he was about to leave—no, no, it was too early, Mike wouldn’t have had enough time to plant the bug—

She instinctively stepped forward, her hand grasping the edge of his suit. He stopped in place, swaying as he lost his balance, then righted himself and looked back.

His profile—elegantly arched nose, forehead crinkled in surprise—was outlined in the bright sunlight. After a moment, the confusion on his face softened to something kinder. But it was the wrong kind of kind. A condescending, smug kind.

“Seems you can’t keep your hands off of me, girl.”

He turned around stepped toward her, and she backed up—her heart was thudding—

He cradled her cheek in his hand, the smoothness of his skin cold against her face, sliding down to trail over her neck, collarbone, and finally to cup the small bumps on her chest.

She pushed him away and swatted his hands back, but he just laughed and stepped closer. His hands went back to her chest, fingers digging into her breasts through the thick material of her cotton dress.

“I admit, I prefer women with larger…bosoms than you. After all, it is a sign of motherhood—and wouldn’t you say that motherhood is the most beautiful thing in the world?”

He clenched his fists over her breasts, staring at them, a peculiar, disquieting smile on his face. She cried out in pain and lashed out with a foot, but he quickly sidestepped her.

He slammed her head against the cathedral wall. Pain exploded across her skull, The sudden, grinding agony that echoed through her skull scrambled her thoughts. She couldn’t see, she couldn’t hear, she couldn’t think. All she could feel was pain.

Her legs trembled. Fingers pulled her dress up, and her legs were being kneed aside.

His head ducked below the voluminous skirt of her dress. He forced his way between her spasming thighs.

He tore down her panties. She blearily tried to kick out, but her panties around her ankles worked as binding rope, and she could only twist and bend her knees as he pressed forward, breath huffing over her pussy.

“Ahh…you have such a lovely smell, dolcezza. Shy, but potent. I can tell you’re excited.”

His muffled murmur barely registered to her. The searing pain in her head dulled to a heavy thud, pulsing inside her skull like a demented heartbeat.

The blond man fixed her thighs so she wouldn’t offer any resistance. The tip of his nose tickled the tip of her cleft, and his warm breath washed over her body.

His spread lips sealed against the open folds of her vagina, like a deep kiss. His tongue stirred inside of her, lapping experimentally at the edges of her lower lips.

Borghese’s tongue flicked and teased, stimulating her tender clit. He sucked hard, his tongue flattened over her swollen lips. Tremors of pleasure washed over, making her legs tremble.

He sucked her small clit into his warm mouth, delicately cradling it in his mouth. The tip of his tongue teased her erect bundle of nerves, making her arch her back.

The brightness of the sun was blinding. Patience felt as if her head was being split open. She heard distant voices, echoes, and she really didn’t know if they were real, or just a malfunction of her dying brain.

Patience’s sensitive opening twitched as he forced it open deeper. Every time she clenched up and tried to reject him, his tongue gouged more and more deeply, violating the very insides of her body.

His long tongue slid like a parasite through her trembling body. Teeth met her clit and crushed it, forcing a pained pleasure to burn in her lower body.

She could feel his smile between her legs, his lips imprinted on her skin as he licked and sucked her. It made a distant spark of righteous fury alight deep inside her, but her senses were dulled. She saw through a fog that smothered her senses, all except touch…

“Mmmm… you’re so wet, darling… my chin is wet with your arousal …" he murmured, muffled under her layered skirts.

She felt the dampness drip down her thighs, and nearly sobbed. The angel swirled his tongue over the red, pulsing insides of her body, meticulously massaging her spread lips, her clit, her quivering opening.

The warm, wet stimulation of the tip of his tongue against her most sensitive parts—
The pleasure frightened her. Her waist trembled as if she were electrified. Her eyes rolled up towards the sun, bleary and unfocused, fixed on the bright ball of light that washed away all her sins.

The edge of the Holy Virgin’s robe swam in front of Patience’s eyes. The figure of purity, looming in front of her. While a man debauched her in front of the world.

She arched her back in an unconscious spasm as one deep thrust made a shiver of pleasure start to spark deep inside of her…

Patience’s head tilted backward, her eyes flickering shut. The memory of deep pleasure overwhelmed her mind. She was submerged it in a mist of heat and delirium, her fingers curling and uncurling as he coaxed her into climax.

Her knees slowly gave out, and she slid down the wall until her legs were crumpled in front of her. He was on his hands and knees, head still buried underneath her skirt.

He pursed his lips against her clit, lavishing attention on the trembling bundle of apprehension and quivering uncertainty. His fingers bit into her bare thighs, leaving finger-shaped bruises on the pale skin of her legs.

Now that her legs were spread, he used a warm, soft finger to pry her lower lips outward, forcing her to relax her opening so he could force more of his tongue in,

The mafia boss’s soft golden curls brushed against her quivering thighs. She could almost imagine his gentle, bland, merciless gaze piercing into her. Eyes as dark as the night, as hard and shrewd as a hawk’s.

Then he sucked her tender bundle of nerves deep inside his mouth, his hot tongue digging deep into her most sensitive place.

A shivering spurt of pleasure coursed through her body. Patience’s mouth opened in a soundless scream of pleasure.

Her russet brown hair streamed past her tense elbows. The girl’s slender, pale neck was convulsing.
Pale green eyes, the color of a leaf when the edges have begun to brown and wither, rolled to the sky.

Through her teary vision, she saw a black figure step into view. It took a moment for her eyes to focus on him, and when she did, the wave of pleasure that had engulfed her vanished in one fell swoop.

A young man in a cassock—the assistant priest, she recognized him from the church, the one who had smiled at her—was standing there, body frozen in horror at what he was witnessing. He was a young man with dark wavy hair and darker eyes, doe-eyed and pleasant when she had seen him inside the church, with an honest smile. But his mouth was contorted with disgust when he saw her, hands stiff as his sides, frozen like a deer in the headlights.

Suddenly she realized that even if he saw her face and was able to recognize it, he would not be able to do the same for Borghese, who was still concealed beneath her skirts.

Almost as if he heard her thoughts, Borghese gave her a hard, deep lick that made her legs spasm and another shrill gasp tear from her throat. The young priest backed up and departed hurriedly from behind the statue of the Holy Virgin, his gaze a mixture of disgust and fright. As the hem of his cassock disappeared from her sight, her limbs jolted back into action.

She lashed out with her knee, catching Borghese's soft cheek. She could feel her kneebone collide with his teeth, and he jerked sideways. His grip on her thighs loosened.

Taking her chance, she struggled up and shoved him back, yanking her crumpled skirts over her knees. Embarrassment and shame washing over her, she yanked her hat down and tried to hurry past him, wanting to leave this, all of this behind.

He caught her elbow as she brushed past him. “I didn’t know you were the one to love and leave, girl,” he whispered in her ear. “Surely at least you wouldn’t be as selfish to not return the favor?”

She wrenched her arm out of his grip and sent him a withering glare. His mouth was laughing as he saw her leave, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. But his eyes were not. There was something else there. Something unamused. Something dark.

“I’ll see you again soon, dolcezza.”

His voice echoing in her ears was low and ominous, devoid of its former lightheartedness and instead holding a dark, unnameable promise.

Feeling the wetness of saliva and her own slime begin to drip down her inner thighs, soaking into her mother’s dress, she quickened her pace until the cathedral was blocks behind her.

***

Mike burst into his kitchen, satchel swung over his shoulder, not even to shut the front door behind him as he reached the recorder radio on his table. He immediately clicked it on and began to fine-tune it, fiddling with the dials. Sweat of exasperation dripped down his neck as he twisted the dials, trying to get the perfect frequency—

Scrape— “—not lookin’ good, Sal.” A deep voice crackled through the low-quality speakers.

“I ain’t happy either. Fuckin stronzo…” This voice was a bit younger, but full of barely repressed fury.
It continued in a snarl. “I wouldn’t even vote on it and he did it anyway. I know the family, they’re from my papa’s old place back home. Sweetest bunch you’d ever meet. And he knocked ‘em off anyway!”

“We’ll have a talk, alright. We’ll have a talk.”

Mike heard the creak of a door through the speakers, and the distant thud of shoes on the wooden floor.

”Where the fuck were you?” this was the younger voice, blaring accusingly. “You’re usually the first one here. What were you doing, sucking off that cute young priest at your church? Wouldn’t surprise me, you always had the lips of a frocio.”

A light laugh was the only answer he got, and as the clear sound transmitted through the speakers, Mike’s ears perked up. That could only be one person.

“I didn’t know you thought he was cute, Salvatore.”

“Vaffanculo!” was the bark that answered him.

The deeper voice joined in. “What were you doing, Leonardo? You’re never late.” It had a faintly fatherly, worried quality about it.

“Oh, I was delayed…I met a little mouse, and it decided to chase me.” The eerie fondness in his voice made Mike grit his teeth. “Oh, how nosy it was. I had to squish it underneath my shoes. Poor little thing.”

His voice had an unnerving, caressing sort of quality to it that made Mike shudder.

Chapter Text

Patience stumbled into Mike’s house half an hour later, hat clutched in her shaking hands. Her heart was pulsing in a sickening beat, and worry and fear tightened her insides, only to fall away in a relieved rush when she saw Mike at his table.

“You managed to do it? Thank god—“

“Patience!” he gasped, standing straight up. He was over in a flash, his hands on her shoulders. “What did he do to you? Are you all right? Are you hurt?!”

“Mike, I’m fine—“

“He didn’t rough you up, did he?” asked Mike, his grip tightening on her shoulders. He was shaking. His eyes were wide behind his owlish glasses. “I heard him talking. Did he—he didn’t—did he—“

“Mike!” she yelled, although her heart plummeted as soon as she heard the words I heard him talking. “I’m fine! Let’s—come on, the recorder is on. We have to listen and find some way to get these bastards.”

He let go of her grudgingly, and they went to take their seats. The recording machine crackled on the table, which was strewn with photographs and papers. In front of Mike was a paper pad with scribbled notes on it.

She rested her hand on her chin, listening intently as she tried to pick out words in the mess of sound.

There were men talking over each other, all arguing—“doesn’t matter”—“voted on it, we—“

“Salvatore, Leonardo made a decision and carried it out,” said a colder, icier voice. “Carlo Varetti was his soldier, his responsibility.”

“You shoulda just taught him a lesson. Break his legs, cut off a few fingers. Kill the girl, she’s the one who knew.” This was a bitter, angry voice. Mike pointed to a photograph on the table, and she recognized it immediately. It was the photo of the black-haired man she had seen when she had first begun riffling through his files.

She could definitely match the face to the voice. The voice was animated, falling and rising in swells of emotion. The face in the photo was similarly contorted with fury, a mugshot taken not very long ago with a gray background. It was a young man with messy pitch-black hair and dark angry eyes. His thick eyebrows were contorted in a frown, his mouth a slash of fury across his face. Blood was trickling down the edge of his face, the red a vivid streak of black in the stark grays and whites of the photograph. He was handsome, she could see—but the murder in his eyes gave her pause.

Somehow, it put her in mind of mind of the mugshot of Leonardo Borghese. Both young men, their faces bruised and broken. But Salvatore’s face was angry and resentful, his emotions clearly turned inside out and plastered on his face.

Leonardo’s had been shuttered, his beautiful face a calm mask of his emotions beneath. Even in real life, he always put on a performance of sophistication, of gentleness, which concealed his true nature. He was nothing more than a rapist and murderer who considered all others to be mere insects beneath him. But he would smile, and he would help old ladies into their seats, and they would coo and say what a nice boy and shake their heads at the people who railed and accused him.

“Violation of omerta is a pact you swear with blood. It is not a forgivable sin.”

“He had kids, you know…and a wife…” the angry voice—Salvatore— sounded more sullen.

”Who he was cheating on with a showgirl,” finished a calm, lightly accented voice Patience knew all too well. She shuddered, her cunt tingling at the memory of his tongue, mere hours earlier. “You have no compunctions about killing children, Salvatore. Don’t try and hold the moral high ground here.”

”I never killed no kids!” roared the angry voice. “You dirty goddamn liar—“ he deteriorated into a rapidly-spoken dialect, yelling and ranting.

“Enough!” The cold voice was back.

Mike indicated a photo. “That’s him.” It was of an older man, balding and thin, his mouth set in a thin line. His eyes stared out of the photo like the eyes of a copperhead. Slit, chilly and merciless, like his voice.

“We must move onto more important matters,” said the cold voice. “We are, all of us, aware of the doings of Gerald Nizzola.’

“Yeah, how could we not? We all know what he’s been saying.”

“But will he really do what he’s talking about?” this was another voice, gruff and deep.

Gerald Nizzola? The old mayor of Garland City? Last Patience heard, he was running for Congress. Were they targeting him? Why?

“You know what happened to us when he was mayor,” said Borghese lowly.

“Damn near wiped out the Campiones,” said Salvatore. “Most of ‘em are outta jail now, but Christ did it look like he was gonna stomp us out for good.”

That’s right…Nizzola had run a highly successful anti-corruption campaign when he was mayor. The infrastructure had fallen apart when he left his post to run for state senate, and a…shall we say, more “criminal-sympathetic” mayor was elected.

“He’s talking about replacing the police department,” muttered the man with the gruff voice. “Things like putting FBI agents in charge of the corruption division…he’s going to put his fuckin’ cronies in every place where it’d be hell for us.”

“Not to mention what he did to the old Borghese head…” said Salvatore.

A heavy silence fell over the other end of the microphone. Patience’s eyes met Mike’s in confusion. The old Borghese head? Had it been Nizzola who killed him?

“Well, what are we gonna do about him?” Salvatore’s voice finally broke through the speakers. Patience heard the creak of a chair as someone sat back.

“He has to be eliminated,” The cold voice said.

Patience felt a chill come over her. They were sitting here, listening to a mob boss plan a murder. Speak about taking someone’s life. Something no one else before had done…they had penetrated into the very workings of organized crime. The journalist of a small newspaper, and a sleepless private eye. Two mundane civilians, listening to the most private workings of the most powerful men in Garland City.

She felt as if she were doing something that she was not meant to. It terrified her. It excited her.

“He’s been a pain in our side for too long,” said Borghese finally. “The question is, how do we do it?”

“I wanna make an example out of him,” said Salvatore viciously. “Bastard isn’t just a pain in the ass, he’s traitor to his people. Sunnuvabitch sold out for the government. He put his job over his kith and kin…cocksucker deserves the worst death we can give him.”

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” said the gruff voice, venom in his tone.

“He’s staying at the Caravaggio Hotel,” broke in Borghese, his tone crisp. “I will send Stefano to make an example of him, let’s say…next Tuesday?”

“Caravaggio Hotel? Shit, I’m staying there,” said Salvatore, astonished. “I had no idea that stronzo was stayin' in the same place I was."

“You’d probably find him fuckin’ floozies in his room,” said the gruff man, a snicker in his voice. “Motherfucker tries to pretend he’s so squeaky clean…”

Salvatore made a snide comment in Italian, which was met by laughs. They continued in that vein for a bit, switching languages as easy as blinking. Patience blinked and looked at Mike, whose brow was furrowed.

“I can pick out bits and pieces…” he whispered. “They’re talking about Nizzola... talking about what they want to do to him…” his face went the color of whey.

The recorder ended with a click. Patience and Mike stared at it for a moment, bleakly gazing at the roll of black tape.

Patience unfroze. She launched herself at the phone on a side table, nearly knocking it over in her panicked rush.

“Give me Nizzola’s number!” she screamed at Mike, who was still sitting there numbly. He sprung into action, grabbing a phone book from underneath the pile of papers and thumbing through it. He shouted the number to her as she dialed with shaky hands.

Tapping her foot in impatience, she listened to it ring before a bored-sounding lady picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hello, this is—this is a concerned citizen, can you—can I please speak to Senator Nizzola?”

“I’m sorry, what is your purpose for calling?”

“I’m—he’s in danger, he’s about to be—“

“Is this a prank?” the lady sounded suspicious.

“No, no, you have to believe me, the mob has just put a hit on him—“

"Do you have any proof?"

”Yes—well, I mean no—“ Patience looked over at Mike. Did he want to keep the recordings a secret until they were ready to unveil it?

“Then stop wasting my time.” The line disconnected with a steady beeeep. The phone fell from her slack hands to dangle on the end of its wire.

“They don’t believe us,” said Patience.

Mike tangled his hands in his hair. “What are we going to do?” he wailed.

Her heart thudding, she slowly took a seat. “If Senator Nizzola is really the only one fighting against the mafia…then we have to protect him.”

“How? No one believes us. We’re powerless.”

Patience met his eyes from across the table. She was silent for a moment, her heart thudding. Then she spoke.

“Can you get me a reservation at Hotel Caravaggio?”

***

When Patience woke up the next morning in her apartment, there was a persistent heavy pain in her lower belly, and her gaze was blurry. She had forgotten to draw the curtains that night, so cold light and chilliness had penetrated her room, a streak of white light resting directly on her face.

The girl sat up slowly, her hair falling to curtain her face as a dull ache of pain made its home in her abdomen. She pressed her hands over her belly, wincing in pain.

She staggered up—her world revolved around her, her throat was parched. She peeled down her underwear to reveal a red mess on the clean white fabric.

Seems like her period had come early.

The errant private eye would normally have groaned and griped, but this time she felt relieved. Borghese hadn't impregnated her after all. A wave of relief swept over her as she stepped out of her soiled underwear. The anxiety that had been in the back of her mind for weeks was gone.

She didn’t know what she would have done if he had knocked her up. Abortion was against the law…she supposed she could obtain an illegal one. Although since Borghese had his hands in the prostitution business, there was no doubt he had his hands in that business as well.

Patience shook her head hurriedly. She needed to take her mind off it. She was not pregnant and she never would be, by him.

A sudden knock at her door startled her. For a moment fear swamped her body, imagining Leonardo Borghese outside the door, regal and smiling, ready to enact injustices on her body. Then Mike called out, “Patience? You home?”

“In a minute!” she called.

She threw her underwear in the laundry basket and pinned a sanitary napkin to her new panties. When she met Mike at the door, she was still in her nightgown, hair wild and eyes lidded, half-asleep and still keenly aware of the blood seeping between her legs.

Mike was dressed for an autumn day out, woolen scarf wrapped around his neck, two coffees clutched in each hand.

As soon as she saw him she nearly screamed. “Hold on!”

A few minutes later she emerged, dressed in a knee-length skirt and double-buttoned coat, hair brusquely brushed and eyes bright. She apologized to him over and over as they walked out of her apartment.

“It’s nothing,” he dismissed her. “My girlfriend used to look like a ghoul in the morning. Hell, we both did!”

Mike always had a way of making her smile.

The morning was cold and crisp, chilliness biting her fingers as they strayed further from her apartment. The massive steel Ironground Bridge loomed before them. The nickname had been given from Garland City natives, regarding the tarnished steel of the enormous bridge. Steel cords stretched across the Boone River, holding up a suspension bridge that stretched from one end of the land to another.

They walked along the sidewalk of the bridge together, sipping coffee and chatting amicably. He wasn’t sleeping well because of the stresses of his job—she could sympathize. His light brown hair swept against his glasses as he looked out across the river, bright cold sunshine illuminating the frames.

It occurred to her that this was the first talk she had with him about him as a person, and not about the mob.

“Just a pain…so many writers hassling you, going on and on about what they think I should run.”

“Aww,” she offered sympathetically, her arm wound around his own. “Just listen to yourself before any of these people. You’re the one in the right, Mike. You just have to see it.”

Patience had never had a boyfriend before. The way he stood close to her made a sad smile tug at the corner of her mouth. She had always been too focused on her job, and her efforts to take down the mafia, to get into a relationship. Loneliness was a day-to-day part of her life.

“It’s just an uphill battle. Working in the journalism field is never easy…”

Mike stopped and leaned against the guardrail, head bowed. A wind ruffled his light hair.

Suddenly, he burst out, “Patience, I—“

He stopped, fingers clutching the guard rail. “I’m so sorry. Patience, I’m sending you on these missions, these dangerous missions... Jesus, you’re five foot nothing. It should be me. Not you. You don’t deserve to be put into these situations…”

“Mike,” she said gently but firmly, “I’m a private investigator, and you’re a journalist. I assure you, I can handle myself.” Not wholly the truth—she was terrified of going to the Caravaggio Hotel. But, like her loneliness, her fear was just an unwanted emotion she had to deal with.

Mike looked at her, brow furrowed, then broke their gaze. “Patience…”

She grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Enough with the ellipses, Mike. You’re a journalist; you should know it doesn’t make for a good story.”

He burst out laughing at that, and wiped his glasses.

“Well, I have to get to the office,” said Mike, tone regretful. He tightened his scarf around his neck. “Got a deadline coming up.”

“Good luck,” she wished him well, and watched him start off down the bridge, his figure getting smaller and smaller until it was obscured by the crowd.

She took the last sip of coffee and threw it into a trash can. She wasn’t quite ready to go home just yet. It was a lovely autumn day, and she was feeling better than she had in a long time.

***

Koehn Park was a vast forest set straight in the middle of Garland City, ringed by fields and crosscut by stone paths. Families took their children to picnic there, and young lovers strolled hand-in-hand through the green scenery. Mallards paddled through the green lake set in the middle of the park, diving after hunks of bread people threw for them.

Patience sat down on a bench, balling her hands up and hiding them under her coat in an effort to drive away the chill that was freezing the tips of her fingers. A chill wind ruffled her long chestnut hair. She looked out over the field, feeling, for once in a long while, at peace.

The bench creaked as someone sat down next to her. She unconsciously moved to the side to give them more room. “Lovely day, wouldn’t you agree?” said a congenial voice.

She looked over. A man was sitting next to her on a bench, arms folded leisurely as he looked out across the field.

He sat with a posture that suggested relaxation and attentiveness, one who was used to observing those opposite him. It reminded her of the debates she used to watch on television sometimes, politicians with their smiling expressions and relaxed demeanor, but their eyes, as sharp as a hawk, following every move of their opponent.

“It certainly is,” she agreed. “Not too cold to be biting, but just enough to feel nice bundled up.” She crossed her legs under her double-buttoned coat, which fell to her waist. A handaway one of her clients had given her as a favor. One of the few fashionable things she owned.

He chuckled. “That, I can agree with you with. My favorite kind of day.”

She looked over at him, smiling. He met her gaze and smiled as well, extending a hand.

“Charles Sawyer,” he introduced himself in a deep, formal voice.

“Patience Winslow,” she said, answering his firm handshake with the strongest she was able to give him.

He was an older man, she could see—in his late thirties, if not mid forties. He wore a neatly-fitted black suit and tie, suitable for a businessman. The man was well-groomed, with salt-and-pepper hair slicked back. His face was much younger—though he had gone gray, it was youthful, but tired.

He had a long nose and sharp chin, and dark hazel eyes that drooped at the edges. His smile was colorless but vibrant. He looked vaguely familiar to her, but she couldn’t place him.

She sat back, a cold chill breeze ruffling her hair. “I never get the chance to enjoy nature like this, you know,” she said. “I have too many jobs to worry about. But when I do…”

“I quite agree,” was his sympathetic baritone. “It seems like everything you’re worrying about just fades away, doesn’t it? All my clients just don’t matter anymore. Though, there’s so many cases I need to pay attention to.”

Cases. Clients.

All of a sudden, something about his appearance clicked with her.

“So how does it feel to be employed by a rapist and murderer?” she asked conversationally.

The silence was frozen and strained, a barely imperceptible chill halting the already cold air.

Ducks quacked. Children laughed.

Sawyer was looking at her, congenial smile frozen on his face, until it broke into an unamused line. His eyes showed familiarity, a breaking recognition

“Ahh,” he said. “Girl from the stairs. I was wondering where I had seen you before.”

They returned to people-watching, both silent. She could feel his presence, more sinister, not just a businessman taking a break, but a villain contemplating his crimes as he leisurely observed the world.

“How can you do it?” she said finally, her accusing tone snapping the cold air. “Defend someone so reprehensible? Don’t you know what he’s done? He’s killed women and children, left their bodies to rot while their families looked for them. Tortured, raped, and destroyed people’s lives. People who were only trying to bring him to justice! He’s drowned more people than can fit in this park. And that’s just on this side of the ocean!”

Her frantic outburst rung around the bench. A woman in a mink coat slowed down to look at her askance, but honestly she didn’t care. All she cared was bringing that foul man to account for his crimes.

Sawyer was silent for a moment. “Leonardo and I have… an arrangement,” he said delicately.

“I bet you do. He lines your pockets, and you keep him from being held accountable for all the foul things he’s done!”

“I am not just a lawyer for Leonardo. I’ve known the Borghese family for a long time.”

“I guess that means you were his father’s lackey before you were his.”

He looked over at her, annoyance tweaking the corners of his mouth. “You must be the one he’s talking about. The little ball of anger.”

That brought her up short. “He’s… talking about…” the me at the end of her sentence was unsaid but present.

“Oh, he certainly has.” A derisive, mocking smile began to spread over his face. “Though I have no idea why. You’re as repulsive as a street whore with your tantrums. He seems to think it’s cute, the way you have absolutely no idea how a woman should act.”

His insult brought her back to boiling rage. “I’d rather be a street whore than a criminal’s lapdog.”

“Very funny, Winslow. But I’ve had prosecutors call me far worse.” He stood up and straightened his jacket. “Regretfully, I must cut this conversation short. Divorce proceedings with my ex-wife…she rather reminds me of you. You both have the same foul temperament and complete lack of manners.”

“I hope she robs you of everything you own,” she spat after him.

He left without a look back, walking towards the skyscrapers in the distance, where his law offices undoubtedly were.

Patience ran her fingers through her hair, her previous good mood vanishing. Stressed, she got up and headed for the Ironground Bridge. She needed a distraction. She needed a good, hot cup of coffee. Then she would work on her next case, to keep her mind off what had just happened.

And in all her fretful worries, Patience did not even stop to think that she had told Borghese’s lawyer her identity.

Chapter Text

Hotel Caravaggio.

The hulking 19th century hotel was set in the middle of the glitziest of downtown Garland City, surrounded by numerous high-rise restaurants and exclusive nightclubs. Everyone who was anyone stayed there, from politicians, rich businessmen, actors and actresses, famous authors, and even the President himself.

Patience had no idea where Mike had been able to procure tickets. When she had asked, he had winced and muttered something about his bank account.

Hotel Caravaggio was made of solid stone, its stories upon stories stretching up into the moonlit sky. An enormous dome at the top was inset with a clock face the size of a dinner table, glowing brightly in the starry night.

The hotel’s massive arches overtook the front, behind which enormous windows sparkled like champagne in the glittering crystal of the lights behind it. An enormous red carpet was rolled out, and women with spruced up hairstyles, dressed in glitzy cocktail dresses and ball gowns, exited limos—most on the arms of older, balding men in expensive suits.

Patience was dressed in a strapless, pale green dress that fell just below her knees. It fit her nicely—it gave her breasts the lift they needed, but the neckline stopped just above them, teasingly concealing their roundness. It outlined her slim waist and flared just below her hips in layers of ruffles.

She had begged the dress off one of her previous clients, a spoiled rich girl who was constantly hiring her to spy on her boyfriends—the girl practically had Patience on speed dial from how paranoid she was that her newest boy toy was unfaithful. The socialite had thrown a hand-me-down at Patience when she asked for it, rolling her eyes. It was to Patience’s luck that it fit her well and matched her eyes.

And, it was just long enough to conceal the handgun strapped to her thigh.

She took a deep breath and walked into the hotel. The gossiping crowd swallowed her up immediately, and she politely but firmly pushed herself ahead.

The flow of the crowd pushed her past the lobby—so gorgeous, with a massive, multi-tiered chandeliered illuminating the vast blue floor. Two enormous staircases, lined with gold-edged carpet, led up past the lobby counter.

She made a beeline for the counter. “Excuse me,” she asked the clerk when she got a chance, “But where will Senator Nizzola be staying?”

“That’s confidential,” was the unfriendly response she got, and so Patience passed the main room, into what looked like a ballroom and bar. The enormous bar table at the end of the room seemed to suggest so. She made a beeline for the counter and took her seat, ordering a weak daiquiri when they asked what she wanted.

Patience would have to wait for Nizzola to enter. If she was right, he would come and get a drink first before retiring to his room.

The ballroom was a rainbow of dress colors as women and men flirted and socialized with each other. It was a party night at Hotel Caravaggio, and the upper class of Garland City had descended upon it eagerly.

The chandelier glinted off the marble walls. High heels scraped against the floor, and high, artificial laughter echoed around the room.

Patience idly listened to the conversations around her—one woman was complaining that her son was dating a German, and another girl was bemoaning that her room had been moved a floor downwards because of renovations going on at Floor 31. Still others were talking about the elections—dismissing the men running as either corrupt, homosexual, or both. All things that would be far from Patience’s mind even at the best of times.

A harsh yell broke into Patience’s mind. Against her will, she found her attention diverted to a corner of the room.

“YOU COCKSUCKER!" shrieked a voice. Wincing, Patience looked to the side.

“Baby, let me explain…” said a man’s voice, trying desperately to be soothing. It seemed vaguely familiar to her, but she couldn’t quite place it.

A tall blonde woman, wearing a red v-neck gown, screamed unrelentingly at a dark-haired man, who was trying in vain to calm her down.

“You’re running around on me!” she screamed. “Don’t try and deny it, I know—that whore is riding your dick when I’m not there!”

“June, I swear—“

“I’m done with you, you useless motherfucker! Don’t even try to beg my forgiveness—because it fuckin’ flew the coop!”

With her final shrieks, the woman whipped around and disappeared through the crowd, heading towards the doors, no doubt.

The black-haired man stood, head bowed for a moment, then slowly lifted his head and started scanning the crowd. She could see a lump moving under his lips where he licked his teeth. He had very dark eyes, and although he was well-groomed and handsome, she could see the fury bubbling beneath them, like a swamp.

His eyes scanned the crowd, traveling from person to person until they set on her. Then he was off, walking briskly toward the bar.

For a moment she was confused as to why he was coming towards her, hands in his pockets, before she realized she was the only woman in the room without a partner.

“You’re lookin’ pretty good tonight, madam,” he complimented her casually, eyes tracing her frame lightly. He seemed distracted as he gave her a cursory once-over. Probably still smarting about his girlfriend.

Patience peered at him closely. There was something very familiar about him. Although he was handsome, his features were a little rough. His fingernails were chipped and broken as he drummed them on the glass bar top. Thick dark eyebrows quirked over his forehead.

The man’s jaw was strong and set, mouth set in a permanent twist. His pitted face was angular and harsh, but attractive in a rough sort of way. He had gleaming, night-black hair fashionably combed back and parted in the middle. Long, dark eyelashes, framing eyes as black as ink, fluttered as he tilted his head, eying her. However, Patience couldn’t help but notice the pale, raised scar beneath his throat, a slash of violence on his bone-white skin.

He shifted in an easy motion, his tuxedo tightening across his broad chest. He was dressed for a night out, with a gleaming black tie and jacket over a pale white dress shirt.

Something about his roughness put her on edge.

“My name’s Salvatore,” he said, his accent neatly skidding across the r. “Salvatore Mallozzi. You heard of me?”

Oh fuck. It was him.

Him, from the night of the meeting.

Yes, yes she had heard of him. He was the head of the Di Scarpettas. And if there was one family you didn’t want to mess with, it was the Di Scarpettas. The brutal sect of the mafia was known for its indiscriminate body dumping—outside the victims home was ideal, preferably with the marks of torture still on the body. Drugs, allegedly, and loansharking were their methods of corruption. There was no depth to which they would sink—out of all the families, they were the ones with the fewest morals.

Patience looked away, trying to appear casual as her mind worked overtime. Shit. She didn’t know he would be staying here this long. The girl’s pale slender legs uncrossed, and she shifted.

Perhaps Salvatore took that as an invitation, because a predatory smile spread across his face. He shifted closer. “What about you, pretty girl? What’s your name? It has to be just as beautiful as yourself,” he cooed. His hand tickled her knee.

“P-Patty,” she managed. “Patty…Winters.” She shoved his hand off her knee.

“Che bella! And you are just as cold as winter!” he exclaimed, sitting back. “I’ll just have to melt you then. I’m as passionate as the summer, you know.” He gave a grin, flashing his white teeth. One thing that could be said for this man, he certainly knew how to lay on the charm.

Patience refused to meet his gaze. He needed to be away from her. “I’m waiting for someone,” she said.

“You’ve been waiting a while,” he said. “Would you like to come to my room with me? I'll have a bottle of wine sent up.” He slid his hand back persistently, cupping her thigh.

The sensation of the rough pads of his fingers on her smooth skin made shivers travel down her back. “Leave me alone,” she said firmly. The hallway doors slammed open, and she looked over. Nizzola was supposed to arrive soon…

“How much for the night?” he said sharply.

Shocked, her eyes met his.

His hand slid deeper down her thigh.

The black-haired man still grinning, but it wasn’t happy or friendly anymore. His mouth was set in an unamused smile, his lips showing no joy whatsoever.

“I’m not for sale,” she said.

“All women are for sale. It’s just a matter of naming the price."

His eyes were the color of coal. In the light of the strobe lights, they glimmered like a wet swamp. Patience stared at him, lost for words, as the tips of his fingertips brushed against the cloth of her panties. Her thighs twitched as his fingertip rubbed teasingly against her sensitive clit.

“I’m on my period,” she whispered.

“I don’t care.”

His eyes showed no morals whatsoever. It was a man who wanted to fuck, nothing less, nothing more. Like a bull in rut, eyes crazed as he mounted a cow in heat. It had no veil of secrecy, not like Leonardo’s. It was pure, raw, in a way she had never seen a man’s before.

Patience gripped his wrist to push him away. Then the doors slammed open once more. She looked over, turning the upper half of her body.

He slid a finger deep into her body, bypassing the cloth and sliding deep into her blood-slickened passage. She gave a muffled gasp as his finger hooked inside her, rubbing her sensitive walls.

Patience whipped backwards, and her hand swung outwards.

The slap could be heard round the ballroom.

Chatting couples ceased their conversation, and bellhops paused with platters of champagnes in their hands.

She stood, the green hem of her green dress trembling over her knees. He was lying splayed on the floor, one hand covering the side of face she had slapped.

“Don’t fuck with me, gangster,” she hissed at his prone body.

She only caught a slight glance at his eyes as she turned away, but what she saw of them was just a miasma of black and hate.

“Puttana!” he howled after her as she left the ballroom, voice echoing as she slammed the door behind her.

***

Hands slammed on the lobby’s counter, making the clerk flinch.

“Tell me where Gerald Nizzola’s room is!” Patience all but screamed in the clerk’s face, nails clacking on the polished countertop.

The clerk looked cowed. “I—I’m sorry, but I can’t disclose that information to—“

Best imitating her pushy rich-girl clients, Patience drew herself up to her full height and fixed her withering glare on the poor clerk. “My daddy is the head of Johnson Motor Oil,” she snarled lowly. “And if you don’t tell me where my Gerry is, you’ll find yourself out of a job by Wednesday!”

The clerk, looking exhausted, acquiesced rather quickly. Perhaps having experience with spoiled guests, she obviously thought it would be the easier route. “Floor 40, Room 1093,” she said weakly.

Patience took off in a whirl of ruffles. She shoved past the line of people waiting for the elevator, and when she got on, mashed the button to Floor 40 with trembling hands.

She had wasted far too much time entertaining Mallozzi…now she had no idea whether he had arrived, already been staying in his room, or was still in his limo.

The elevator slowly took her up the floors, inane music playing in her ears as she leaned on the rails, staring down the glass window at the street, floors and floors below her. She could see the hordes of people, like ants below her.

She feverishly checked her gun, waiting as the glowing numbers moved up and up, illuminating the floor numbers, until finally they settled on 40.

There was a clear ding as the metal elevator doors slid open. Beyond was a vast marble hall, the wallpaper a bright, deep blue, lined with Greco-Roman style trim around the floors and doors. The ceiling was dimly lit by crystal chandeliers, and at the end of the hall, tall Greek-style colonnades holding up the ceiling.

Patience’s heels clicked and skidded on the smooth marble floor, and she put a hand on the wall to kick them off. Her bare feet thudding on the floor, she broke into a run, her wild green eyes searching for Room 1093.

The door to the room gaped open.

The panicked investigator stopped in frozen shock in front of Room 1093. The door hung wide open. Inside, she could see the signs of a scuffle. A bottle of wine was lying broken on the floor, red liquid seeping into the cream-colored rug. Clothing, half-put-away, lay forgotten on the bed. A chair was upturned.

Blood pulsed in her ears in a steady thud thud. Her heart was a heavy stone. She slowly turned around, numb.

Where could he be? There was no way he could have left the hotel. They—the mob bosses— had wanted to make an example of him.

But the hotel was vast. Where could they have taken him? There were hundreds of rooms. Dozens of floors. Where could they have gone to make sure that nobody would walk in on them?

Idly listening to the conversations around her—one woman was complaining that her son was dating a foreigner, and another girl was bemoaning that her room had been moved a floor downwards because of renovations going on at Floor 31—

Her mind snapped back in an instant. Of course! The one abandoned floor!

Patience had to work quickly. She skidded into the elevator and mashed the button to Floor 31, praying that it would take her there and not just skip it. To her relief, it began to move with a slow jolt, carrying her downwards.

Sweat slicked her thighs, the cold metal of her gun rubbing against her sensitive skin. Her breaths came in harsh pants, echoing in the empty elevator. Her damp hair hung in front of her face as she leaned on the rail, trembling hands gripping the cold steel.

Ding.

The elevator doors slowly slid open.

Beyond was a mass of darkness, a stripped concrete floor stretching far beyond her vision. She gripped her gun and slid it out of her holster. Holding it at her side, Patience walked into the gaping hall of darkness.

***

The light of the moon shining through the windows dimly illuminated the empty hall. Shadowy door hollows lined the hall like portals to darkness. The swirling patterns on the vases seemed to dance in the silvery darkness as Patience stepped forward, one foot in front of the other.

The cracked concrete was cold and dusty against her bare feet. Tools littered the floor, making her stumble and quietly curse. The walls were stripped of color and were blank gray in the moonlight. She narrowed her eyes, looking for a pinprick of light, anything—

A muffled sound echoed to her left, down where the hallway split in two. She whipped around, gun clutched in her hand, and down a branching hall, she saw a sliver of orange light.

She crept forwards, barely breathing, not making a sound for fear that he would hear her. The door was cracked open an inch. From the gap she could hear panicked, muffled screams and whines.

They increased in pitch as an eye-watering cracking sound broke the air, barely stifled by whatever was gagging him, which then tapered off into sobs.

Her gun out, Patience kicked the door open.

The room was lit with orange from the bare lightbulb above. An older, balding man was sitting, tied to a wooden chair, a dirty gag wrapped around his head. Kneeling at his side was a man in a black suit, blood-covered tool in his hand. The orange light glinted off his glasses as he lifted his head.

Patience fired twice into his shoulder.

The air exploded with sound, and the blast deafened her. Rizzo was knocked back, onto the floor. Blood splattered onto the wall behind him. In an instant Patience was by Senator Nizzola, unwinding the thick straps of cord around his waist and wrists.

His foot was torn up—she could see that two flaps of skin had been peeled away from his foot to reveal the raw, twitching muscle. Patience’s bare feet skidded on the blood-slicked floor.

As she peeled the gag away, Nizzola drew a strangled gasp and let out a high sob. “Who’re—“ he managed through a throat tight with pain. “Who’re you?”

“I’m the person who’s gonna get you out of here,” she told him firmly.

Stefano Rizzo was beginning to moan, rolling over.

“Come on!” she told Nizzola. Patience threw his arm over her shoulder and made a run for the door.

Half-dragging the Senator, she ran out into the hall and down the corridor. The moon glinted off the concrete floor as she ran as fast as her small feet could take her. She was a small girl and Nizzola was a grown man, so she half-stumbled, half-carried him.

He was whimpering in pain. She twisted down the winding corridors, panic setting in. She needed to get him out of here before Rizzo got his bearings.

Patience stopped as a blank wall loomed in front of her. She turned, lugging Nizzola, and realized…

That she was hopelessly lost.

The walls and windows were completely unfamiliar to her. She turned half-way, shoulder protesting with the weight of the man, and tried to get her bearings.

Her body was trembling with fear—her arm hurt from the recoil of the gun. Nizzola was moaning in her ear, not helping matters. The hall was more furnished than the one she had first seen, decorated with pale wallpaper and soft dark cloth hanging over the white doors.

Patience stood where she was, heart thudding, sweat running down her neck even in the cold chill of the enormous, empty hall.

Doors lined the corridor, shut tight and locked. Her eyes darted to and fro, looking for an exit sign, or the black outline of stairs.

Heavy, echoing footsteps suddenly pierced her ears. Coming from the hall up ahead.

“Hey Rizzo, need a hand?” she heard a voice call out. Loud, rough around the edges. A little slurred with alcohol. “Thought I’d come by and see how you were doing…think I could take a turn?”

Salvatore Mallozzi.

Patience shoved Gerald Nizzola behind her. “Get out,” she hissed. “Find an exit, find the stairs, the elevator, but whatever you do, don’t let him catch you! Run!”

“I hear you, Stefano…having a spot of trouble, huh? That old fuck givin’ you a fight?” Mallozzi chuckled, low and dark.

As his figure rounded the corner, Patience held up her gun and clicked it. “Don’t move!” she barked.

A dark figure froze in the half-darkness, hand pressed to the wall to keep his balance. He slowly lifted his head. “You,” he said, the teasing brotherly tone of his voice gone.

“Don’t move, Mallozzi. I’d really hate to waste my bullets on you.”

He straightened up. In the dim moonlight, she could see his eyes glint like chips of flint. He was tall and gangly in the faint light, his eye sockets shadowed. All she could see was the sharp slash of his mouth on his silvery skin.

“Has Borghese sent you? I always knew Leo Angelino had it out for me…but enough to sabotage his own hit, I wasn’t sure of…” he took a step closer, shoulders hunched. His voice was a snarl, utterly livid.

“I don’t work for Borghese,” she hissed at him.

He leaned back, head tilted as he stared down at her.

“You were such a pretty little thing at the bar. Pretending not to be interested in me. Looks like you didn’t belong there, anyway. Tell me, bitch. What are you doing here?”

“—what’s wrong—“

Another voice echoed from far away. Patience heard another set of footsteps thudding from far down the halls, heavy and clunking in hob-nailed boots.

Someone had heard the gunshots!

Working quickly, the girl lurched forward and seized Mallozzi’s arm. His muscles tensed under her slender fingers, but she gave him a tug, and then let go to try the knob of the door to their side.

It came open. A linen closet.

She shoved him inside and slammed the door behind them both, making sure to keep the gun pressed beneath his chin. He let out a hissed breath, and tried to jerk his head away. Patience shoved the cold metal deeper into his chin. “Make a move, and I’ll shoot,” she said.

The footsteps were coming closer, thudding against the carpet. “Is there anyone here?“ the man barked. “You’re not supposed to be down here! This floor is undergoing renovations!”

Patience heard distant huffing as the man rounded the corner to their hall.

The girl was standing on the tips of her trembling feet. Her small breasts rose shallowly with each quiet breath. She stood pressed against the broad back of Mallozzi, the trembling tip of her gun pressed against the underside of the tall man’s chin.

He smelled like gunpowder. The smoky, pungent quality that clung to his skin made unwelcome memories surface in her mind. It was raw, mixed with heavy sweat.

Masculine and dirty, as opposed to the artificial sweetness that Borghese masked himself with.

She blinked, wetness sliding down her eyelashes. The humidity in the closet was overwhelming.

Patience shifted, hand traveling lower to grip Mallozzi’s waist as she kept the gun trained beneath his head.

The cloth of his suit wrinkled and shifted as he turned his head to watch her. In the slivers of moonlight that escaped through the slats of the door, his mouth was a lightly tilted scribble, etched in a vicious scowl.

Mallozzi tilted his head, eyes finding hers. Patience couldn’t help but meet his eyes in the pale light.

He had such long eyelashes. Like a woman’s.

The man’s irises were the color of pitch-black coal. They burned like a furnace as he glared at her. She swallowed hard, the gun trembling in her hand.

After a while the footsteps faded as the man retraced his footsteps, muttering angrily about faulty water pipes. Patience sighed in relief, the tip of the gun lowering for a fraction of a second.

Mallozzi moved so fast her mind was still trying to comprehend what happened when he slammed her face against the shelf. Pain exploded across her face, her nose smashing with an audible crack. White-hot agony erupted across her face, and her mind winked out for a moment.

The linen closet burst open. Patience fell backwards on to her back, tears and blood streaming down her face. The gun in her limp hand was kicked away.

She could see, through the haze of tears, a dark figure standing over her, until it knelt down. Hands enclosed her throat.

Her oxygen abruptly cut off, she writhed, one hand trying to pry his hand off, the other clawing at his face. He lifted her up and slammed her head into the floor. Dull pain erupted on the back of her head.

“Fucking whore,” he spat at her. “You’ve made a mistake, fucking with the Di Scarpetta family. I don’t know what you’re doing here—don’t give a shit either. But you’re sure as hell not getting out of here alive. Can’t leave loose ends, can we?” he punctuated his last words with a derisive laugh.

She lashed out with her foot, thudding squarely onto his crotch. He gasped in pain and withdrew his hands, rolling off her.

She scrambled onto her hands and knees and was struggling up when a hand grabbed her ankle, sending her crashing onto the floor again. All at once Mallozzi was on top of her, weighing her down. His arm crossed around her neck from behind and tightened, crushing her windpipe.

He's so heavy. She choked, stars beginning to edge in at the corners of her vision.

“I really do hate to do this,” he whispered in her ear. “You’re such a pretty girl. In any other situation I’d have loved to take you to bed. But I guess we don’t always get what we want, do we?” He tightened his arm around her throat.

Saliva foamed on her mouth and dripped onto the floor. In her failing vision, she saw silvery moonlight glint off metal. The gun was resting a few feet from her.

She reached out a trembling hand. The tips of her fingers lightly brushed it.

Mallozzi was panting hard in her ear, his hot breath washing over her head. “Sorry about this, baby,” he whispered, and yanked her head back.

Her fingers closed over the gun.

Patience pointed it down and fired twice.

His body convulsed against her, and his weight abruptly left her. She scrambled up, leaving him moaning on the floor.

He was lying on the carpet, blood pooling around his legs and seeping through his fingers. There was a thumb-sized hole in his knee. He was muttering painfully in a different language, tongue tripping and stumbling painfully over the syllables as he clutched his wounded leg.

As she checked her gun, his eyes met hers in a blaze of coal-black fury.

“Puttana,” he swore, “Zoccola…porca puttana…”

“I’ve no doubt those aren’t sweet nothings you’re whispering to me,” she said, “Maybe your time would be better spent calling to someone for help!”

With those last words, she turned and dashed off, the howls and rants of the black-haired madman echoing behind her.

***

Patience’s gaze was blurry—she felt lightheaded from the strangulation she had received moments earlier. She put a hand on the wall to steady herself.

Her hearing seemed ten times more sensitive, though—so when she heard a muffled scream, she took off running in that direction.

She skidded to the opening of a hallway, leading to a door saying Maid’s Room, evidently locked as Nizzola fruitlessly tried the doorknob. Rizzo was advancing slowly, saying some things under his breath that made her wince, his gun pointed at the ground.

Patience shouted at him, aiming her gun. As he whipped around, she pointed at his chest and fired.

A splotch of blood the size of a handkerchief was spreading over his dove-white shirt and soaking into his black coat. But as she looked at him, she realized it wasn’t from her gun.

Her gun which only produced a clicking sound.

Rizzo smiled slowly and raised his gun. “Looks like you’ve run out of luck, little girl,” he said.

Before Nizzola smashed a vase over his head from behind.

The hitman went down. Patience was off, seizing Nizzola by the arm and running. “We need to find the stairs!” she screamed at him as Rizzo rolled over, moaning.

“Where?” he burst out at her. “It’s too dark, I can’t see anything!”

She squinted. In the dim moonlight she could make out outlines of pictures on the doors—maintenance, room service, laundry—

Laundry!

She stumbled back, eyes searching for the metal slat in the wall. Heavy footsteps thudded behind her.

She shoved Nizzola towards the bronze slit in the wall, Laundry Disposal on a metal plaque above it. She pushed him toward it. “Get in!” she hissed.

He hesitated, but she shoved him bodily, and he slid inside. She looked backwards, and Rizzo was rounding the corner, cursing, his gun out, and the last of Nizzola slid inside, and she jumped in, the metal cold on her elbows.

A bullet dented the metal plaque, but she was already tumbling down.

After a chaotic few seconds of falling, falling, screaming, she fell heavily on top of Senator Nizzola, who was panting on a pile of dirty laundry. When she hit him, he groaned painfully.

After a second of heavy breathing, he said, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”

Chapter Text

Patience and Senator Nizzola emerged into a dark alley on the side of the building, lit with streetlamps on either end. It was a chill night, and goosebumps erupted over Patience’s arms. The dull chatter of hotel guests buzzed just out of sight.

She turned to Nizzola, not quite sure what to say.

“Thank you,” he said gently, holding out a hand. “You…saved my life back there. I can’t really thank you enough. What’s your name?”

She took his proffered hand. “Patience Winslow, and don’t mention it. We need more people like you to continue fighting corruption.”

His face dulled. “I always knew that the mafia had me in their sights. But to strike in a hotel, on one of the biggest nights of the year…even I didn’t think they would be so reckless.”

“Well, be sure to keep an eye out from now on,” Patience said, looking cautiously past him at the dark alley behind him. “Now we know they’ve stopped using secrecy or subtlety in their quest to kill their enemies.”

“You should be careful too,” he warned. His warm hand pressed protectively to her shoulder. “You’d be one of the first people they would target. I know what happens to people who interfere with the mob…and it isn’t pretty.” He winced, and a peculiar hurt surfaced in his eyes.

She grinned. “I’ll be fine, Senator. Nobody knows who I am. I’m good at keeping myself anonymous. But you should get back to your bodyguards and family. Never let yourself be alone from now on.”

Nizzola was taking a pad from his pocket and scribbling on it. “Here, Miss Winslow. Take this.”

She looked at the numbers written in messy pen. “What’s this?”

“My private phone number. Call me at this. Your help would be invaluable to us, if you should want to remain in contact.”

She looked at the crumpled pad, and a slow smile spread across her face. “I’d be honored, Senator.”

***

It was a chilly night. Orange light glowed off the street-slickened sidewalk, worn down by a thousand high-heeled shoes.

Stefano ran his fingers through his hair. The bright lights glinted off his trembling glasses. He waited impatiently, hour after hour, until a blonde figure emerged from the restaurant.

The raven-haired beauty at his side laughed demurely, arm entwined with his own. She looked up at him with bright admiration. Leo stared benevolently at her, a kind smile on his face, before reaching up and brushing a lock of black hair off her shoulder.

He whispered something into her ear. She smiled and swept away, sending longing stares back at him.

Leo turned to Stefano, smile still present. “Buonasera, Stefano. I was wondering when I would see you again.”

The light of the streetlamp shone off his light eyelashes as Leo stared down at him, dark blue eyes bright and friendly. Stefano felt anxiety well up within him. God, how could Leo be the only one who could do this to him? He would prefer to see him angry, to see him give Stefano his full displeasure, instead of affectionate warmth. Stefano didn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve any of it.

“Let’s go to my home, shall we?” Leo clapped Stefano on the shoulder. Stefano nodded sharply, then signaled for a taxi.

The inside of the car was dark, leather. Leo stared ahead, adjusting his suit. Stefano stared straight ahead, jaw clenched. His shoulder throbbed under its layers of bandages, providing a pain that would have sent anyone else weeping and scrambling for morphine. Not Stefano. Pain was a way of life, and in his worldview, the more you could take, the stronger you were. His father had beaten him with his belt whenever he cried, and as much as he resented his old man, he had to admit that it had been the right path to raising him. Learn to suppress your pain early, and you were in for a smooth ride.

“So who’s the new broad, Leo?”

“Katherine Buchanan. She’s the daughter of the conductor at the Grand Opera. Quite a fascinating woman.”

Leo sounded fond, but Stefano suspected something different. Stefano had known Leo for a long time, and never could he remember having seen him on a second date.

“How is your wife, Stefano?”

“Filomena’s great. The kids are in school. My son’s thinking of dropping out... I need to give that little shit a few slaps.”

“Don’t be rough on the boy. Children need care and understanding. Otherwise they turn into men like us, don’t they?”

Streetlamps flashed by the window.

Stefano was always amazed by the size of Leo’s house. Even after he had been there so many times, he would never cease to be struck dumb by the towering mansion, the lights and domes and massive garden. Living in a shitty tenement with his entire family, the hitman was rendered silent by the extent a mafia boss could afford.

Grass flattened under his soles. He followed Leo’s straight figure into the house.

Leo was a worldly man—one of those people who seemed to know everything, knew what to say and when. He kept a library stretching through rooms and rooms. Stefano had only caught a glimpse of it before, before Leo blocked his path and smiled at him, asking what he wanted.

“I’m sorry, boss,” Stefano burst out, as he took his seat in the sitting room. It was an enormous room, a chandelier hanging up above them, bathing the red upholstery of the furniture with eerie orange.

Leo sat on a sofa opposite him, legs crossed and hands folded, staring at him in a faintly curious manner.

“Sorry, Stefano?”

“I’m so sorry for screwing it up. Letting Nizzola escape…I’m so sorry, Leo, for the love of god, please forgive me!”

His last words came out in a shout as he knelt down, grabbing Leo’s hand and covering it with kisses. The blonde man’s fingers quirked under his litany of kisses.

“I know you are truly regretful.”

“Oh god I am. Oh Leo, please, forgive me! I’ve never fucked up like this before, and I never will again!”

Moths hit against the chandelier, batting fruitlessly against the solid light. Yellow light bathed the red room.

The carpet was soft under Stefano’s knees.

Leo’s hand shifted to cup his cheek. His thumb rubbed against his smooth skin.

“This is the first time you have ever failed a mission. All this time, you have been reliable as a rock…if I wanted something, you were the first person I would call.”

His words made tears bead in Stefano’s eyes. Leo had relied on him. He was the first, the most important of the people he would call. And he had failed him.

“Mi perdoni, Leo!”

“Stefano, you have been the most loyal of my people. I would trust you with my life.”

“Mi perdoni, mi perdoni,” Stefano wept. His tears stained the smooth skin of Leo’s hands.

“But...this one time… you have disappointed me.”

Leo’s voice was the crestfallen fatherliness he regretted hearing.

“I put my faith in you, Stefano. And you betrayed me.”

Pale fingers gripped Stefano’s pinky finger.

And bent it backward.

The scream of pain that sounded in his throat, he managed to suppress. Stefano watched his pinky finger bend back in a grotesque angle.

“You’re a southpaw, aren’t you, Stefano?”

His middle finger cracked, the bone snapping as Leo’s pale hand twisted it backwards.

Stefano remembered the first time he had seen Leo, when he had been holding his gun out, a vicious result of the street, staring fearfully at the young man who had emerged from the alleys, his hands in his pockets.

Blood had run down Stefano’s fingers, clutching the knife. He knew that if his opponent had a gun he would be dead. But still he held his knife, ready to fight until the end.

Leonardo Borghese had spoke to him softly. Persuaded him with his deep words. Turned him to the side of good.

Stefano’s ring finger cracked.

“I would hate to compromise your value, Stefano.”

Stefano’s right hand was a mass of limp fingers.

Leo’s eyes were the color of the evening sky. Blue as the lightening dawn.

The pain erupted down Stefano’s arm. His pink skin twitched as one bone after another snapped.

“But there must be a punishment for every crime.”

Leo clasped his index finger, warm and squeezing, and asked gently.

“Who did this to you?”

The pain pierced Stefano’s backbone, flaring down in a humiliating streak of agony. His arm was on fire, every nerve cauterized in an agonizing bonfire of pain.

"Who ruined your mission, Stefano?”

“Nizzola was tougher than I realized,” Stefano wept. “And…there was this girl…”

Leo was silent for a moment. “What girl?” his voice had a careful question.

“She was small….una brunetta…occhi verdi…”

Leo paused.

His fingers curled around his index finger.

“Occhi verdi?”

Leo bent his index finger backward, breaking it in a cruel twist of his curved hands. The snapping sounded loud in Stefano’s ears.

“Si…” Stefano sobbed, reverted to his mother tongue. “She ruined me.”

A brown-haired girl with green eyes.

Leo twisted the broken bone, forcing it to bend backward in a disgusting imitation of its natural position.

The boss was smiling now.

Leo forced the limp bone flat, hard hands twisting it cruelly until it was beyond the pale of what his punishment was.

He twisted farther and farther, Stefano’s finger limp and trembling. It flattened against the surface of his hand.

Stefano could only see pain, a red film of pain and agony centered on his limp hand. It reminded him of his father, when he cruelly twisted his limbs to punish him for crying. Agony erupted in his throat, screaming silently in the brutalizing pain.

“Occhi verdi, Pazienza.”

Leo cruelly twisted the broken limb of Stefano, curling it over and over, smiling gently as it separated it from the bone structure of his hand.

“Una brunetta, con occhi verdi.”

***

Some people say a man is made out of mud

A real man’s made out of muscle and blood

Mike popped the champagne open. “You did it, Patience! By god, you did it!’

Patience threw her hair back, giggling as the radio crackled loudly. Mike filled two tall glasses with the bubbly liquid. Patience downed her first in one swallow.

Patience was dressed in a sleeveless white sundress that fastened around her neck. Mike was wearing a pair of jeans and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His hair was boyishly messy. His glasses were sitting on the table, allowing her to see his face uncovered for the first time.

He was…handsome. She had never really thought so before, but now, with his tousled hair sweeping across his eyes and his muscled forearms resting on the table, she found her eyes tracing his features with a little more interest.

His pale gray eyes flicked up to meet hers. They were beautiful, now that they weren’t obscured by his glasses. The color was reminiscent of a spring dawn, not as dark as the cold gray waters of the Boone River, but more approaching a morning mist.

You load sixteen tons

What do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

“We’re all set now,” he said, grabbing his glass. “We’ve got all the evidence we need, and a route inside on behalf of Senator Nizzola. I spent all yesterday at the printing store, getting copies made of all my files and tapes. Now I’ve got two portfolios hidden in my house, as well as one in a bank vault. If anyone tries to steal our evidence, they’re out of luck!”

Patience whooped and leaned backward in her chair, throwing her head back. There was dust gathering in the corners of her ceiling, she noticed. Soon she’d be able to move into a bigger apartment. One without cobwebs and noisy neighbors. She’d live on the top of the tallest building, with glass walls and her own library. She would look down through the glass at the thousands of lights below her, each one a streetlamp or a headlight, or look up at the constellations above her. Nights would be free for her to nurse wine and read the classics, without any pushy clients or cases piled on her desk.

“People are going to want interviews and book deals after this,” she gushed, filling her crystal glass with more champagne. “Everyone’s going to want to know about the plucky journalist and investigator who brought down the mob!”

“We could take it to court,” he said, his eyes far away. “We wouldn’t even have to publish the article. Senator Nizzola would be able to call in connections. We could be in Federal Court on Friday, watching those bastards file in in shackles!”

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine

I picked up my shovel and went to the mine

Several loud thuds sounded from the floor below their feet.

“Are those your neighbors?” he said worriedly. “Maybe we should turn the music down.”

She grinned at him, her face flushed. “Fuck ‘em.”

You load sixteen tons

What do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

Her loose hair streamed down her shoulders, several curls just brushing the tops of her breasts. She rolled her head back, shoulders swaying to the music.

Mike was watching her, a sudden worried look in his eyes. He gently reached over, his fingertips lightly brushing her neck.

The bruises from several days ago were prominently purple, fading to yellow around the edges but still vivid with broken blood vessels. He shook his head, eyebrows knitted together. “God, Patience…you were nearly killed. I can’t believe I…”

She closed her hand over his and pulled it away from her neck. “No negativity, Mike. This is a happy night, remember?”

The man’s voice blared rhythmically to fill the room, crackling from the old speakers. Patience stared at her champagne glass, smiling softly. She could almost see, in her reflection, the smiling visage of her mother, who looked so much like her.

…Finally, her parents would be avenged. Their struggle to bring down the most notorious criminal enterprise in the nation would finally be fulfilled. Her father—whose only sin had been to testify against the brutal murderers—would not have died in vain.

Really…all of this, the riches, the book deals, the televised court battle—it was really so insignificant, wasn’t it? Compared to bringing her parents’ murderers to justice…her mother, who had been the light of her life, always ready with a warm hug or freshly-made pancakes when she came home crying from school; her father, whose rare appearances were always met with joy and trips to the fair.

And then…they had both been gone.

Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go

I owe my soul to the company store

A warm hand closed over hers. Mike’s face was soft and gentle. “Patience,” he said, “Your parents…they would be so proud of you. I think they really would.”

She smiled, looking down. “I hope they would. I hope they would think that what I was doing was the right thing to do…instead of just…letting it go and getting on with my life.”

“Patience,” he said after a moment. He slowly let go of her hand and reached up to her face. His warm skin cupped her face.

“My family…they came here decades ago, before I was born,” he started softly. “The famine had ravaged their country. My grandmother starved to death. They found her gnawing on dog bones.”

His voice was barely audible over the crackle of the speakers.

“They had nothing. Only the clothes on their backs. They came here, wanting to start a new life. They came here on a crowded ship with hundreds of their brethren. Sickness swept the ship, tetanus, whooping cough, but they braved through it. When they came here, when they docked in the New York harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty...they said it was the happiest time in their lives. They were ready to start a new life.”

Mike looked away. His gray eyes were somber, filled with an emotion she couldn’t name. Patience stared at him, not quite knowing what to say, and laid a hand on his knee.

“It was hard. They couldn’t find work. There were signs on the shops, you know, on the bars, No Dogs or Irish. They were banned from businesses, shops. My father found a job as a laborer at the docks, and my mother worked as a seamstress’s assistant. It was so hard for them…”

He swiped a hand across his eyes.

“And my older brother, Seamus…he couldn’t take it. He rebelled. He fell in with a bad crowd. He was part of a gang, back in the old days—they’re all gone now. They all got driven out of the city, or killed when the mafia took over. They were called The Bulldogs.”

Bulldogs. She knew that name. Part of the organized crime unit in Criminal Justice School. An Irish gang, operating in the early ‘20s. Had Michael’s brother really been in a gang? She couldn’t believe it, he was so helpful, so nice, so dedicated to bringing down organized crime—

“And he got argumentive, started staying out late…coming back with bruises, a bloodied nose. My mother used to stay up at night crying, worrying where her son was. And then one day it came. They found Seamus in an alley. Bones broken, head smashed. His face was so unrecognizable they had to call her down to the morgue. They only identified him by his ring, the ring my mother had given him, back when he was a young boy in Ireland.”

On those last words his voice broke, and he clutched his head in his hands. His breaths came in gasps for a few seconds. She clutched his leg, fingernails digging into the denim, tears swimming in her eyes. “Michael,” she said.

You load sixteen tons

What do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

The rhythmic cadence of the radio echoed across the room in a frozen imitation of its former bombastic tune.

Patience held his leg, warm under her hand. She didn’t know what to say or how to say it.

He lifted his head, and his eyes were hard. “Don’t ever regret what you’re doing, Patience. Don’t ever. Organized crime is cancer. It ruins lives. It’s senseless, cruel, and only exists because of human greed. It kills fathers and sons, and leaves families alone to mourn.”

They were both silent, for a while. They held each other, connected by the warmth of their skin, the low moan of the music in their ears. Patience felt the dampness of sweat, the tenseness of his wrists.

I was born one mornin', it was drizzlin' rain

Fightin' and trouble are my middle name

Patience stood up.

She twirled around, her skirt flaring.

“Dance with me, Mike?” she said.

The sound of the song pulsed rhythmically through the room. She whirled, arms outstretched like a ballerina.

There was a creak from a chair as Mike came up to join her.

He seized the tips of her hands, twirling her around. Her skirt flared like the flowering petals of an orchid.

They danced as a couple, arms interlocked, twirling around in a circle. The music sounded distantly in their minds. All they could feel was their arms, their bodies, their breathing.

Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go

Patience fell into bed, breaths coming hard and fast. He was above her, undoing her sundress, sliding it down her shoulder.

He pulled up the hem of her dress. She arched her head backward in a moan as he nuzzled her cheeks and neck, his tongue traveling across her smooth skin.

She recklessly spread her legs, letting him nestle in between her thighs, until she felt his hard bulge push against her soft thighs.

“Oh…Oh…”

Those were was the only words she could utter, her throat paralyzed with pleasure. Her red-rimmed eyes rolled to the ceiling of the limousine.

He gently lowered his head so that his breath tickled her lips, and pressed a chaste kiss to the edge of her trembling mouth. The sweetness of his cologne flooded her nostrils, made a gag rise up in her throat.

Love juice trickled down her soft thighs.

“STOP IT!”

Her involuntary scream echoed around the bedroom..

Mike jerked back, his face worried. “Patience, I…”

She had her face buried in her hands. Her shoulders shook. The sickening scent of cologne was in her throat, bile rising as the awful memory made her gag. She took a deep breath, trying not to let tears seep into her hands.

“Patience, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, I’ll leave—“

“No,” she said softly, and reached out to gently catch his coat hem. “Mike, don’t go. I’m—it’s my fault. Please stay.”

After a moment standing still, he slowly laid down. The bed creaked with his weight. Patience snuggled up to his back and pressed her face into his shirt. It smelled like him, like old dust and the bitter ink of printing presses. She slowly let her eyes drift shut, lulled to sleep by his warmth. The last thing she felt was his hand gently grip her arm, stroking her skin soothingly with his thumb.

“Night, Patience.”

And I owe my soul to the company store...

***

“It’s dangerous!” Mommy’s voice burst out.

Little Patience paused where she was, on her hands and knees. Her mind solely focused on her Christmas presents, she had hoped to sneak out carefully past her parents’ bedroom, but it appeared that they were already awake.

“You know what they do to people who testify against them.”

“Marilyn, I can’t keep silent. I saw what they did to the body. I saw them dump it. The union leader…”

“Stop it, Richard.” Her mother’s voice had a hint to a sob to it that made Patience freeze. She rarely heard her mother like that unless something was very, very wrong.”

“Marilyn, I love you and I love Patience. But I’m a policeman as well. I have a duty to defend and serve. I have to do what’s right, for the good of the people.”

“God, Richard, don’t you care about us at all? What if they target us?”

“They won’t. The only person in danger will be me. They’ll never harm you, I’ll make sure of it.”

Patience sat where she was, elbows digging into the floor. She felt lost and scared, listening to them argue. Who was going to hurt them? She knew Daddy was a policeman, and lots of bad people wanted to hurt him, but who would want to hurt her and Mommy?

“I’m sorry, Marilyn. But I have to do this.”

***

The dull rumbling of cars outside her window woke Patience up. She blinked, sleepy, dimly aware of a comforting warm presence surrounding her.

Tiredness still lingering in her body, she blearily looked upward. She saw Mike’s peacefully sleeping face above her. For a moment the girl’s breath stopped in shock, wondering what had happened, before the memory of the other night came back to her. She smiled.

Seems like my sleeping problems are a thing of the past, she thought to herself as she rousted herself from his grip. She never remembered having such a delicious sleep before. Seemed like having a partner made all the difference.

Patience straightened her sundress—it was a little wrinkled; she would have to iron it. That’s right, it was laundry day! She had almost forgotten in the hectic pace of the last few days.

Mike was still sleeping peacefully, sprawled over the bed. Patience leaned down and pressed a kiss to his cheek. Then she whispered, “I’m going to do some laundry, okay? Be back in an hour.” A muffled grumble was his response.

A few minutes later she was strolling down the street, laundry basket in her arms.

The laundromat was a few streets over—safely within walking distance, one of the very few things she liked about her apartment. Of course, the really nice thing would be for the apartment complex to have its own laundromat, but oh well.

The bright autumn sun shone down on her bouncing curls as she walked down the street. She walked with a spring in her step, more lighthearted than she had been in months.

It seemed as if God had been smiling on her lately…as if he had said, Patience, you’ve been through a lot of crap in your life, and it’s time now that your luck started looking up.

The dim chatter of children sounded from the other side of the street, and Patience shielded her face and smiled as she saw several boys chasing a hoop. Up early in the morning, eager to get away from their parents until breakfast. It reminded her of herself, when she had run the cobblestone streets of her hometown with her friends, playing down by the brook at the crack of dawn, catching frogs.

The laundromat was abandoned this early—thank god. She didn’t want to have to explain her bloodstained clothes away to the other patrons. Her bare feet twirled on the floor as she loaded the laundry into the washer, sorting reds from whites, cloth from fleece.

A sudden scream outside the laundromat made her perk up. Half-filled basket of clothes dangling from her arms, she stepped outside, wondering if someone was in trouble.

Another scream. “Help!” wailed a young voice, a child’s voice. It was coming from the corner of the alley.

The basket dropped onto the sidewalk.

Patience was off and running, heart thumping. A child was in danger. Her P.I. instincts rearing up like a mother lion, she skidded to the entrance to the alley. “What’s wrong?” she yelled. “Where are you?”

“Get away from me-hee-hee!” the voice was closer, that of a terrified girl. “Mama…help!”

Her adrenaline spiking, Patience broke into a flat run, feet sprinting across the cobbled ground as she ran headfirst into the dark, scummy alley. Her feet skidded on something slimey, but she kept on until she reached the end, looking around for the origin of the cries.

At one end, by a group of dumpsters, she saw a small child cowering, arms raised above her head. Perplexingly, there was no one near her, but Patience barely noticed that, and she was by the girl’s side in an instant.

“Honey, are you okay? Was there someone hurting you? You’re safe now, don’t—“

Her voice petered out as the girl lifted her head to look at her. The child’s eyes were dead, the color of pond scum, and as devoid of emotion as the rest of her face.

Patience heard footsteps behind her, and as she was turning around, a cloth was pressed to her face. She took a deep breath to scream, inhaling the bitter fumes, but then she was spiraling into unconsciousness, her mind sinking into darkness as her body screamed at her to stay awake.

Chapter Text

Dinner was late.

Mommy and Daddy had not been making dinner together, like they usually did whenever he came home. One of the things Patience looked forward to was the laughter and clatter of Mommy and Daddy making her dinner together. When all she heard was harsh whispers, Patience touched her toes together under the table. Mommy and Daddy were in the kitchen talking. The mashed potatoes and meat loaf were on the table, but she could barely smell the delicious aroma. All she could smell was a bitter air of stress that couldn’t seem to go away.

A harsh pounding sounded on the solid wooden door. Patience looked up.

Daddy said something in a tone she hadn’t heard before. Mommy swept into the room, her face sweating and terrified.

The knocking grew louder.

“Baby—go hide—“

The door crashed open.

Mommy stuffed Patience into a cabinet. The little girl stayed there, wondering if it was a joke that Mommy had cooked up for April Fools, or whether the tense atmosphere of the last few months has come to a head.

As her Mommy’s screams echoed around the room, she realized it was the latter.

Men in dark suits dragged Daddy into the dining room and threw him onto the ground. Mommy followed, throwing herself in front of him. “Please, oh god, please no, not my husband—“

Patience’s legs were trembling. She gripped her kneecaps. Her breaths came high and panting in the cabinet. Fear swamped her small brain, paralyzing her. She wanted to burst out, to help Mommy and Daddy…

But what would they do to her if she did?

The wooden floor was hard under her.

One of the men in the dark suits hit Daddy across the face with his gun. The dull crack echoed across the room. Mommy screamed.

A silent sob rose in Patience’s throat.

“Shut the fuck up,” said one of the men in a broad accent. He clicked his gun, aiming it at Daddy’s head. “Fuckin’ snitch. You coppers are scum. Whiners who go runnin’ to the nearest sheriff to complain whenever one of us picks our nose.”

A soft voice echoed across the room, speaking in a different language. Patience didn’t know what it said, but as soon as the voice sounded, the men silenced, withdrawing their hands.

A steady creaking sounded on the floor as polished leather shoes walked across the floorboards.

Patience pressed her legs together,

Daddy covered Mommy with his body, arms wound tightly around her, as a man came into the room.

A thin sliver of light shone onto Patience’s trembling green iris.

Light glinted off golden curls.

Patience’s head throbbed.

That was all she could feel—a steady, dull pulsing of the nerves in her skull. Every bump, every jolt, made a lance of pain spear her head.

Patience cracked an eye open. Blurriness swam in front of her eyes until it coalesced into a miasma of neon. She realized she was seeing through a windshield.

She lifted her head from the slick surface of leather (leather—a car—why was she in a car—)

“La ragazza e sveglia,” somebody commented.

At the sound of the voice, her mind pulled hazily back to the present. The events of the last day hit her in a sickening lurch.

“Finalmente,” sighed somebody else. She heard the distant rev of an engine.

Patience stared at her dark reflection in the window. Her face was pale, eyes swollen and lidded. Veins traveled from her eye socket to the corner of her cheek, dark purple lines against her ghost-pale skin.

The rev of the engines was a gentle hum in her ears.

Who was it? What were they going to do to her? Was it the Di Scarpettis or the Borgheses? With the Borgheses she could envision a quick death. Not like the Di Scarpettis. They would torture her for days, rape her, break every single one of her bones, then dump her like a dead animal…

Did they know about Michael? Oh god. Oh god. He was staying at her apartment. What would they have done to him? Was he okay? This was all her fault. If she hadn’t decided to—to follow that crying girl, then maybe—maybe they wouldn’t have—

The inside of the car was cold and quiet, but she could hear someone repeatedly try to light a lighter, grunting with irritation each time the flame did not catch. Finally the smell of smoke reached her lungs, and the rustle of a pocket meant the lighter was being replaced.

Christ. All these mobsters smoked like chimneys. Was it to give themselves a threatening, guttural growl? That would make sense. Leonardo Borghese didn’t smoke, and he had a voice like a violin.

Her eyes focused, and she saw a weathered profile, a sprinkling of stubble over a short chin. A brown-haired man was contentedly smoking a cigarette, and the driver was silent. She could tell, by the posture of his shoulders and the drivers’, that they were relaxed and their attentions were not on her.

Her left hand crept toward the door handle. If she could just wrench it open and fling herself out—get on her feet as fast as she could and start running—then she could have a chance—

“Do you want me to bind your fuckin’ hands, bitch?” The man’s voice was an annoyed bow twang in the silence of the car. “The door’s locked from the driver’s side anyway. Nice try, honey.”

Face burning at his mocking comments, she put her hand back into her lap, clenching it.

She was obviously being taken to meet Leonardo Borghese. If they had wanted to kill her, they would have done it back there. Unless…Leonardo wished to do it himself. She had been enough of a hassle for them, she could see why he would want to end her life at his own hand, whether it be out of respect or fury.

The car jarred to a halt. She was unceremoniously pulled out of the car. Her shoes stumbled onto a sidewalk, and she was being forced forward, her feet trembling as she staggered along the (cobblestone?) road. Patience saw a massive black mansion, vast yards, domes like the Capital Building. Her unfocused eyes caught only a blur of black and white before she was forced into the building.

She heard the creak of a massive door, then her feet met marble floors.

The smell of fresh flowers and lacquered floors hit her nose. She had always prided herself on her sense of smell—and now underneath the cultured scent of a large house, she could smell the scent of rotting bodies, of congealed blood, of Caroline and Mommy and Daddy…

She was shoved through a door. Patience saw a large room in front of her eyes, lustrously decorated red and gold wallpaper, filled with tasteful red leather furniture and bookcases. On the walls, large, blown-up photographs sat, of unfamiliar cityscapes and people.

A figure lingered by the window, seated in a leather armchair.

“Thank you, Giuseppe. You may leave.”

She sat there, hair shielding her face, her harsh breaths reverberating through her body until she heard his smooth voice.

“Ssh. You are safe, Pazienza.”

The fond pronunciation of her name made her body tremble. He adored her, the way the warm syllables slid of his tongue.

The anger and fury at the man continued to burn inside of her. The misery and panic and oh god oh god how could she have let this happen whirled in her mind, until she heard him take a seat in the armchair opposite her.

“You are quite a thorn in my side, aren’t you?”

Patience stared at the patterned rug. She panted harshly, not willing to answer.

“Look at me.”

She looked.

Leonardo Borghese's hair was neatly parted and combed straight against his skull. The ends perked upward in a rebellious curl, but for the most part his light blond hair was straight and smooth.
He was dressed in a crisp, neatly pressed white shirt, over which he wore a sleek slate-gray vest. He wore black dress pants, and polished leather saddle shoes that glinted in the cold light.

“Do you like what you see?” his voice was a teasing question. He tilted his head, smile carefully etched in his impassive face. Her legs crumpled under her, her breast heaving as she glared at him.

“Fuck you,” she managed.

“I’m sure I’m going to be doing a lot of that over the next several days,” he said, shifting in his leather armchair. The squeaking on leather set her on edge.

“Patience Winslow. I like the name. You people always had a habit of naming your children after virtues, didn’t you? Ever since the Puritans. Faith, Hope, Silence, Patience…”

His voice trailed off. Charles Sawyer, she thought bitterly. That fucking loose-mouth.

“Tell me, what makes you hate me so much? I want to know. I would rather have a beautiful woman love me instead of hate me.”

His black and white saddle shoe lifted her chin. She stared into his dark, unfathomable eyes, full red lips set across a strong chin. Pale smooth skin, sharp shoulders shifting as he tilted his face to stare into her eyes.

Patience stared deep into his sapphire eyes, like the most beautiful of cut gems, framed by long light eyelashes.

“You killed two people,” she said, and her voice was stronger than her trembling thoughts. “Richard and Marilyn Winslow. Do you remember that? Do you remember shooting them in them in the head as they cried for each other?”

The misery of her mother’s scream was in her voice, shaking as she directed it at Borghese. Patience hurled it passionately at the man, tears of sorrow dampening her eyes.

The deaths of innocent people he had brought to pass. The vivid marks on his conscience. The stifling of a loving mother and father.

He stared down at her.

“Marilyn and Richard…?” he said. His face was set in a laughing parody of sympathy. “Who are they?”

Her whole mind crashed around her.

A low laugh reverberated around the room as Patience bent down, crying. Borghese tilted his head backwards, golden curls brushing his collarbone.

“I have no idea of who you speak of, Patience. These people may have well been strangers to me. I have so many enemies, these people are simply one of a million. Were they your parents, Patience? Were they your siblings?”

Tears beaded in her eyes.

”They were my parents.”

Harsh, foreign voices. Laughter, Mommy pleading. “Not my husband…”

“Patience, I have killed so many people, through so many years… I apologize to you sincerely, but I cannot remember a single detail of who they are.”

Her sobs echoed around the room. She heard the chair creak as he leaned forward.

“Ahh, I see. So that’s the reason you hate me. Because I killed your parents, correct? Because I took away their love for you…”

He leaned forward, his eyes dark.

“I know how you feel, Patience. I know how the lack—the loss—of the love you are owed feels.”

His voice was alien to her as she heard him, her green eyes looking up at him.

Borghese’s legs were spread, black fabric stretched as his legs hugged her head.

“Both of us feel the ache of loneliness, Patience. Why don’t show me how much you understand me? With your breasts here, now.”

Patience stared at the lump in his trousers, her lips trembling. Borghese’s soft hands gripped her clothed breasts, pulled them out from their linen casing.

Pink nipples shone in the lighting.

“Small but plump,” he said teasingly, brushing a fingertip over her nipples.

The sound of a buckle sounded in the room, metal clipping from metal.

Hands grabbed her protruding breasts. Pulled them forward.

Borghese’s cock was long and red. Her soft skin molded to his hard, erect skin. The dark red head of his cock slid between her breasts.

She pulled her head back, shaking off the chloroform that still dulled her mind.

“Get away from me,” she rasped.

“Away?” He pulled her towards him, pushing his long cock in between her heaving, pale bosom. “You seem to be enjoying this. Why should we stop?”

Patience twisted her body, still weak from the chloroform, away from him. Her hands slid over the cold floor.

The blond man looked at her dispassionately, mouth a thin line. “Patience, your disobedience is becoming a hassle. I don’t want to hurt you anymore than need be…”

He seized her arm and dragged her forward. With the other he reached into the desk beside him. From the corner of her eye, she saw the glint of metal.

Patience felt the cold bite of steel against the back of her neck.

“Do you want me to hurt you?” he queried gently, brushing a curved pinky against the trembling nape of her neck. The metal nicked her neck, a warning pang of pain into her dulled brain.

“I hate to see your face twisted in pain, Patience. Pain can be fetching, but right now, I would prefer your eyes to be filled with delight. Why wouldn’t you be happy to make love to me, the most powerful man in Garland City?”

Borghese’s hand pushed her forward. Patience stared at the hard, swollen cockhead in front of her eyes, her lips trembling as she pressed to it. It was so large, so erect. She could easily imagine it sliding between her thighs, into her body.

The knife bit deeper into her skin.

Pain pierced her neck as she pulled her head back. The steel sliced into her skin, sliding through the layers of skin and muscle, until her neck arched and her eyes dripped with tears of pain.

“Stop,” Patience cried. The pain penetrated to the very depths of her; she heard her voice quaver as she begged him to stop. She felt blood drip down her neck, soaking into her dress.

Her mouth caressed the head of his cock. A bead of precum welled on the tip, tasting bitter to the tip of her tongue.

I’ll get you for this, she thought bitterly. I’ll be there in the seats at Sing Sing, to see you fry in the electric chair. And by god, I’ll be smiling.

The knife bit deeper.

She opened her mouth, accepting the swollen head into her warm mouth.

Humiliation burned along the surface of her skin as she gently sucked the head.

Tears streamed down her cheeks to wet the edge of his swollen penis. She used the underside of her tongue, stimulating the hot, erect shaft. Her arms trembled as her slender fingers wrapped around his hard cock.

She moved her tongue inside her mouth, collecting saliva, then slowly lowered her mouth. Closing her eyes, she clumsily moved her tongue across the bloodshot head of his penis.

Borghese tsked gently, the soft sound in his throat making Patience clutch her legs together. “Don’t know how to please a man, Pazienza?" he said, his foreign accent straining the syllables.

He tried to hide his accent so well most of the time, but relaxed it when he pronounced her name. Fondly. Like one would a pet.

“Never had a boyfriend before, I see. It is good to hear that the new generation in this country have not lost their values.” His voice was approving.

She’d never had a lover. Her uncle and aunt had been cold enough not to interact with her, and the boys at school had been scared away by her bitterness, ratty hair and heavy eye bags. Until she was eighteen, she had been alone in her room, her only company her bare bed and maladjustive emotions, until she reached the age when she could tear away from her cosseted small town and disapproving relatives and attend criminal justice school.

“I suppose I was the one who took your virginity, then? Oh, what a lovely thought that is. Did I in the night, in that car, steal your most precious thing from you? Did I tear through your virgin barrier, mia mignotta?”

His voice was gentle and playful. Almost derisive.

Patience did not say anything, or make any sound. The short girl would not give him the pleasure. She gripped his cock in her hand, arm trembling. Tightening her fist, she gently stimulated it with her soft skin. She felt her core become hot as she placed her mouth on its head again, and let out an unconscious sigh as the reaction.

Patience began to move her hand up and down slowly, grasping his genitalia gently in her slender fingers. The persistent motion of her elbow caused the blood to swell in the tip, erect with excitement.

While she repeated the movement, she felt her lower lips twitch.

As she rubbed his genitals she heard his breaths rising along with the movements of her hands. She rhythmically pumped him, her bare feet trembling on the floor.

“Oh, you’re doing well. Don’t stop. Dolcezza.”

Patience’s face was wet with saliva and precum. From her face, one would think she was enjoying it. Her eyes were glassy, mouth pursed lovingly in an O of enjoyment as her twitching pussy began to get damp.

Why was she enjoying this act so much? Borghese was forcing her to do this. He had a knife at her neck. But somehow…

Patience let her eyes flutter closed as she sucked on his long penis. Her deep insides pulsed, the red walls swollen with eager veins, ready to accept him.

The trembling girl licked the spot between the glans and the shaft, lovingly tracing the excited flesh under her soft tongue.

She was on all fours now. Like a whore.

Her shoulders thrust forward as she took more on him into her mouth. She accepted more of his swollen shaft into her throat, stimulating his length in her convulsing throat. The head nudged against the back of her throat, and she gagged.

“Oh…it seems like you can’t take me after all?” his voice was gently disappointed. “Well, there are plenty of other places you can have me.”

Suddenly, the knife at her neck was gone.

His hand on her shoulder dug deep, violently thrusting her away from him.

Patience was knocked onto her back, legs splayed and hands grasping for balance. The creak of a chair echoed distantly in her ears.

She felt her bare back being shoved against the rug. Her sensitive skin rubbed against the soft fur. Her pussy convulsed as she saw his swollen, erect cock.

The mafioso’s soft laugh echoed in her ears as he forced himself on her, pushing between her spread thighs.

His cock—wet with her saliva—nudged against her swollen pussy lips.

“You just kept interfering,” he said, cupping her tear-stained cheek with his soft hand.

A sob escaped from her throat, terrified and despairing.

“Shush, Pazienza. You will learn to love this.”

The slick, red surface of his cock disappeared into her twitching cunt, her pink lips absorbing the hard shaft.

Patience’s back arched, mouth opening in a silent scream as his long penis sheathed itself inside of her.

Shifting lightly, he forced her to swallow more of him, asking mockingly, “You tighten very well. Quite a feat for a woman who has only had one lover before.”

Borghese pressed forward, Patience’s body was hot. Her head swirled with agony. Dried blood, chloroform and terror congealed into a mass of misery in her mind.

Filled to the hardest with the root, Borghese asked her, “Do you feel your hatred now?”

Electricity raced down her spine. Every time he thrust, Patience dripped honey. Every time she forcibly took his thick, hot length, her body seemed to remember the feeling, softening her body for the next thrust.

The girl’s pale neck arched upward, pale green eyes staring at the golden chandelier. A low whine emerged from Patience’s throat.

She endured it with tears, desperately stifling her voice as yanked her chin to meet his gaze.

Borghese looked into her eyes, a carnivore staring at his prey. He thrust into back of her, eyes fixed squarely on her trembling irises.

Another cry was about to burst out of her throat when she was caught off guard, his strong hands fastening onto her slender waist.

Patience’s pale feet sunk into the soft threads of the rug, her toes sinking into the soft surface.

The blond man’s rogue hand went between her thighs, curling around her soft, hidden clit, coaxing the small hidden mound of flesh into a small erect nub.

Borghese’s hand forced between her hard abdomen and her soft belly, fingers sinking into her skin as he pinched her soft nub. She groaned involuntarily as he thrust forward once again, forcing trails of fire to come racing through her belly. Her legs curled, soft thighs rubbing against the smooth skin of his waist.

Her bleary, dreamy green eyes fixed on his focused, night blue irises. He was smiling, but she couldn’t see the joy behind it. His beautiful face was etched in a facsimile of the royal statues that lined the Vatican—porcelain, perfect, but devoid of emotion.

***

The ceiling was red. Red like a bloody sunset, like the blood that trickled down her legs, mixed with the thick white of semen.

Patience didn’t even know where she was. A different room, maybe. His rough fucking of her had moved them through rooms of the house, so quickly she couldn’t even recall the colors but for a blur of scarlet and gold.

Every time she moved her head stinging pain pierced her neck. Her arms ached. Her legs hurt from when he had shoved her to the ground. Patience’s mind was numb, unwilling to accept what had happened to her. What she had done for him.

It hurt.

She was distantly aware of tears leaking down her cheeks, but they came from a thousand miles away, a emotion so removed from her it might as well have been experienced by a stranger.

“Ahh, Pazienza, but you were more active than I expected.” His voice was relaxed. Satisfied. The older man stood, naked, by the bedside. His hard, muscled abdomen tensed as he leaned forward on the bed.

Borghese’s curled blonde hair was loose, brushing his shoulders. His hard shoulders shifted as he tilted his head, observing her. Two dimples formed on his blushing cheeks as he smiled. The cords of muscle on the corners of his shoulders tensed as he pulled back.

He walked over to a drawer and pulled it open, then took something out.

A hypodermic needle and a thin clear packet.

“We use this to keep our girls in line. Of course, trading drugs goes against our code…but who is to say buying from another one of us is unlawful? Especially one of us who has a seat on the commission?”

She distantly heard his words, as if miles and miles away, as he pierced the clear packet with the thin silver needle. His soft red lips curled fondly.

When he took her limp arm, it was too late.

“You’ve started to grow on me, but I’ll use you for a while and see if I get tired of you,” he said, almost conversationally, as he slid the needle into her vein. It was just a pinprick of pain, compared to the agony of the last few hours.

The liquid penetrated her nervous system in a moment.

The red ceiling swirled into a mass of red and black. Like the clots of menstrual blood that fell down her thighs. It dripped downwards as a slow dulling of pleasure began to creep through her limbs.

All her misery melted away in a moment as she fell unconscious.

The last thing she saw was his softly curved chin, his curling blond locks, the sharp edges of his collarbones, and the dark blankness of his eyes. Like the neverending flow of Boone River. Clear and sparkling on the surface, but filled with immeasurable sewage and pollution underneath.

***

It was bright.

The flash and glimmer of red velvet, of sparkling gold, flashed past her. All the blank masks, the jeweled faces and embroidered cloaks, passed and stared.

She was bare, exposed against the bright chill of the sun, her feet trembling on the cobblestone street. The tall, crumbling and decorated buildings around her revealed an ancient city.

The figures all around her were brightly costumed and robed, the glint of jewels on a blank mask. The shifting of gold-trimmed dresses brushed the ancient cobblestones.

Face masks stretched in garish expressions, smiling and weeping, all encrusted with jewels. They flitted past her and disappeared. Patience stood in the middle, the sun beating down on her shoulders.

In the middle of the flitting crowd, there was a dark figure, standing still. Shrouded all in black, its white beak was curved as it stared at her. A doctor of old, when the plague infested the city and the people’s bodies rotted purple and black in the street.

It stood out in the crowd of brightly-colored jewels and shifting glimmer in its blank cloak, shoulders arched, black cloak swirling around its feet. Nonmoving. Face bare but curved, fixed on her.

Its eyes were black as a fathomless hole. Its hands were gloved with dark leather. And its sharp, bone-white beak stared at her.

She took a step backward, trembling with fear at the tall, hollow figure that watched her. And as she stepped backward, it slowly moved forward.

Chapter Text

Patience smelled eggs cooking.

It was a pleasant smell—it brought to mind her mother in the morning, cooking breakfast in her nightgown, the sun shining in through the shades to bathe the room in warmth. It brought back happy memories.

She turned around, tossing up an arm to cover her eyes. What a delicious sleep she had… no lingering awakeness, just pure relief and sweet slumber. There was a faint impression that she might have had a bad dream, but it was already fading away into the corners of her mind. She even felt fantastic, her limbs stretching deliciously as she rolled onto her side.

Her neck did ache, though…and there was a pulled muscle in her ankle.

The room wavered before her eyes, then focused in razor sharp detail.

Red and gold.

Her body erupted before her mind did. She lurched backward, against the headboard, adrenaline pulsing through her veins as she looked fearfully around the room.

The door swung open.

Before her terrified gaze, a figure stepped forward, a placid expression on his face and white apron tied around his waist.

“I see you’re awake. Breakfast?”

She stared at him for a moment before she leaped off the bed.

Or tried to—halfway through her jump, crippling pain shot through her leg. Instead of landing on the ground and making her way to the exit like she intended, she collapsed on the floor.

Or would have, if Borghese hadn’t darted forward and caught her in his arms. He tsk tsked, his tongue neatly clicking off the roof of his mouth. “Pazienza, you should not try to move in your condition—you need to rest and heal. After all, the operation was a grueling one.”

Her horrified eyes traveled past her shoulder, to her ankles, as she stood on the tips of her toes while he hoisted her high to meet his tall height.

The back of her right ankle was red and inflamed, a thin line curving from one end to the other, held together by tight black stitching.

He murmured into her ear, voice reverberating against her hair. “Sadly, I have no medical experience—besides what I can give in the field, of course. So I invited a good friend, a doctor, over. And now…well. I knew you would try and escape as soon as you could. You’re a strong-minded woman that way. And don’t get me wrong—I like that. But I can’t have you fleeing out the front door whenever I turn my head.”

He was supporting her in his arms, his face pressed against her hair, and he gently led her—making sure to keep her weight off her wounded ankle—into the kitchen.

It was impressive, his kitchen. Decorated lavishly yet tastefully with bouquets of flowers on the wall and stainless steel kitchentops. Borghese deposited her gently in a chair as he moved back to his saucepans. His apron, tied tightly his waist, shifted as he moved from stovetop to stovetop. The sun shone onto his golden curls.

The table was vast—able to seat twenty at least. Polished wood, with a neat set of silverware for her seat. She heard the distant jingle of silverware.

A plate full of steamed eggs slid onto her plate—delicately placed there by a steel spatula.

“It has prosciutto and parmesan cheese in it,” he informed her kindly. “It was one of the first dishes I learned to make when I moved to America.”

It smelled delicious.

She braced her foot on the ground. More pain shot through her lower leg. “What have you done to me?” she said, her voice trembling.

“Just a simple rupturing of the Achilles tendon. Be assured, it will heal in a few months. But until then, you should avoid putting any weight on the injured foot, for fear that you tear it further.”

Trapped.

She took the fork, stabbing it into the mound of eggs. She brought the first forkful to her mouth, and it really was delicious, the taste racing along her tastebuds. Warm and blossoming.

By that time Borghese had taken his seat opposite her. He neatly cut into his omelette with his knife and fork, looking elegant and neat in his waistcoat.

“You’re a good cook,” she observed unconsciously as she brought another forkful to her mouth.

He chuckled. “I am a bachelor, after all. I have had to learn to cook for myself. A man’s palate can not be satisfied by simple foods, so I had to learn.”

A bachelor? Somehow, she was unconvinced. A man like him had to have a girlfriend—or several. “Shouldn’t you at least have a maid or a butler to clean and cook?”

“I would prefer not to give my privacy away to anybody who might use it against me. It is hard to truly trust a person, unless they are of course a close relative.”

The clink of silverware sounded through the enormous room.

“People will come looking for me,” Patience said.

He smiled, not averting his gaze from his food. “No, they won’t.”

“I’ll be reported missing. Police will come. My friends—“

“Your missing persons report will never be filed,” he replied delicately. “Concerned neighbors will report it to the police department, but they will take one look at the report and discard it.”

She stopped eating, staring at her trembling fork.

“You really do not know how deeply entrenched we are, do you? Every politician—every company boss, every public works head, everything from the outside façade to the deeply rooted workers of the underground—we control it all.

“Every movement a politician makes—every law they sign, is not able to pass without our oversight. Every criminal investigation cannot go forward without our say-so. All the police in Garland City are our eyes and ears. We do not just exist in Garland City—we rule it.”

Her fork clanked onto the plate.

“You’re lying,” she said, her voice rising.

“Eat up! You are so thin. Dolcezza, I would prefer some meat on your body. Your waist is so skinny and your breasts are so small.”

“You are lying,” she hissed, fists clenched on the table. She would have stood, but her ankle protested for the pain. “You can’t have the entire city under your thumb. There are too many people… individuals. Journalists, police who don’t agree with you, who know what you’re doing. They’ll rebel against you sooner or later!”

He laughed, his rich, delighted voice echoing around the huge room.

“But what can they do? I am in every newspaper room in Garland City. And if not me, then old man Bianconi, or Mallozzi. Don’t you understand, dolcezza?”

She saw red, her hands trembling with anger.

He kept speaking. “We are Garland City. We have infiltrated your institutions to such a degree that we can have anyone silenced. A rogue journalist who speaks up, a police officer that starts an investigation of his own—we can stifle it in a day. They will turn up on the banks of the Garland City river, drowned without an explanation, or deep in our body grounds.”

He set down his silverware. “There is nothing you can do, Patience. Nothing. No one cares about you. Your friends—how many you have, probably not very many—can not do anything without an official inquiry, and from the inquiry we will know who they are. And from there, death will visit them.”

Oh god. Michael. What had she done? She had no idea—no idea that the mafia’s influence extended that far—

Borghese leaned across the table, breath caressing her ear. His soft, musical voice echoed in her ear. Delicately caressing every syllable.

“You had better get used to your place in my house, Patience, because you will be spending all your time here. Learn to please me, because that is the only thing keeping you alive.”

As a finish, he cut into his egg again, and the sharp sound of metal on porcelain made her jump.

“Finish your food, Patience. Sei magra.”

***

He fucked her again that morning.

His cock cleaved between her soft petals, harshly thrusting between her quivering thighs in the morning sunlight. In the hall, between his living room and her bedroom, he took her viciously.

Patience writhed against the bright wallpaper, rejecting the soft kisses he pressed against her neck. Low moans erupted from her throat.

She was pressed against the wall—her legs spread and propped up on his slender waist, which despite its slightness, was as hard as a rock. He held her effortlessly, biceps tightening under her thighs as he thrust into her.

The sun streamed in behind the curtained windows.

Patience was held in an uncomfortable position, back braced against the wall and lower body curved to fit against Borghese’s body. The position forced his cock deeper than it should have been, so deep she felt the swollen head nudge against her cervix with every thrust he took. The sharp pain made her eyes water.

She could feel Leonardo’s breaths come in fast, chest thudding with adrenaline and pleasure even as he kept his voice silent. A man could not deny his arousal, not even Leonardo Borghese, who prided himself on his composure. His climax escaped his lips in a low moan.

Her back arched in pleasure as he ejaculated into her thin body, the stream of white liquid hitting the opening of her womb. She tilted her head back, her body spasming in unconscious relief as his thumb pressed against her clit, sending a final wave of ecstasy through her body. Her head swam and her mouth gaped, to be sealed onto his in a passionate kiss.

Borghese’s pulsing length withdrew an inch, still seated in her. His swollen head was still surrounded by her twitching walls, which were unconsciously milking the last drop from it.

She gasped against his mouth, letting his tongue curl against hers. His waist gave another thrust, then relaxed.

Patience slumped against him, head lolling into his shoulder. He chuckled deeply, chest vibrating against her.

“Non si può resistere, Pazienza?”

She could barely muster up an answer, her messy hair shielding her face as she pressed her face into his shoulder. The smell of finely-cut linen lingered in her nose for far longer than it should have.

He slowly let her legs down until they rested on the richly woven rug. Lukewarm semen streamed down her legs, a disgusting feeling.

Pain shot through her leg, and she was forced to lean on him heavily as he led her down the hall, looking none with worse for wear, his hair simply a little ruffled and the top two buttons of his shirt undone.

“Don’t put pressure on your leg, remember,” he said kindly. “Too much and you could snap your tendon, and never walk again."

Wouldn’t you like that, you bastard, she thought bitterly.

The room was richly furnished—a four-poster bed with silk sheets crumpled at the floor, bedstand with a lamp, a bookcase and a cozy red velvet armchair, and what looked like an attaching bathroom.

The sudden ring of a doorbell sounded through the house.

Borghese gently pushed Patience down on the bed. Her world revolved, and then she was scrambling back against the headboard, hugging herself and glaring fiercely at him.

If he did notice, he did not seem to care, because he was straightening himself in the wall mirror, buttoning his shirt and smoothing his hair back.

“I will have to excuse myself for a moment. It appears Giuseppe and Stefano have arrived.”

“Going to leave me all alone in your room?” she bit back acidly. “Who knows what trouble I could get up to.”

“On the contrary, Pazienza. This is not my room. Maybe one day you can share my bedroom, but not until I can safely trust you.”

Like that’ll ever happen.

Patience waited until his steps faded down the hall before she hopped out of bed. She rushed over to the double windows at the end of her room and pulled back the golden curtains.

She saw a massive courtyard stretching before her eyes, ending in stone walls that shielded everything but the tops of the trees. A black car was parked outside of the gates, and she saw some men standing by the wall, leaning against it and smoking cigarettes.

Guards? Sentries? Patience couldn’t be sure. She closed the curtains. The gate was guarded. Her leg was crippled. Although every muscle in her body screamed at her to escape, she forced herself to remain calm—Private Investigator, Private Investigator. One of the first things she learned in Criminal Justice school was to keep a cool head.

She ran over her options in her head. She would have to arrange her escape artfully. Stake out exits. Until then…

She crumpled onto the ground, the heels of her hands pressed against her eyes. One breath. Two breaths.

Keep your composure. She was an obscure detective with few to no friends and not a penny to her name, trapped in the mansion of an immensely wealthy, powerful and cold-hearted mafia boss who could kill her at any minute.

But…

She was in his fortress—inside his most private domain, as he himself had admitted to her just that morning.

It occurred to her that she was being given an opportunity most FBI agents would dream of, served up to her on a silver platter.

***

Think of the court case, she told herself. When she got out of here, this would be huge.

Borghese’s mansion was huge, vast, but strangely tasteful. It was decorated in the Renaissance style, with marble statues at the ends of the halls and large classical paintings lining the walls. Every now and then large, blown-up photographs would interrupt the paintings, of bare rural landscapes or rich, ancient cities.

She crept down the hall, one hand braced down the wall, looking for his workroom—or failing that, his bedroom.

All of the doors were unlocked—and most of them led to lavishly decorated sitting rooms, closets.

An enormous polished wood staircase loomed in front of her. The first step made her ankle strain, the second made it burn with pain, so she was forced to leave it and continue exploring the first floor. When her heel healed some she would climb the stairs, but she wanted to let her body rest some and recuperate before she tried anything drastic.

The dining room…an enormous empty room with a chandelier that looked like a ballroom, with terraces on a second floor overlooking the room—how rich was this guy? His house was bigger than her university. She knew mafia dons were loaded, but this was another level…his net worth must have been through the roof.

And most of it coming from prostitution, gambling, and extortion, she thought bitterly. Borghese sat upon a bloody fortune, made from the tears and despair of a thousand innocent men and women.

The kitchen, enormous and white as snow, yet somehow cozy with the brick oven at one end. Her ankle was beginning to pang a bit. At her wit’s end, she tried a door and came into a familiar room.

It was a library. The leather seat was by the window. The seat where he had forced her to suck him off. Her throat burned with the memory of humiliation and bitter semen.

The young brown-haired woman looked down the rows and rows of bookcases, all lined with embossed books. Curious, she pulled one off the shelf and found it written in Italian. The next one proved to be written in Italian as well. She abandoned the bookshelves and continued down the aisles.

At the very end, shadowed by drawn curtains, was what looked like a large desk, clean and polished, but very bare. Like Borghese himself. Like his body dumping grounds. Never any evidence left behind, not a dab or a fingerprint. She crept up to it and tried the drawer.

It was locked. The only reason a man living alone would lock his drawer was if there was something very important in there.

Patience twisted a piece of metal wire off the lamp and bent it with her teeth to make a makeshift lockpick. Private Investigation 101—know how to escape bonds and pick locks. If you are ever in a compromising situation, those skills will come in handy.

Patience went on her knees and slid the wire into the lock. Sweat dripped down her forehead as she rotated it, jiggling slightly. She tried to keep her arm steady, but it was hard with the anticipation of Borghese stepping in at any moment. She forced her muscles to relax and slid the makeshift lockpick further.

The distant echoes of footsteps began to sound somewhere in the mansion. Evidently, Borghese had finished whatever work he intended to do.

The steps were coming closer. “Pazienza?” she heard his voice echo from far away. “Pazienza, dove sei?”

She crawled forward until she reached the bookcases and leveraged herself up. Her ankle trembled, but she kept her balance, and while gripping the book shelves, began to move along the bookcases.

The distant clack of leather shoes was coming closer and closer. The small brunette yanked a book off the bookshelf and threw herself on an armchair just as the door creaked open.

She kept her face focused on the book as he stepped forward and caught sight of her.

“So here’s where you were hiding, Pazienza. I trust you were enjoying my collection?”

Patience didn’t look up at him, just kept her jaw shut and eyes staring ahead at the mass of undecipherable words.

Borghese placed a finger on the inside spine of the book and tilted it toward him. “I would suggest you find another book to read, then. Not only is this written in Italian, you are also reading it upside down.”

Her mind coming back into focus, she slammed the book shut. Borghese’s laugh reverberated around the room.

“One would almost think I had interrupted you, and you grabbed a book to make it look as if you are busy.” She saw, out of the corner of her eye, his hand grip the armrest.

Her brain momentarily panicked, but then she ground out, “It’s not my fault I don’t know how to read your fucking language!”

“Please cease your swearing, Patience. It’s unbecoming of a woman.”

She heard a creak as he sat down on the sofa opposite her. When she looked up, he was staring at her, hands folded on his lap.

The warm bright sunlight played off the snow-white tips of his hair, darkening to deep gold the more it traveled down his head. His eyes were dark as a panel of stained glass.

They focused on hers with a placid sort of contentment, but she could not see what lurked behind them, and that scared her. His mouth was an impassive line.

“What do you want?” she burst out

“I enjoy looking at beautiful women. Is that a crime?”

“It is when the woman in question is being kept here against her will!”

Borghese smiled indulgently. Her furious outburst did not seem to rouse any strained feelings inside him. He continued staring at her, his face a gentle painting of satisfaction.

Patience focused on the book, turned right side up. She could not distinguish any of the words, but she kept her eyes trained on the page.

Sun streamed in through the opened curtains.

The young woman could feel his gaze on her, oppressive yet light, like a worker in the street noticing an attractive woman walking by.

Her teeth gritted as she studied the book. Quando vidi costui nel vasto deserto. She had no idea what the words meant, but she internalized it, trying to keep her focus off the man opposite her.

***

“Pazienza, we shall be having dinner soon. I would be grateful if you would help me in the kitchen.”

He said it so offhandedly, so casually, that it caught her off guard from where she was. She was seated on a pink flower-patterned armchair, open book in her lap as she listened to the radio blare tunes from the side table. They were playing Christmas songs, despite it being only October. “Joy to the world! The Lord is come,” The radio sang, despite Patience noticing a distinct lack of the Lord’s mercy in her life.

Patience rose to her feet and followed him to the kitchen, where a pan was boiling on the stovetop. He moved to attend to it. Patience was left to look down dumbly at the blunt knife in her hand and the mound of herbs on the chopping board.

She saw her face in the dull side of the blade, wan and pale. The side of the knife shifted to reflect the back of Leonardo Borghese, who was working on the stove, sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

For a moment, an irresistible compulsion came over her, to grip the knife and grab him from behind, shoving it deep into his carotid artery. To leave him bleeding out on the floor while she fled the mansion. She could do it. She could—

“Cut them like this, Pazienza.”

He was behind her suddenly, gently gripping her hand. He chopped the leafy herbs in thin pieces, hand enclosed around her own. His warm breath washed against her ear. She could feel his body molded to her, the straight, hard abdomen pressed against her rear, the gentle rising and falling of his chest against her back. The proximity aroused a mixture of instinctual fear and arousal within her. A thrill swept through her back as he shifted against her.

“Slice them up in small pieces. Do you understand how to do it now?” Borghese said.

She managed to nod.

He withdrew from her, leaving her to shiver and clumsily cut up the rest of the herbs. Against her will, her mind kept drifting back to the way he had pressed her up against the counter, strong arms guiding hers, her entire body pressed trembling against his sleek, strong frame.

“What are you making?” Patience asked, her tongue sluggish.

“Carciofi alla Romana. It’s a native dish from my birthplace. Have you had it before?”

The pot boiled, small bubbles rising the top. He took the chopping board from her and brushed the herbs into the artichokes.

“Never,” she said. “I can’t make fancy stuff like that. I had too much work to do as a private investigator to spend my time pittering away in front of a stove.”

”What did you eat, then?

“Scrambled eggs and tuna fish sandwiches, mostly.”

He gave a sharp laugh. “Quite a pity. One of the great joys of the world is to taste the delicacy of fine dishes.”

“Well, sorry. Not all of us have the time and money for that.” Her tone was injured, perhaps a little defensive, and Borghese's expression shifted to one of remorse—or pity. It was always so fucking hard to tell what that bastard was thinking. He could either be feeling sorry for her, or disdaining her, or contemplating whether to slit her throat and let her bleed all over the chopping board.

“Put some salt in the boiling water, will you?”

She took a pinch and sprinkled it in, still keeping an eye on his back. He had gone back to cleaning the artichokes. “Do you like artichokes?” he said.

“My mother made artichoke casserole once. I hated it.”

“Artichokes don’t tend to taste well in casseroles. Small wonder you didn’t like it.”

He finished stuffing the artichokes and placed them side by side on the pan, the vegetable’s skin sizzling as it came into contact with the hot pan.

A tousled blond curl fell over his cheek as he shifted the artichokes with a spatula. She could feel him watching her out of the corner of his eye, analyzing every body movement as sharply as a snake. When he spoke, he jolted her.

“Will you set the table, Pazienza?”

***

The dining room was dark. Only a few candles lit the wooden table, flickering off the polished wood. She had no idea why he was at one end of the table, and she was at the other. Perhaps some psychological intimidation maneuver. If it was, it was working. She felt a pit of coldness in her body as she eyed him over the table—far away, yet his subdued presence putting her on edge.

The artichokes tasted nice. Much as she loathed to admit it, Leonardo Borghese was a good cook. She tried to focus on the meal—taking frequent sips of the white wine at her side.

The candles flickered off the photographs on the walls, caressing the edges of the stark blacks and whites. “You have a lot of photographs on your walls,” she said. “Do you take them yourself?”

He looked up. “Yes, I do. I have always fancied myself an amateur photographer. If I had not pursued the path I took, that is probably what I would have wished to be.”

“You mean, instead of a homicidal mob boss? I wish you had been a photographer too.”

He smiled, returning to his dish. “I feel as if I should mention to you that we will having a guest over tomorrow.”

“Oh? Who?”

“Someone you are acquainted with.”

The candlelight shone off the planes of his face as he looked up, playful smile still toying at the corner of his mouth. She gritted her teeth, not willing to play his game. Who was it? Stefano Rizzo? Michael? Had he found out about Michael?

The artichokes tasted suddenly like ash in her mouth.

***

That night, he fisted a bunch of her locks in his hand and whispered into her ear how beautiful her hair was.

He was brutal, but methodical in his lovemaking methods. Sometimes she thought he was trying to teach her a lesson, in the way he angled his hips and crushed her clit and made her scream.

She never thought she would forget the sight of him, well-groomed and elegant in his black suit with a red rose tucked into his breast pocket. Long fingers smoothing the tablecloth. His aquiline nose lifting as he tiled his head to watch her eat. Eyes sparking with every flicker, like a dark creature in the depths scared away by the sudden burst of light.

When he led her room, she was pinned underneath him immediately. Legs spread. Back arched as her head tilted defiantly towards the ceiling.

Her bedroom never seemed so bare, as much as when he was brutally raping her into the delicate bedsheets.

Her pleasure obscured her sight, oh how he good he was, but her apprehensive brain forced her to keep quiet, her moonlit lips trembling with every thrust.

Borghese's broad shoulders thrust forward as he forced himself within her. Ti piace questa, Pazienza?

Her thighs trembled with the aftershock of her orgasm. Her neck arched. Her legs were wrapped around his pale waist, unwillingly, but unable to resist to the fiery pleasure he provided to her.

I'm such a fucking whore.

Patience thought that to herself when she bent down to suck the thin film of mucus off his cock, Borghese’s hand fisted in her hair.

When she was done, she was on her back again, letting her warm thighs meld to his own as he sunk into her once more. It’s a trip. Like her more lowbrow clients told her. It was better than heroin or cocaine.

It was nothing more than a pure shot of ecstasy straight into her body. A calculated move to let her gain his trust.

Or so she told herself, as she arched her neck backwards, teeth gritting in misery as he thrust himself deepest into her body.

***

When he left that night, she stayed awake, rocking herself back and forth and keeping her sleepless eyes on the locked door. Her insomnia was a demon in her head, keeping her awake for fear he would return, and when she finally dropped off to sleep, the first vestiges of daylight had begun to seep in the window.

When she awoke the next day it was deep into evening. The sky beyond her window was darkening. She sat up, rubbing her eyes.

The distant sound of footsteps coming to her door put her on guard.

“Awake now, Pazienza?” Borghese leaned against the doorframe, a silky piece of fabric draped across his arm. She noticed he was dressed rather nicely, in a dinner jacket and bow tie, his hair combed back.

He tossed the piece of fabric to her. “Put this on. Our guest should be arriving shortly. I expect you to behave yourself.”

As the door closed behind him, she unfolded it. It was a wine-colored, backless dress, that molded to her curves in a disquietingly showy way. She gave her hair a quick brush and walked out into the empty hall.

It was dark and quiet in the mansion. Distantly, she heard the rumble of thunder, echoing through the empty hallways.

Borghese was waiting by the front room, the marble one with all the flowers. He was periodically checking his watch. When he caught sight of her, he tilted his head and arched his eyebrows in appreciation, eyes running down her body. “You look absolutely ravishing, mia mignotta. I’m afraid it will be a sore battle not to throw you down on the table and make love to you while we have dinner.”

She ignored the rest of his sentence. “What does that mean? Mee-a meen-yot-ta?”

For some reason he laughed, but it was a derisive sort of laugh, one that made indignant prickles erupt over her body. “It just means my dear. Nothing more, nothing less.”

The doorbell rung. She chewed the inside of her cheek, sudden fear beginning to stick to her insides. What if it was Michael? What if a bunch of men in suits hustled in, dragging a bleeding and bruised Mike? What would Borghese do to him then? Would he—

Borghese opened the door. “Ah, Charlie. Hour on the dot, as always.”

“You know me, Leo. I prefer to be punctual—in my professional life as well as my casual one.”

Patience’s jaw nearly dropped. In the doorway, well-groomed and sleek in a formal tuxedo, his gray hair swept across his brow, was one Charles Sawyer, Attorney.

He and Borghese embraced, kissed, then broke apart. Sawyer’s keen eyes swept across the room, and as he saw her, the smug grin on his face melted off like piss on snow.

“Oh…Miss Winslow. I see, Leo, you…”

“This is Patience,” Borghese introduced her, a smile on his face. He gripped her elbow and pulled her toward him. “I believe you have met her before. She is... staying with me for the time being.”

He bestowed a kiss chastely above her ear. “I adore her. If you would extend her the same courtesy, I would be thankful.”

She wrenched herself away from his grip, face burning. Sawyer watched their interaction, eyes narrowed in interest.

“Well,” he said, smile back. “Allow me, then.” He took Patience’s arm in his, and began to escort her down the hallway.

“What dinner have you prepared tonight?” he asked. “You know I am most susceptible to your spaghetti bolognese, Leo. I do hope it’s on the menu.”

“No such luck, I’m afraid. I’m making risotto alla zucca. You are fond of pumpkin, so it will work out.”

Sawyer’s arm was tight on her own. He smelled of ink and leather, oiled tires and courtrooms. Bitter instead of sweet, like Borghese.

The dining room was set with three spaces, pale porcelain plates and red napkins folded on the side. Borghese guided them to their seats. “The dinner is almost ready. I will be back shortly.”

When he departed, the door had barely closed before Patience was by Sawyer’s side, clutching his arm. “Mister Sawyer, please help me, he has me captive,” she said in a rush.

He moved his arm minutely, trying to free his arm from her grip. “Miss Winslow, please calm down—“

“I’m being kept here against my will, I’ve been kidnapped,” she said, her voice coming out in a plaintive sob, “Please, you have to get me out of here!” Her fingers dug into his tailored suit, crumpling the rich cloth.

“Miss Winslow,” he said. His face was pained. His hand firmly forced hers away from him. “I’m afraid that I can’t help you.”

“Please, please, I’m going to die here,” she wept, mucus clotting in her nose. "You have to help me. You’re a lawyer.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, neatly unfolding his napkin and laying it across his lap. “Off duty, I have no obligation to help you. My law career ends at my clients.”

She stood where she was, shoulders trembling as she stared at him. “You can’t do this,” she sobbed. “You’re a lawyer. Borghese is breaking the law. I’m being held captive illegally. You have to help me. You have to—“

“Miss Winslow,” he said, in a long-suffering way. “I cannot help you. I have no legal obligation to.”

She stared at him in disbelief.

“I am not just a lawyer. I am a part of Leo’s… family.”

“What?” Patience said. Sawyer was not Italian. From what she had gleaned, he could never be a part of the Borghese family.

“I am Leonardo Borghese’s—advisor. I am his family, but not officially. I… know what he wants, and I know how to get it. And I know what he has to avoid to get the thing he wants.”

His voice became smoother as he spoke to her, his arms folded over the table.

“When he has a disagreement with the other families, or he has a dilemma with his men, or there is a power struggle—I am his counsel. His...consigliere.

Consigliere. She unconciously filed the term away in her mind.

Borghese entered the room, a platter of fine rice and rosemary between his hnds.

“Please, eat up, you two. I’ve spent all evening making it.”

He served them.

Patience stared down at her mushed meal. Orange and white. Thanksgiving. Turkey and sweet potatoes.

Borghese took his seat between them. “How have your cases been, Charlie?” he asked.

“So many injury lawsuits,” Sawyer said, disgruntled. “Christ, one would think I’m nothing but a Miami ambulance-chaser by how many of them land on my desk.”

“One has to decide between their reputation and the monetary value gained sometimes. Otherwise we would be no better than the Di Scarpettas, wouldn’t we?”

That made Sawyer chuckle. “Salvatore’s disregard for our rules shocks me sometimes. He has no idea how to properly behave in a civilized organization like ours, does he?”

Disdain laced Borghese’s voice. “His family were inbred pig farmers when Augustus ruled Rome, and they were inbred pig farmers when they got on the boat to Garland City.”

There was an ear-piercing shattering of porcelain as a plate was hurled at the wall. Orange rice splattered on the expensive rug.

Sawyer sat crouched in his chair, mouth gaping, only having barely avoided the thrown plate.

“ARE WE JUST GOING TO PRETEND LIKE THIS ISN’T FUCKING HAPPENING?” Patience screamed, on her feet. Her hands were clenched on the table, chest heaving with each breath. Her eyes were watering, shoulders shaking in disbelief at the utter callousness of the two besuited men in front of her.

“Are we just going to make small talk and pretend like I’m not being kept here against my will? Are you just going to smile and ignore the fact you’re dining with a kidnap victim?!”

The echoes of her outbursts faded into the corners of the mansion.

What replaced them was an oppressive silence.

Sawyer slowly sat up, shoulders still hunched in defense. He was still gaping slightly. His face was pale, but when his eyes flicked to Borghese’s, it went even paler.

The blond man was standing perfectly still, cutlery placed at his elbows. His head was still tilted towards Sawyer, loose locks of hair shielding his eyes.

“I told you to behave, Patience.”

His words made her legs turn to ice.

In one movement he stood up, gripped her arm and pulled her forward. Silver flashed in the light.

The blunt edge of a butter knife tore through skin and tendon.

Patience screamed. The pain burst through her brain, pierced her eyelids, and dug its thorns into her throat, where she screamed herself hoarse. Nerve tendons snapped and frayed as the blunt tip forced itself between the skeleton of her fingers.

Blood pooled on the table, below her pale, curling fingers. The silver utensil lodged deep in the solid wood, pinning her trembling hand to the table.

“Which cases have you found particularly vexing, Charlie?” said Borghese pleasantly.

***

That night, Borghese gouged the wound in the center of her hand and sucked his bloody finger as she lay prone below him. The bloodied digit disappeared into his mouth and came out streaked with saliva and glistening scarlet, which he slowly crawled up her trembling leg.

She stared past his shoulder as his finger, wet with blood and saliva, penetrated her, curving deep inside her.

“Does that feel good, Pazienza?”

He spoke what she was rapidly coming to realize was her pet name, but without any of the gentleness of fondness that usually marked the word. His thumb rubbed her clit as his other damp digit thrust inside of her, raking out strings of her wet arousal in addition to the bodily fluids already there.

“I hope you will not embarrass me again while I have company. I put a lot of faith into you, that you would behave yourself, and now I find it unfounded. I want the appearance of faithful love to surround us. Can you do that for me, Pazienza?”

His finger dug sharply into the wall of her vagina, denting the softness and digging deep into her bloodshot flesh with the edge of his perfectly manicured fingernail.

Pain shooting through her body, Patience looked ahead and gritted her teeth, eyes watering. With another warning scrape inside of her, she forced herself to nod, against every nerve in her body screaming at her to say no. 

“Very good. Please lie down now.” His voice took on the gentle timbre she was used to. Patience forced herself to obey, afraid of the further tortures he would inflict on her body if she refused. Borghese began pressing gentle kisses against her pulsing neck, and she squeezed her eyes shut.

That night he slept with her, his arm wrapped tightly around her from behind. She could feel every deep breath he took against her back, the gentle tickle of his breath against the top of her head. Her hand throbbed whenever she moved her fingers.

Staring ahead into the darkness of the room, only one thought ran through Patience’s mind.

I have to get out of here.

 

Chapter Text

 

The next week, she was on edge.

Patience Winslow and Leonardo Borghese had settled into an uneasy domesticity. She was quiet and sullen, but unargumentive, whenever she was in his company. Whenever he ghosted his hands over her shoulders, around her waist, she stared ahead fixedly, trying to ignore his flirtations. That proved to be less often than she imagined.

He was a busy man.

Careful yet sparing with his work. Phone calls and car trips and entire wings of the mansion locked from her view. He spoke to her when she asked and gave no details—a friend is not paying his dues. A friend deserves something. So intensely fascinating, but held just above her fingertips. 

She bided her time, trying not to seem intrusive, waiting each day for her heel to allow her to put more weight on it, and for her hand to stop hurting whenever she flexed her fingers.

Her one breaking point came on a cold autumn day, when the red and orange leaves on the trees were beginning to dust the ground.

She was in the sunroom. A dining table was laid out in the white sunlight. She had wandered in, looking for clues or evidence. Every time he left her presence, Patience prowled the hall, looking for secrets. She had tried in vain to unlock the lock on his desk, and ruined several makeshift lockpicks this way. Quite a complicated lock. There was definitely something important in there.

Another paneled wooden door she found, she was certain led to the cellar. The rusty bloodstains on the doorknob and the foul stench arising from the slats made her sure.

But when she entered the sunroom, she was quite surprised to find the remnants of a breakfast lying there, as well as a newspaper.

She picked up the newspaper and studied it briefly, her eyes wandering around the table, looking for more clues. She stopped short when she recognized a name in the newspaper, and her horrified eyes fixed on the black and white print.

***

The door burst open to the sitting room.

Leonardo Borghese stood by a polished bookcase, hand in his pocket. His other held a phone to his head.

“What the fuck did you do?” Patience shrilled at him, thrusting the newspaper in his face. “Answer me!”

“Talk to you later, Charlie,” Borghese said into the phone, nonplussed. Then he set the receiver down.

“I know you did it,” Patience said, voice trembling. “I know…you bastards…”

The crumpled headline, held between her shaking fingers, read SENATOR NIZZOLA COMMITS SUICIDE IN SHOCKING END TO CONGRESS RACE .

His dark blue eyes flicked impassively to the headline. “Ah, I heard. Such a shame.”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Borghese. You people killed him and we both know it. And you had the guts…the guts…to make it look like a suicide. He had no reason to kill himself!”

“You must be sore,” he said, folding the newspaper and sliding it onto the table. “I know how hard you tried to be the hero, that night at the hotel. But… nobody can hide from cosa nostra. Nobody.”

Patience stared down at the black-and-white picture of Nizzola—his face casual and grinning, hand holding his hat on his balding head. Fury swam in front of her eyes. Her only powerful ally… the man who had pledged to take down the mob… had been killed by them in the end. Killed himself in his empty home, motive unknown but suspected to be misery over his wife's divorce.

“I assure you, his death would have come sooner or later. A man like that cannot be allowed to live while being such a thorn in our side.”

“Is that supposed to comfort me?” she was at her wit’s end—half a hair from attacking him where he stood, well-groomed and utterly apathetic. “Did you do it yourself or did you get one of your wiseguys to do it? Did you look him in the eye as you pulled the trigger? Did you?”

“Patience, I have an important phone call to make. If you wish to lambaste me, do it when I have more free time.” He turned back to the phone.

Patience slammed the door as she left the room. Trembling with anger, she flung herself against the nearest wall and slammed her head into it, fury and helplessness wracking her body. Everything she had worked for was slipping away. Her path to the inside, the one righteous man surrounded by paid politicians, was dead and gone.

And if he was dead…what about Michael? Did they know about him? Had they gotten him too?

She opened her eyes, fingernails digging into the wall. Her hand was throbbing where she had smacked it against the wall. As she saw, a spot of blood seeped through the bandages.

All her efforts were falling apart. Away from the cosseted bird cage Borghese kept her in, the world was moving on, and her time was ever growing short to bring the mafia to justice.

She needed to escape. But what could she do? She could hardly walk from the end of the library to the other. What about escaping the grounds, into the forest, and through the city?

Patience needed a plan. An opportunity, any opportunity.

***

It was cold that day.

From the white windows, she could see snowfall start to gently fall. The pool of light outside the window illuminated the specks of white swirling in the darkness.

That was how she felt, too. Gradually becoming colder on the inside. Every day she had to make eye contact with Borghese, every day she was forced to feel his lips on her neck or his warm body lying beside her.

Patience stared out the window, her fingernails toying with each other.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

She ignored his question, her fork idly playing with her plate of spinach and risotto.

The memory, which she would have refused to tell Borghese, was of her and her mother sledding with each other in her old hometown. Down the hill they went, screaming and laughing. When they crashed in a heap in the snow, Mommy had popped up laughing, nose as red as a cherry.

The phone rang from the adjoining room, the one that was always locked. Borghese stood up and strode out of the room, more urgently than usual. She spared him a glance before taking another bite of dinner.

Soon after, he walked out and headed for the hall to the front door, his posture straight and his face schooled in an expression of vague exasperation.

As his footsteps echoed down the hall, Patience’s eyes traveled to the open door, leading to the sitting room with the phone.

Patience was out of her seat in a moment. Her heart thumped in her chest, hot and fast in the chilliness of the room.

She reached the receiver, hanging off its cord emitting a dull dial tone. She grabbed it and typed a number with trembling fingers.

It rung. It rung, once, twice. Was he there? Had he stepped out, or was he working late at the newsroom?

Or was he dead? Was she calling an empty house while its owner rotted in a body dumping ground?

The phone clicked. “Hello?” said a harried voice.

For a moment she couldn’t speak. The paralyzing relief swept down her body, down to her trembling legs. The only thing that escaped her throat was a heavy sob.

He was silent for a moment. “…Who is this?”

“Michael. You’re…you’re okay.”

Patience could barely speak. The agonizing fear that had haunted her mind for weeks had been washed away in a sweep of gratefulness.

She could see him in her mind’s eye, his hair messy and beautiful gray eyes worried and his arms shaking, braced on the table as he finally, finally heard her voice.

His voice wavered over, shaking and stuttering in disbelief. “Patience. Oh my god. Oh my god. You’re alive.”

Her next words came out in a sob. “M-Michael. Mike. I was so worried. I thought you were dead. I was so certain he killed you.”

“I’m fine. I’ve been looking for you for weeks. I’ve been staying up late for nights and nights. Jesus Christ, I was about to give up!. Are you okay? Tell me you’re okay.”

“I’m not okay,” she wept, collapsing against the table, legs giving out. “He’s…he’s doing things to me, Mike. Borghese’s….Borghese’s torturing me. He’s forcing me to live with him. He raped me, Mike! He raped me!”

Her tearful admission drew silence from the other end. As her words caught up to her, her body was wracked with sudden, crippling shame. She had said it. The thing he had forced on her. She had said it.

For a moment she wondered whether the phone had been cut out, before his silently horrified voice slowly crackled through the speaker.

“Oh, Patience.”

He sounded on the edge of tears, like the gleaming tears that streamed down her face in the lamplight.

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” His voice burst out, helpless and despairing. “Patience, I’m sorry!”

“Don’t—“

“If I had gone to the laundry with you —if I had woken up in time—I could have helped you—“

“Mike—“

“I could have protected you. All these days, while I thought you were dead! All the nights I stayed awake and saw you in my dreams. While all this was happening to you! Every day I thought of you when I went to the newsroom. I could have stopped everything. Oh Patience. I’m so sorry.”

Michael was in a spiel, his hatred of himself and miserable worry of her churning in his throat. Patience swallowed, tears and sweat dripping down her face. “It’s okay. Mike, it’s okay. I promise.”

“No, it isn’t. Patience, you…you’ve been hurt so much. So much. And you’ve been so alone.”

As she gripped the desk, the lamp shone off Patience’s white knuckles . Her head pressed against the polished wood surface. The girl’s brown hair trickled past the edge of the table, streaming past her shoulders.

“Patience, I love you.”

His last words faded into the silence of the room.

Tears dripped from her light green eyes, squeezed shut as her shoulders shook under the weight of her sobs.

“… Michael. You have to get me out of here.”

"Tell me where you are. Tell me where—“

His voice cut out, to be replaced by the dull hum of dial tone. Her eyes flew open, irises trembling, staring at the mahogany wall.

She slowly moved her gaze downwards, where a long, pale finger pressed against the button of the phone.

“Naughty, naughty girl. Using the phone while I step out of the room.” His voice was soft as a cobweb brushing her ear.

“Tell me…who is Michael?”

***

His voice burst out flatly livid, so uncharacteristic she whirled around. His face was unchanged as he loomed over her, but his eyes were as hard as steel, as frozen as the surface of a lake.

“Who is this person to you?” his voice was not its familiar congenial tone, but black, livid, like a thread about to snap. “Who is Michael? Is he your lover?”

She stared at him mutely, receiver still clenched in her trembling hand. He leaned forward, and her back pressed into the edge of the table.

He kept moving forward, and she leaned back on the table to get away from him. She scrambled back as he slid his hands onto the table, caging her in.

Fear paralyzed her throat. Fear of what he would do to her. Fear of what he would do to Michael.

“I will find him. I have contacts everywhere.” He was on top of her now, leaning over her on the table while her back pressed against the wall. So close she could see the cords of his neck, taut with repressed fury even while his face was carefully blank.

“I will find out who this Michael is, and kill him for his knowledge of me and my whereabouts. But if I have found out he has shared your bed…”

“Don’t you dare touch him!” she hissed, the words slipping out without warning.

His pupils constricted in the dim light, as small as a snake’s eye, his irises trembling even as his body was as still as glass. Her body felt as if it had turned to ice. What have I done?

“So he has shared your bed.”

His voice faded away into the room.

“When I find him, I will torture him until he begs me to end him. I will slice off his nose, his tongue, until blood streams down his face. I will cut off his fingers one at a time. I will make death a sweet relief for him.” His voice was quiet, but utterly honest, brutal, laced with hatred.

Her hands were covering her mouth, body still wracked with silent sobs. His face was an inch from hers, so close she could see his light eyelashes flicker. “Please don’t,” she whispered, heart thudding like a scared rabbit’s.

“And I was just beginning to trust you, too.” His piercing eyes focused on her with a terrifying intensity. “Enough so that I thought nothing of stepping out of the room to take care of business. You certainly fooled me with your passivity.”

His voice brushed her ear. “I think you need to be taught a lesson, don’t you?”

The blond man’s voice melted into the playful lilt she was so used to.

Borghese gently took her hand and pulled her off the table. He led her through the dining room, through a dark corridor, and up to a closed door with light shining from below it.

He ushered her in and indicated a velvet sofa. Shaking and wondering what he had in store for her, she sat down, smoothing her sundress over her knees.

The room was delicately furnished, with a glass cabinet full of amber decanters and bottles of wine, and a polished wood side table. Velvet furniture was arranged to the side, and another door was set in the opposite wall, closed tightly.

She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders as he took his seat beside her, his weight shifting the sofa.

Presently, she heard the thudding of feet outside in the hall, stopping just outside the door.

“Entra, Giuseppe,” said Borghese, pouring a glass of wine.

The door swung open, and a number of men entered, dressed in thick overcoats and broad-brimmed hats. The man at the front she recognized immediately—his hat was off, and she saw the familiar stubble on his chin, the scruffy brown hair and rough face. The man who had kidnapped her in the car. Giuseppe…Giuseppe Benevento. Automatically, her mind went back to her research. Very close to Borghese, possibly a deputy of some sort.

He was wearing a neat suit, with a scarf hung around his neck. He bowed his head to Borghese and spoke in a gravelly voice. “Don Leonardo, lo abbiamo portato.” Giuseppe’s eyes drifted to her, shivering as she was on the sofa. “È la tua comare?”

“Si,” said Borghese, thumb rubbing against the stem of his glass.

Giuseppe looked at her in suspicion, but turned to the hallway and jerked his head. Two men brought a weeping man in and threw him down to the ground. He looked roughed up in his pajamas, with his hair in disarray and bruises darkening his eyes.

Borghese swirled his wine in his glass, dark eyes focused on the red liquid. “Oh dear. It seems as if someone hasn’t been paying his protection money.”

The man sobbed. “Please, I’m sorry, Mr. Borghese, I’ll have it in just a few days, I swear—“

“Isn’t that what you said a week ago? I’m a merciful man, Mr. Hansen, but only up to a point.”

Patience stared in horror as the bruised man tried to get to his feet, only to be brutally kicked down by one of the men in the overcoats.

“I’m sorry, please don’t kill me,” he wept, and his watery gaze focused on her. Hope broke across his face. He crawled over. “Please, Miss, help me! Please tell ‘em to stop! They’re gonna kill me!”

Borghese was on his feet in an instant, and his shoe collided with his face with a crack. The man was knocked onto the ground, weeping and clutching his broken nose.

“You are making me very angry, Mr. Hansen. Not only do you ask for our protection and give us nothing in turn, but you have the gall to approach my woman and touch her with your filthy fingers.” His voice was hard. As Patience watched in horror, Borghese looked up and nodded at Giuseppe.

Borghese sat down again and took his glass as Giuseppe brought out a carving knife from his pocket. Patience stiffened, her heart lodging in her throat. A terrified sound escaped her mouth.

Giuseppe gripped the man by his hair and pulled his head back. Patience’s legs felt like water as she trembled on the sofa, the soft velvet sliding across her skin like a tongue tracing her body.

He brought the edge of the knife behind his ear.

Blood streamed down Hansen’s head as he began to slice down into his ear. The man began to scream in a high, shrill shriek of agony.

After a moment, another scream joined him. It took a moment to realize it was from her.

“Stop it, Borghese!”

She wasn’t sure whether her voice had reached the other men, but she knew it had reached him, by the way his gaze flickered to her. Barely concealed delight was in his eyes. He raised his glass to his lips as Hansen’s ear separated from his body, strands of tendons and muscle hanging down his head.

“Stop! Stop! Borghese! Please!”

Hansen wailed and screamed distantly, punctuated by sobs. His voice had lost the panic it had earlier, and was more moaning. Resigned. Disbelieving.

Giuseppe took the man’s opposite ear and began to carve into his head in quick, sawing strokes. Blood splashed onto the polished wood floors in pools of dark syrup.

“This is what your lover Michael has in store,” said Borghese to her congenially. His low voice was audible between a lull in Hansen’s sobs. “When I find him, he will be right here with you in front of him. I’m sure he will beg you for mercy. Beg for you to help him. But all you will be able to do is watch."

For a moment she thought her low whimpers had made his face break into a smile, before she realized it was the look on her face.

Hansen’s ear dangled off his head, his hair clotted with blood, eyes squeezed shut. Every stroke of the knife slid between pliable flesh, cleaving it open with pulsing blood streaming through Giuseppe’s clenched fingers.

“Borghese…I’m begging you…” she wept, tears streaming down her face. Hansen’s neck hung low, head lolling and eyes half-lidded.

“Leonardo, stop it!”

As soon as her words split the air, the mafia don held up a hand abruptly. The prone man stopped screaming, collapsing into sobs as soon as he crumpled to the ground.

Borghese’s smiling face was turned towards her

“Leonardo. I like it when you say it like that.”

He leaned forward, face in delight, eyes like the dark blue of a butterfly’s wings.

Patience took his hands as they crossed over hers. “Leonardo. Stop this, please. For me, Leonardo.”

Her voice was raw in a way she had never heard herself say before. Pleading.

He looked at her, eyes strangely alive, a slight smile etched on his face, before looking up and nodding to Benevento.

“Take him home, Giuseppe.”

The goons dragged Hansen out the door. The tortured man’s legs smeared blood in a trail on the floor.

Borghese was still as a swan, still smiling. He leaned forward and pulled her toward him until their faces were inches apart.

“You know, when I was a baby, my mother used to call me her little lion. Leonello.”

His voice was…shaking?

There was a undercurrent of instability to his voice, as if his emotions were bubbling up into his impassive mask.

“Why don’t you call me that? Call me Leonello, Patience.”

Patience’s throat was paralyzed as she stared at him, tears still wet on her cheeks.

She mutely shook her head. His fingers bit into her shoulders, sharp fingernails sinking into her skin beneath the thin linen of her sundress.

“Call me it. Call me Leonello. Call me your little lion.”

His eyes were strangely raw, bare, the blue more alive than she had ever seen them.

“Leonello,” she whispered.

He collapsed against her, pressing his face into the crook of her neck. “Again.”

"Leonello. Leonello.” Tears streamed down her face.

“Yes…” his voice was a breathy gasp as he nuzzled her neck. He clutched her towards him, arms trembling, before twisting and slamming her back against the sofa.

Patience arched her back as he pulled her sundress down. She felt his cold face press between her breasts, her warm breasts warming his skin.

His body was trembling—not focusing fully on her, just her body. “Ti amo, mamma,” he whispered breathlessly, licking the skin of her breasts, sucking the pale skin. “Ti amo, ti amo, ti amo.”

Her head pressed against the sofa arm, Patience felt the velvet brush underneath her hair as Borghese reached between her legs. His cold fingers brushed her lower lips, making them twitch with their teasing.

She reached backwards, hand groping blindly. Her hand came into contact with the solid glass bottle of wine.

“Ti amo, ti amo, ti amo!”

She swung the bottle down.

Chapter Text

The bottle exploded in a shower of wine and glass shards.

Patience felt the resistance of the bottle give way as it came into contact with Leonardo’s skull and shattered. The man was heavily knocked to the side, collapsing on the sofa.

She rolled off the sofa and began running toward the open door, the dark passageway shaking and blurring in front of her eyes. Two steps in and pain shot through her ankle, four steps and she was limping.

A blast of cold, white air hit her face as she ran out the open door. Stumbling down the marble steps, she crashed into a man in an overcoat, who had his back turned to her as he watched his men load a weeping and bleeding Hansen into the back of a van.

He turned around in shock, but she had already shoved past him and was stumbling down the steps

The cold snow on her feet was a relief. It numbed the burning hot pain in her ankle. The open gate loomed in front of her, the black spires towering into the sky.

Patience could hear shouts behind her. She was almost there—she gave a burst—almost free—

A hand closed around the back of her dress and yanked her back.

In a moment someone had their arms around her neck and waist, hoisting her against their body. She screamed, her voice penetrating the cold winter air. She kicked, lashing out wildly. “Let me GO!”

The man--Giuseppe--gave her a shake and began towing her back to the mansion. Patience saw the gates begin to get smaller with every step he took, her freedom fading fast.

“STOP! Let me GO!” she shrieked, and she saw the mobsters by the van muttering to each other, watching them.

“Bring her in.” said a voice colder than the snow. Her horrified gaze traveled up the steps, to the edges of polished saddle shoes.

Leonardo Borghese was leaning against the doorframe, hand spidered over his head. Blood dripped through his fingers. He lifted his eyes to meet hers.

His irises were blank, reflecting only the lantern outside, but there was a dark flame burning in his irises. A flame so full of hatred her body went into shock.

He had never, ever looked at her that way before.

“Take her down the hall. Put her in the guest room.”

***

Patience slammed her hands against the locked door, twisting the knob and kicking the solid wood. Frantic pants rising in her throat, she grabbed the armchair and hoisted it, throwing it ineffectually at the glass window. It crashed on the ground, knocking over a bookcase, without even denting the glass.

Patience collapsed on her knees, rocking herself back and forth as hysterical wails escaped from her throat. She was through. He was going to kill her. She was going to die.

The clocked ticked past midnight as she huddled on the bed, her eyes wide and wet as she kept them trained on the door. She was expecting him to come in any minute, gun or knife in his hand, and end her.

But she didn’t hear anything. Not a footstep or a creak.

She went to sleep eventually, as far as she could tell, because when she opened her eyes again, it was deep night, and the door was open.

The girl hoisted herself up on her elbows, staring at the dark crack and wondering whether to run, before she detected a motion on the chair beside her.

Leonardo was sitting in the armchair, perfectly still. His head was bowed. The candlelight flickered off the rich gold of his hair, like a lion’s mane as it crouched, watching its prey.

She wrapped her arms around her knees, watching him carefully. He did not move, and she was beginning to wonder if he was asleep when he spoke.

“You hurt me, Patience.”

His voice was...injured. In a strangely honest way. His tone was almost disbelieving…but why would he be disbelieving?

“Did I give you a concussion?” she asked softly.

“No. Not that kind of hurt. You hurt me.”

She blinked. He did not lift his head, or move a muscle.

“You hurt my feelings.”

In any other situation, she would be inclined to laugh in disbelief. But his voice was so despondent…it made her hesitate. It was almost remarkable, the raw hurt in his voice. As if he sincerely could not believe she had done this to him.

“Why wouldn’t I want to hurt your feelings? You’ve done so many awful things to me.”

He did not speak anymore, just sat slumping in his chair. She stared at him watchfully, wariness coloring her gaze, until he moved. As he turned his head she saw a huge, purpling bruise on the side of his forehead, the gash in the middle held together by neat stitching.

He stood up and walked slowly to the door, not saying a word. The door closed and locked with a quick snap behind him, and she heard quiet footfalls leave down the hallway.

She listened as his footfalls faded, then made to get up.

A searing rictus of agony tore through her leg, so excruciating she let out a cry of pain and collapsed. Getting onto her trembling hands and knees, she looked behind her at her injured ankle.

It had burst open. The physical stress of the last day had made the stitches tear, and she could see the inside of her ankle, the torn tendons and red meat beneath the enflamed skin, a gaping wound that tore her foot open to the sole.

***

Something had changed between them.

The house had changed overnight, become colder. And not just the temperature. The feelings between Patience and Leonardo.

She could feel the deadness in his gaze whenever he turned it on her. The chill in the air between them. Before, Leonardo had thought nothing of kissing her hair or rubbing her shoulders when he passed by. But now he did not even touch her. He did not smile anymore. He did not make dinner anymore, or invite her to. The kitchen was chilly and unused.

Patience would have been relieved otherwise. But at least, when he was friendly to her, she knew she was safe.

His words from weeks ago kept coming back to her. You’ve started to grow on me, but I’ll use you for a while and see if I get tired of you. Had he finally gotten tired of her? What would do now, if she had finally worn out her welcome? Would he kill her?

There was no warmth or affection in his gaze anymore. Just coldness. A peculiar kind of coldness that she couldn’t name, but made her shiver. Something deep and resentful and betrayed.

They did not talk anymore. Not a word was exchanged between them. There was a tenseness in the air, like a thread about to snap.

Patience stared ahead at her closed door. Despite the coldness, she was sweating. Her breaths came in warm puffs in the cold room.

She gripped her leg and raised it.

Her ankle was infected. There was a gaping hole in her leg, the reopened wound torn and leaking pungent green pus. A sob of pain rose deep in her throat as she bent her leg. The edges were seeping thick clear liquid and yellow and green pus, sending tendrils of infection deep in her leg. The smell of rotting flesh and warm infection rose in her nose

Patience squeezed her eyes shut, trying to keep a cry of pain down. Her knees ached and spasmed as needles of pain burrowed deep up her leg. The infection was spreading. She had to do something.

Limping heavily, she went into the bathroom and swung the cabinet doors open, swatting the numerous lotions and perfumes he had gotten her aside for a first-ad kit. Bottles clattered onto the floor.

Eventually Patience was able to locate a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a box of bandages. She crawled out of the bathroom and set them up on the side table. She pulled the curtains back, letting white light bathe her operating area.

Her mind went over the first-aid training she had received during the course of her Criminal Justice degree. She poured a bowl of the alcohol and wadded a bunch of the bandages. Wrinkling her nose at the bitter smell, she dipped it in the bowl, making sure to soak it thoroughly. She wrung it out, and her fearful eyes went back to her foot.

She tore a length of cloth off the unused bandages and stuffed it into her mouth. Then she gingerly pressed the alcohol-soaked bandages to her open wound.

Pain exploded through her ankle, like a thousand wasps shoving their stingers into her sensitive skin. A muffled squeal burst through her mouth, and she ground her teeth down on the bandages.
The pain tore through her leg, pulsing and beating and making tears rise to her eyes, squeezed shut.

She could bear it. She could bear it. She recited the mantra to herself as tears dripped down her cheeks. She was Patience Winslow god damn it, and she would not break this easily!

Her trembling arms held the bandages there until the pain had begun to die down, then she removed them and discarded them, stained with blood and pus.

She swished her fingers in the alcoholic solution, then gingerly scraped the edges of the wound with her fingernails. Green, solid pus gathered under her nails as she wiped away the infection from her ankle. Pain flared through her muscles, like someone was tearing through the wound with a knife. The insides of her ankle were inflamed, pulsing and spasming with pain as she scraped the remnants of infection away.

She took a spool of thread and a needle from the drawer, where Leonardo had placed them there in what was probably an attempt to guide her to more domestic hobbies.

To stitch an open wound, run the thread through a sterilizing solution. She threaded the needle and dipped her fingers in the alcohol, then squeezed the thread between her fingers, running the length along the pads of her fingers. Patience thanked God she had paid attention in the medical portion of Criminal Justice school, otherwise she probably would have screwed this up so bad she would cripple herself.

Patience gripped the two broken edges of her skin and pressed them together, trying to ignore the streak of pain it sent through her foot. She pressed the needle to one flap of skin and dug the tip in.

Tears of pain streamed down her face, deep gasps rising in her throat as she clenched her teeth on the bandages.

One stitch out of thirty. Twenty-nine more to go.

***

When all was said and done, her head was woozy from the pain, and she had swathed her ankle in bandages and fallen on the bedsheets. Time would tell whether her leg or Leonardo killed her first. Tears were soaking her collar, drying salty and encrusting her face and eyelashes. Her throat ached from the screams of pain she had tried to muffle. She fell immediately into deep sleep, or unconsciousness.

When Patience awoke, she noticed that it was night. She could see the full moon from the window, as round and glittering as a coin.

She noticed that the door was open a crack and not locked, as it usually was at night. Not only that, but her medical supplies were gone from the table. Leonardo must have come during the night to…check on her? But he had lost his affection for her. Why would he do that?

She had just performed an operation on her ankle, but she couldn’t let this opportunity get away from her. Gingerly gripping the side of the bed, she lowered herself to the ground.

Clutching the walls, she walked down the hallway. There were no lights on, and only the cold light of the moon lit her way. For a moment she was reminded of that night in the hotel, her daring escape with Nizzola. Well, that had all been for nothing, hadn’t it?

She heard, in the distance, a voice that she dimly recognized as Leonardo’s. Why was he up so late? He had to have been talking with one of his underlings, probably about something important. An assassination? Talking about one of the other bosses? Was he with Sawyer? He was supposed to be Leonardo’s advisor. She should investigate.

She followed the voice up to the bottom of the grand carved staircase, where she hesitated. She couldn’t climb the stairs in her state. Unless—

Amazed that it hadn’t occurred to her before, she put her hands on the third stair and hauled herself up on her knees, keeping her weight off her feet. Her legs ached a bit, but she was able to climb the stairs with a little difficulty. Her thick nightgown muffled her steps as she hauled herself up.

When she reached the top, she grabbed the banister and shakily drew herself up. She had never been on the second floor before, and her eyes wandered around in fascination. The photographs were more numerous, more varied. One lining the wall was of one of an old woman. The woman was shrouded in black, carrying a covered basket, looking cautiously behind her shoulder as she traveled behind a narrow alley. Patience wondered if she knew whether she’d been photographed. Patience wondered if she was even left alive.

The voice…yes, his voice echoed down the corridor. Trying to be as silent as possible, she crept forward, frowning as Leonardo’s voice rose and fell. He was speaking Italian in a low tone, she noted as she approached, her ears perked. A thin slice of yellow light fell onto the wall opposite the room, the door cracked open just an inch.

Moving agonizingly, slowly, quietly, she stepped in front of the door and peered through the crack.

Borghese was standing in front of a red canopied bed, embroidered with gold thread with the edges of the sheets neatly tucked in. The whole room was clean, untouched—almost as if it had never been lived in. But that couldn’t be. Because this had to have been his bedroom.

Borghese had his hands behind his back. There was no phone clutched in his hand, nor another person in the room. Yet he was talking. Addressing something.

A thin sliver of light alighted on Patience’s emerald eyes as they slowly traveled above the bed.

There were two—portraits? Photographs, framed in metal lace. Two people.

One was of a man with dark hair, leaning against a storefront. The letters in the background spelled out something in Italian. He was wearing a dark suit with a handkerchief in his pocket, and a hat was tipped over his eyes. His brow was furrowed and there was a distinct unfriendliness about his posture. He watched the camera, strong jaw set warily.

There was something familiar about his face. He had black hair, true, a few locks escaping from beneath his hat, but such an elegantly arched nose. Aquiline, like the busts of the Roman emperors. Sculpted, high cheekbones. Eyes solidly dark—but a color she could probably guess as blue, dark blue—

Patience realized she was breathing heavily, and pressed her hand over her mouth to muffle her gasps.

The other was a faded black-and-white photograph, taken a long time ago. It showed a portrait of a girl meant to be in someone’s locket. A young woman from the chest up. Her face was unreadable, a little worried or bored, but strangely apprehensive. But she was truly beautiful, with pale skin, full lips and a soft, heart-shaped face. She had long, flaxen curls that cascaded down her back and shoulders, and large, light eyes visible even in the colorless starkness of the photograph. She was wearing a white lace Georgian-style dress, the billowing lace sleeves pooled on her lap.

The rich coils of her hair faintly put her in mind of Borghese. Yes, they had the same softly curling, light hair. The same eyelashes. The same—

Borghese addressed the photograph of the girl, voice soft. “Ti perdono, mamma.”

His voice was quiet and comforting, the voice Patience was used to. Almost… forgiving.

“Ti perdono.”

He paused, then took a step to the side, head bowed. His voice was very level, quiet. Almost conversational.

“Mi ci è voluto molto tempo. Ma ora capisco. Quello che ti fece mio padre.”

He stopped again, lifting his head to meet the frozen gaze of the girl in the picture. “Ti ho odiato, all'inizio. Ma…ti amo ora.

Leonardo’s voice was wavering now. He had the same tone as he had when he had pushed her down on the sofa. He suddenly wrenched his body, turning himself towards the photo.

Startled, Patience lurched backwards. The floorboards under her bare feet creaked loudly.

She could feel the veil of silence that fell over the room. Pulsing and tense. In one movement, Leonardo stiffened, then slowly turned around.

His eyes were blacker than the pits of hell. Like Dante’s horrified words, they were full of livid flames, of raw, animalistic fury. His shoulders hard as a rock and angled toward her.

The door was slammed outwards as Patience fell on her back, scrambling backwards. Silhouetted in the orange lantern light was Leonardo, his eyes blacker than a demon.

Long, pale fingers curled around her throat.

Her oxygen supply cut off, Patience writhed under his body. But she was a small girl, and Leonardo was a fully-grown man, his tamed muscles bulging under his sleeves.

No matter how much she fought, his hands were solid and unmoving. His face hard and emotionless. Drool ran from her mouth, trickling down her neck. She clawed at his collarbone, trying to wrest his hands away from her neck.

Leonardo’s eyes were blank. Like the devil’s eyes, devoid of feeling. He bore down on her neck, fingers tight around her pulsing throat. Patience’s eyes rolled, lightheadedness overcoming her.

Was this how she was going to die? She should have known sooner or later that she would die at the hands of Leonardo Borghese. Patience had become too much of a nuisance. Eventually he would tire of her presence and kill her, dump her in a body ground and move on with his life.

Is that how this is supposed to be?

Her mind was darkening at the edges. Brief flashes burst through her brain, of Mommy, face laughing in front of a playground. Daddy in his constable uniform, accepting a medal. Michael’s arms around her, twirling her around, his gray eyes smiling softly at her.

Everything in a film of memory. Distancing it from her, a scene falling away from her through a dark tunnel.

Her fingers relaxed, and went limp.

Suddenly, his hands were gone from her throat. Patience arched her back backward, throat convulsing as sweet oxygen flowed through her veins.

Leonardo stood above her, polished leather shoes set against the floor.

“Get out.”

His voice was flat, final. His body was still, motionless, but livid in its stillness. Patience scrambled onto her hands and knees and ran, ran away from the devil behind her, from his dark, emotionless gaze, his eyes following her down the hallway.

***

Outside the window, the grass was covered with a thick layer of white. Like cotton drifting along the blades of green. Smothering it.

Patience sat in the velvet armchair, an Italian-English dictionary open in her lap. She had thought as much to try to learn his language—it would help her to interpret the conversations Leonardo had with his capos.

If she would even have the chance again. Patience had not seen Leonardo since that night. All the doors were locked, save her room. The pantry was bare. Occasionally she would hear a stray footstep, but other than that, it was just her, in the empty mansion.

She could barely focus. Her mind kept wandering back to the other night, the sequence of events flashing in her mind. She squeezed her knees together. A sick, greasy feeling of fear had come over her since then. As if a clock was ticking, as if it were counting down the minutes to her end.

In the large window in front of her, she saw the reflection of the room. The redness of the carpet, the clear crystal of the lamp. The tall darkness of a bookcase.

Patience leafed through the vocabulary book, trying to memorize the syntax of the language. She was still, nervous in the dullness that surrounded the empty mansion. She swallowed a dry lump, her throat burning.

The dark shadows of the furniture wavered in edges of her vision. She blinked, looking down at the yellow parchment of her book. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the glint of metal.

The bookcase moved.

Her book clattered onto the floor.

Before her horrified gaze, the reflection in the window shifted, and a stray flicker of lamplight caught the glint of a revolver that was pointed at the ground.

She twisted her upper body around, panicked gaze seeking out the figure, and what she saw was the utterly still, dark figure of Leonardo Borghese standing against the wall.

How long had he been standing here?

He was utterly still, eyes blank and face smooth and unmoving as a statue. There was no feeling behind those eyes. If there was, she couldn’t see it. They were the blank eyes of a spider, devoid of intelligence, just like the eyes of a dumb animal.

He tilted his head toward the door, eyes never leaving hers.

There was only the sound of his leather shoes on the floorboards as he led her down the dark hallway. She could feel sweat slick her thighs. Her clammy hands gripped the banister as they reached the staircase.

She felt as if she were walking to her guillotine.

Was this…was this the end? Was this the final page of her story?

Her legs felt like water. But for whatever reason, she felt strangely calm. Just like that that night in the car. When Leonardo had smiled his peaceful smile and brought his barrel up to her forehead. The knowledge itself did not phase her.

Well, it was bound to come sooner or later.

All she saw was the tall, straight back of Leonardo, walking a few steps in front of her.

His bedroom hovered in front of her gaze. He nudged her in and closed the door behind her. It locked with a click. For one moment the walls blazed in front of her eyes, then they focused.

Photographs. The walls were now covered with large, black-and-white photographs. Of a woman, spread out across a bed, cushioning her face on her arm. Another had her arms spread across the mattress, her small, dark-nippled breasts jutting out the front of her body. Her face was peaceful in sleep.

It took Patience a moment to realize the subject of the photographs was her.

The cold tip of the gun sunk through her dress, the metal pressing through the threads to dent the small of her back.

To the side of the room was a camera, mounted on a tripod. Black and gleaming.

He nodded to the bed. On top of the bedspread was an old white lace dress. The same one as the girl in the portrait was wearing.

“Put it on,” were his flat words.

She hesitated as her hand rested on her first button. The golden-haired girl’s gaze seemed to bore into her, staring silently as she undressed. Patience’s sundress pooled on the floor.

She could feel Leonardo’s eyes on her. Even as she pulled the lace dress around her shoulders and fastened the back, she could feel his dark gaze, boring into her back.

Leonardo indicated the red sofa to the side of the room. The red velvet felt sickly smooth under her bare legs. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, then opened them.

The camera flashed.

Her gaze was blinded for a moment. Patience did not know of the photo that had been taken of her. In the photo, she had tangled brown hair streaming to her elbows. Her face was unreadable, a little worried or bored, but strangely apprehensive.

In the lens was a mirror.

“You fit into her dress well,” said Leonardo, his quiet voice breaking the silence. “You both have the same figure. Of a young, spry woman. A woman who hasn’t given birth yet.”

She stared into the dull glass, reflecting her wan, pale face.

“You have the same eyes. As green as the fresh grass covering the Roman hills.”

Patience heard a click. She realized it was Leonardo’s gun.

The young woman felt her brain become numb as his finger rubbed the hammer. As he readied it for firing.

Patience stared into his eyes, his dark, blank eyes. A warm smile rose to her face. She smiled at him. Not for him, yet at him. She remembered the love of her parents, of her friends. Her last days on earth, her warmest memories. Her first day at school. Graduating from university. Mommy’s warm, gentle face as she wrapped a scarf around her shoulders.

If she would die, she would die happy.

Leonardo was still, his thumb resting on the hammer. Still as a swan. Still as a spider. His gaze was fixed on her face, frozen in a blank, unreadable expression.

Wrapped up her in her memories, she did not notice when he flitted to her side.

He wrenched the neckline of her dress down, the elastic straining as her small, round breast burst out.

His hand climbed across her mound, fingernails trailing across her pale, flesh. Her breast fit perfectly into his sweaty palm, the damp flesh sliding along his smooth hand.

With his fingertips, he began to slowly trail his fingernails across her tender skin. His index finger drew a small circle across her dark nipple, teasing it. It stiffened, hardening at the attention.

Patience’s head tilted back, unwillingly panting as he caressed her breasts. She saw gold and scarlet curtains, drawn tightly around the window.

Leonardo rolled his fingers, crushing the small, round nipple in his fingers. The red flesh flushed between his pale fingertips.

“Leonardo, what are—what are you doing?” her voice was a cracked, terrified whisper.

His wet mouth closed around her breast.

The sudden envelopment made back stiffen, as he enclosed her warm nipple in her mouth.

A shrill scream erupted from her throat as he ferociously suckled her. He brutally used his teeth, scraping them against her sensitive nipple. He took the small nub of flesh between his teeth, mercilessly milking it.

He suckled her like a lion cub, drawing the last of sustenance from her. She had no milk to give him, but he forced her breast with his brutal mouth. He bruised the flesh around her breast with his hard teeth. She whimpered with a mixture of pain and pleasure, the blend of agony and fear swirling in her brain.

Patience could feel his body between her legs, hard and wanting. She was trembling as she spread her legs. His belt buckle was cold against her mound of Venus. The tip of his cock nudged between her sealed lower lips, a touch of heat in the chill of the room.

She arched her back as he penetrated an inch into her warm, welcoming body. Her legs were spread halfway off the sofa, like a woman giving birth. Her hands clutched the back of the sofa, his blond curls brushing her chin as he huffed against her breast. The heat of his forehead, usually so cool, was like a furnace against her skin. He was trembling, almost imperceptibly.

She writhed as he penetrated her. “Mamma,” he whispered. She accepted him, his length into her thin, trembling waist.

Her long, slender legs wrapped around his hips. With every spasm of his hips, she felt his warm breaths on her chest. The nerves in her vaginal opening twitched as he slid deeply inside her.

She relaxed backwards, letting him pummel and thrust into the back of her pussy. She could feel the hard, pulsing length of his cock deep inside her warm insides, the length rubbing against her walls. His hands gripped her legs, forcing them open to give him more room. His hips nestled on hers as he let his full weight come to rest on her waist, crushing her. She gave a high-pitched moan as he slammed his hips forward, sheathing himself inside her to the hilt.

The fear and pleasure were a ball of confusion inside of her, the waves of her long-awaited orgasm washing over her, while the fear of the deranged man at her breast made her breaths short out.

Finally, his dense, warm semen streamed into her welcome womb. He let out a breath, then took a deep, shuddering gasp. His shoulders relaxed.

The warm liquid streamed down her legs as he withdrew from against her. The wet feeling sent a hot current running through her trembling body.

He breathed against her breast, her nipple numb in his mouth. He had tortured it to unfeeling, her white skin blossoming purple under his cruel teeth.

Patience was vaguely aware of being laid on top of his bed, the silky bedsheets sliding against her back. Her shoulders relaxed, his warm, red mouth sealing on top of them. She felt the comforting oblivion of soft sheets and a warm body, and couldn’t resist from letting her eyes drift close as he pulled her closer to him. All her sleepless nights, her fear-filled evenings, melted away in a swirling vortex of exhaustion and relief.

***

The brightly-colored flags waved and flitted from on top of the ancient, towering buildings. The cobblestones beneath her feet were smooth and cold against her feet as she took a step backwards.

The glittering robes, dresses and masks passed her, blank, anonymous, their jeweled gazes lingering on her before they disappeared into the crowd.

The tall, dark figure sent a shadow over the bright crowd, the edges of its robe brushing the stone street. Sunlight glinted off its white beak, a drop of dew traveling down the pale arch.

Patience backed away, one step, another step. Its blank black eye holes bored into her, and as she tremblingly took a step back, it moved slowly forward.

She turned with a dark, terrifying tremble down her body. She began to run, run away from the dark figure. Her feet slipped on the smooth stones, and she could feel the black shape slowly begin to follow her.

***

Sunlight bathed her body, her nightgown resting gently on the soft curves of her body. The rich light illuminated her slender leg, shifting as she rubbed her thighs together.

A slim, pale back arched in the winter sun, the white lace of her dress shifting up her legs as she stretched.

The door creaked.

The brown-haired girl was up in an instant, her mind turning at full speed, staring fearfully at the figure in front of the door, spatula in hand.

“I see you are awake, Pazienza.” he smiled, his eyes bright and veiled as always. “It’s about time. We have a busy day ahead of us—this Sunday is the annual Christmas Party.”

Chapter Text

It was as if nothing had happened.

Patience stared dumbly at the kitchen, once again brought to life with boiling pots and cutting boards and warm ovens.

The light streamed in the window. Leonardo was adjusting the temperature of the oven. He looked up and smiled brightly as she entered the kitchen. “Ah, Pazienza. Give the tomato sauce a stir, will you?”

She stared into the bubbling red sauce, one ear quirked as Leonardo moved around the kitchen.

His manner had changed completely. Instead of the heavy silences, his presence had changed back into sweetness, the same carefully cultivated happiness as before. It was like she had blinked and he was gone, blinked and he was back again. Almost enough to wonder if the last few days had been a dream.

“Christmas Party?” she said carefully. “But it’s only November.”

“It’s December, dolcezza. Christmas Eve is next week.”

Patience stopped short, wooden spoon in her hand. It was December already?

She had lost track of time…in here, where there were no calendars, days and weeks had passed far too slowly. How long, exactly, had she been here?

“So, who’s coming?” she asked, trying to keep her tone casual.

“Just a few friends.”

Ah. So it was a mob affair. She stirred the tomato sauce, but her heart was thumping. This could be a good opportunity for her to learn something.

“We’re going to have a lot of cooking to do, then,” she said sharply.

"Only a little bit. The guests will bring food.”

As she turned, she saw his broad back as he drained pasta into a sieve, arms tense as he carefully poured the water into the sink. “Please check and see if the ricotta is thick enough.”

She stuck her finger into the pan of white grainy cheese on the countertop. “Seems like it to me.”

He moved to her side, breath brushing the nape of her neck as he leaned over. “No, Pazienza. It’s not thick enough. Can’t you see? Beneath the crust of the top, it’s still far too fluid.”

She stiffened as he pressed his body against her. The residual fear from the past few days was a pulsing terror inside her head, erupting when he got too close. When he moved away, she leaned against the counter, fingers tightening against the marble.

“Are we making Christmas cookies?” she asked, imagining in her mind a bunch of soulless mafiosi crunching on Santa cookies.

“No, we’re making lasagna,” answered Leonardo, rolling out dough on a breadpin. “When Christmas finally comes, we will have seafood; shrimp and fish. But not right now.”

“You have such expert knowledge of food,” she said carefully. “Who taught you? Your mother? Your father?”

She was prodding, she knew, and she was half-afraid he would take it the wrong way—as the occurrences of the last few days showed, he was capable of being tipped over the edge.

But instead, he smiled.

“I taught myself,” he said. “When I was a little boy, freshly arrived in America, of course, there was only me and my father. And my father was always busy, so I had to cook for him.”

The sharp sounds of knife on wood sounded as he sliced tomatoes, the ripe red slices falling onto the chopping board.

“My father never made me dinner. I had to make it for him. When I burned something, or if it wasn’t to his liking… he would beat me. Sometimes if he was particularly upset with me, he would make me eat until I was sick. And when I got sick, he would force the vomit back down my throat.”

“Good lord." Words failed her. “That’s…awful. He sounds like a real bastard.”

“Oh, he was,” he said airily, moving from stovetop to stovetop. “But that’s irrelevant. He’s gone now.”

“How did he die?”

There was a harsh clang as he set down a boiling pot of water an inch from her fingernail. She hopped back in surprise, only to press right into Leonardo’s hard body.

“You’re getting nosey, Pazienza,” he whispered in her ear. His voice was the familiar playful lilt she was used to, but with a hint of warning underneath.

Patience swallowed hard, and when he stepped away, she backed behind the counter to put a bit of distance between them.

“I will say this,” he said. “That for all my father’s flaws, he taught me one useful thing: To always get it right the first time around. And that’s helped me immensely in life.”

He turned back to her, eyes bright and dark. “In the mafia, you can’t leave loose ends.”

They lapsed into silence after that. Outside, she could see the cold sunlight obscured by a cloud, sending shadows across the floor.

“How did your father raise you, dolcezza?  What did he teach you?”

She blinked. “He…didn’t, really. My mother raised me. He was gone most of the time. Police work.”

“Ahh, I see. That explains how you are. Absence of a father figure can…make the mind dysfunctional. Did your parents argue a lot?”

“And how, exactly, am I dysfunctional?” her voice was a harsh crack across the kitchen. How dare he, of all people, call her dysfunctional?

“I can tell you’re a deeply unhappy woman. You’re hateful. Miserable. Lonely.”

Lonely?

Patience had Michael, didn’t she? She had her clients. Clients though they were, didn’t they care for her? And what about her old school friends? Didn’t they keep her in their hearts, although it had been years since she talked to them? What about her neighbors? Even if she had never been close with any of them, they were friendly with each other, weren’t they?

“I’m not lonely.”

He smiled, eyes still on his saucepans. Meat sizzled as it came into contact with the iron surface.

“I find it interesting, Patience. That even though you’ve been gone for almost two months, not a single police report has been filed.”

She stared down at the bubbling dark tomato sauce, and although she wanted to curse him a thousand words, they all lodged in her throat.

***

“Come upstairs, Pazienza, please.”

Patience looked up from where she was checking the oven’s temperature. “My ankle’s still healing. I can’t climb the stairs.”

“Come here, then.”

He gripped her shoulders with one arm and the back of her legs with the other. In one movement, he swept her into his arms.

Panicked, she gripped his neck with her arm as he carried out of the kitchen. “Wh-what are you doing? Put me down!”

“Didn’t you just say your ankle was injured?” he chuckled, and she could feel the laugh reverberate through his chest.

They climbed the stairs, Patience quietly fuming, Leonardo taking more joy out of this than he should have. When they reached his room, he dumped her on the bed.

She hugged her legs and glared suspiciously at the dress he pulled out from the closet. “What’s that?”

“It’s what you’re wearing to the Christmas Party tomorrow.”

The hem brushed the ground as he laid it over the armchair. It was a beautiful royal-blue sleeveless dress, tight at the waist and flaring at the waist to fall just below her ankles. There was a coy bowknot on the side of the waist. It was altogether a beautiful, fashionable dress, especially if it were spruced up with a bit of jewelry.

“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? The latest of fashion. It will look nice on your figure, your waist especially.” He winked at her. “Although, who knows if you’ll be keeping your petite figure in the near future.”

What?

She eyed the padded shoulders of the dress, askance. “It looks uncomfortable.”

“Slip it on. Let me know if there are adjustments to be made.”

Patience hesitated, her hands fisting in her dress. She was wearing her old sundress—the only dress she deigned to wear, the one she had worn when she had been kidnapped and her nightmare began.

“What’s there to be afraid of? I’ve seen you bare plenty of times.”

His coquettish voice sounded from the sofa. His eyes crinkled as Patience hesitated, then began to slide it off one shoulder.

Her pale skin was revealed, lightly dotted with myriad freckles.

Patience turned her head away from him. She let the dress pool around her feet.

“You have such a beautiful body, dolcezza.” His quiet voice was admiring as she reached for the dress. “So petite, yet so strong. You come from old stock, don’t you, Patience?”

“When…when the Pilgrims first arrived in America, my hometown was one of the first three they founded, yes.”

She could feel his gaze, traveling down her body, down her small breasts to the curve of her hips.

“I can tell. You have such a classic English Settler look to your face... Even your fanaticism must come from your Puritan ancestors, who escaped oppression in their country to come hundreds of miles to a bare and unforgiving land, simply by reason of their religion.”

“I’m no fanatic.” She pulled the dress over her head.

“You’ve spent your entire adult life focused on bringing down one solitary man, to the exclusion of friends, family or personal happiness. I’d say that marks you as a fanatic, no?”

“Shut up!” she snapped, losing her temper. The confusing mixture of fury and sadness was churning inside her again, bubbling up like an overflowing well. “Let’s just get this done already!” As she smoothed the dress over her knees, she heard him get up. He gripped her shoulders and turned her to face the body-length mirror.

“Hmm. Does it feel uncomfortable?”

“It’s a little tight around the waist.”

“Very well.”

Patience watched as he knelt to his knees. With his hands, he gripped her small waist, turning this way and that and smoothing the fabric over her skin.

She was incredulous when he slit the threads with the sharp edge of a pair of scissors, then stabbed a needle into the fabric.

“You know how to sew?”

He carefully stitched the dress against her, his sharp eyes making precise measurements. Every needle stitch was made carefully, exactly.

“My father was a tailor. In fact, it is a family business. Before my father, my grandfather. And before my grandfather, my great-grandfather, back in Sicily.”

She looked down as he made the finishing adjustments to her dress. Such a rustic occupation. It was incongruous to the highly cultured, well mannered gentleman she saw every day.

“You can sew,” she joked dryly. “You can cook. Why aren’t you someone’s trophy wife?”

Leonardo laughed as well. “Perhaps if I was a woman, my life would have turned out differently.”

“Well, I’m fairly certain you wouldn’t have become half as dangerous as you are now.”

“The same goes for you, Pazienza. If you had been born the opposite gender, you would be far less of a threat.”

She stared at him in shock. “You’re saying if I was a man, I would be less dangerous?” The idea was inconceivable to her. All her life, Patience’s womanhood had been a liability. No matter how proud she was of her accomplishments, it was a hurdle to overcome in terms of real life—people sneered at her, police disregarded her, and civilians underestimated her.

He paused and looked up at her, a disparaging smile on his face. “Patience, if you had been a man, I would have killed you already.”

They finished the tailoring in silence.

***

Patience smoothed her dress down, her gaze slowly traveling down herself in front of the mirror. The gentle light from the lamp in back illuminated her soft cinnamon curls, which were pinned at the sides of her head and swept up in a large curl in a vaguely bouffant style. The loose long back part of her hair had been carefully curled as well, and was lying over her shoulders in thick coils. She wore the blue dress Leonardo had fitted her for earlier, carefully adjusted to fit her waist. Matching pumps—of course, they were wreaking havoc on her ankle. Concealer hid the dark shadows under her eyes, and vivid red lipstick made her lips bright. Jewelry adorned her wrists and neck. Blue gems—sapphires probably, even if she couldn’t quite believe she was wearing them. She had never had something so expensive touching her skin in her life, save for the time she shook hands with Senator Dixon at a mixer one of her clients had invited her to.

Patience barely recognized herself. She looked so different from the scruffy girl with eye bags, tangled hair and a crumpled skirt suit, slogging after cheating spouses with the sort of weary grind more suited for a coal miner who had held the same job for fifteen years.

She looked like…a housewife.

The very look was incongruous. She resembled one of those model women in the magazines, Women’s World and Vanity Fair. Perfect hair and face, with fake, submissive smiles, and headlines blaring Perfect Pot Roast Recipes and 7 Things To Do To Make Your Man Happy When He Comes Home.

It made a vaguely upset feeling stir in her stomach. This wasn’t her. She wasn’t one of those perfect, domestic women. She felt as if she were watching a different girl turn this way and that in the mirror. The only part she recognized were her pale, dewey eyes, the same clear color they had always been.

The door snapping shut yanked her out of her thoughts. She turned around to see a tall, slender figure standing in front of the door, observing her critically. “Patience, stand straighter.”

She grudgingly straightened up, and he made a noise of approval. He was dressed in a tuxedo, golden hair combed back. It was carefully teased to be straight, but the slight waves were impossible to comb out. His fine features were in full display, sharply beautiful with the curve of his nose and the highness of his cheekbones. The cut of his suit matched him perfectly, slender yet authoritative. The stark back and whites contrasted against the blood red rose tucked into his pocket.

His ruby lips curved as he observed her. “You are a picture of perfection. I see when it came to choosing a color, my intuition wasn’t wrong. Dark blue looks beautiful on you.”

She turned her head to the side and ignored him, afraid she would say something that would anger him. The ridiculous outfit he had dolled her up in had made her prickly, and she glared at him as he took a step forward.

“I expect that you will be on your best behavior, Patience.”

“I’ll try,” she ground out.

All at once, the air shifted, and he was in front of her. His hand gripped her chin, forcefully turning it towards him. His fingers sunk into the soft skin on her jaw.

“No, Patience. You won’t try.”

His voice was low and flat, utterly unamused. His body was straight and still, holding her in place even as she wriggled to get out of his grip.

“You will smile and greet and play the good wife. You will laugh and flirt with me and put a show on for the guests.” His fingernails dug into her skin, making aches of pain start along her jawline. Tears welling in her eyes, she looked up at his dull gaze.

“You will not embarrass me like you did last time. Capisce?” He punctuated his words with a squeeze, her teeth aching under the pressure.

Closing her teary eyes, Patience nodded. He let her go abruptly. “You do understand how hard it is to trust you, Patience, when you have betrayed my trust so many times.”

“I’ll behave myself,” she swore, quietly rubbing her face.

Leonardo was behind her again, hands gently squeezing her shoulders. “Good. Because Patience, do you know something? No one there cares about you. No one cares about who you are or why you are in my care. And another thing--they aren't...very fond of law enforcement.”

Patience was in his shadow as leaned forward, the lamplight seeming to stop just before their interlocked figures.

“So I do not believe they will raise a fuss if you act up…and I punish you accordingly.”

His voice was a soft breath in her ear. She was panicking, quivering, sweat starting over her forehead. “I’ll be good! I swear, I’ll smile and laugh, I will!”

At the sound of her plaintive words, he withdrew. The dark atmosphere in the room melted, to be replaced by a more familiar, jovial mood.

“Bene. Come on out then, Patience. I want to show you to the world.”

She closed her eyes, wiped away the moisture, and spruced up her hair in the mirror. Then she took his arm and stepped out into the ballroom.

***

There were already people milling around, women too, mostly middle-aged, in dresses not dissimilar to hers. Some were chatting with each other, carrying tinfoil-covered glass pie pans.

“He-e-ey, Leo the Angel! My boy!”

A loud, gravelly voice echoed over the room. An older man in a tux was walking towards them, arms spread, towing a harried-looking younger woman behind him. Leonardo met his embrace and kissed him, beaming. “Sharky, I was hoping you would be here! Buon natale.”

Up close, Patience immediately recognized the lumpy nose and throaty voice. The man she had eavesdropped on that night, the one who had been talking to Salvatore Mallozzi. Tommaso “Sharky” Bianconi. One of the more subdued, “behind-the-scenes” sects of the mafia—from what she had gathered, trade unions were one of their methods of corruption. An old soul, too; Bianconi had been in the game since 1921.

“Buon natale, Leo! Christ, where’d ya get that bruise?" he leaned backward in surprise as he spotted her. "Well, whaddya know! Someone’s finally melted that cold heart of yours. So who’s this little lady? I’ve never seen you invite a woman back to your house before.” 

“I know, huh?” remarked another, younger man with a mole on the side of his nose and a fedora lopsided on his dark head. “Could our Leo be settlin’ down, finally?”

Leonardo smiled almost embarrassedly. “Well, you know I always wanted a family,” he said, eyes traveling over to her, where she was sweating bullets under the gaze of three people. “It seems I’ve finally found the right girl. This is Patience,” said Leonardo, sliding a hand along her shoulders and pulling her towards him. His eyes trailed to meet hers. “my… fiancée.”

Patience’s heartbeat screamed in her ears. She kept a strained smile, eyes fixed on Leonardo’s laughing black pupils. Fiancée? The very word struck a note of terror into her heart. It suggested that Leonardo had something more…long-term planned.

“Leo,” she said quietly.

“Patience, this is Tom Bianconi. That’s Jim O’Toole—please take your hat off, Jim, we’re inside the house.” The younger man winked, doffed his hat at her and removed it. “And this is Martha, Tom’s wife.”

The younger woman curtsied, eyes flicking up to meet her own. She had very big, seductive dark eyes, and pitch-black hair. Her mouth was red and plump, and she wore a pink, off-the-shoulder dress with a large, sparkling diamond necklace. She had to be, at the very least, two decades younger than Bianconi, and was far more youthful and attractive than the loud, lumpy and balding older man.

Patience struggled to think of a greeting. The sarcastic thought that had been floating around in her mind made its way to her lips during the pause. “You make a very…cute couple.”

Martha stiffened, mouth slipping and eyes wide in disbelief. Frozen embarrassment overtook her face. In any other situation Patience would have felt sorry for her, but fuck her, she had married a gangster for his money. She deserved everything she got.

There was a rather shocked silence for a moment, then Tom burst out laughing. “Oh, I like her! She doesn’t take any bullshit, does she? Not like you!”

He grabbed her in a rib-crushing hug, and smacked her on the cheek. “Pleased to meet you, darlin’.”

“Same here, Tom,” she forced herself to say, hesitantly returning his hug.

“Shit, is that Jay? C’mere, you bastard!” Bianconi and his wife moved on.

Cowering inwardly, Patience looked up at Leonardo. He had blank eyes and a frozen smile, but they weren’t directed at her.

A very familiar, cold voice echoed around the room. “Leo Angelino.”

She followed Leonardo’s eyes to a dark figure, standing to the side of them with his hand in his pocket and his other clutching a glass of champagne. Black irises glinted in the light of the chandelier. “Fantastic party, Leo. As always.”

“Salvatore,” said Leonardo, his voice congenial, but his eyes dark and derisive. “I see you received my invitation.”

Patience could almost taste the enmity between them, like a sour coating on her tongue.

Salvatore Mallozzi cast her a brief, disinterested look. He was dressed nicely, like the last time she had seen him, with slicked-back dark hair, a neatly-cut tuxedo, and golden cufflinks glinting off his sleeves. From his careful, almost pantherish gait, Patience noticed he did not have a limp—she guessed he had recovered from the gunshot wounds she had given him. His lean, rawboned features were both contemptuous and wary, watching Leonardo like a hawk.

“I see you finally found a woman, Leo. Bravo.”

“Indeed I have.” Almost imperceptibly, Leonardo’s hand tightened around her body. Patience kept her eyes on Mallozzi, her heart thudding in her chest. Would he recognize her from that night in the hotel?

“What did she have to do to snag you?” he smiled at her, but it was really more of a baring of teeth. “Did she put some blood in your coffee?”

“Oh-h-h-h, Sal the Bull! As coarse as always!” Leonardo laughed lightly and leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. They embraced, clapping each other’s backs, and Patience gave a sigh of relief.

Mallozzi gave Leonardo a contemptuous smile, his eyes sliding over her, then turned away to take his leave—before his body shot ramrod-straight. He turned back, eyes gleaming with a sudden harsh recognition.

He recognized her!

Patience saw a glint of silver out of the corner of her eye. Her mind acting fast, she tore herself away from Leonardo and flung herself into the arms of a very surprised Charles Sawyer.

“Charlie!” she squealed, her voice several octaves higher than what it normally was. “How lovely it is to see you here!”

Muttering in his ear, she said, “Get me the fuck out of here.”

Sawyer was stiff for a moment, but easily slid his arms around her waist and led her away, flashing her a million-dollar smile. “Ahh, what a surprise! Patience! You look gorgeous!”

Once they were a good distance away from the men, Sawyer cast her a faintly irritated look. “You didn’t have to swear, you know.”

“Just keep your mouth shut, Sawyer.” She wiped sweat away from her brow, the thrill of fear waning inside her somewhat.

She heard Sawyer snort. “And you don’t even bother to thank me, either. You are just like my ex-wife. Always taking, taking, taking. Never giving.”

“With all the mentions of how I remind you of your ex-wives, maybe you’re attracted to a certain type, Charlie.”

Sawyer went a little pale. “Don’t joke about those sorts of things, Winslow.”

Patience chuckled inwardly as he led her along. As all of the men, Sawyer was dressed formally, but in a gray suit that matched his hair, with a black tie tucked neatly into the front. His silver hair glinted in the light of the chandelier, and she noticed he was wearing black-framed glasses.

“What’s with the specs, Sawyer? I thought you didn’t need glasses to see. You’re not that old, are you?”

“They’re reading glasses. And I’m forty-six.”

”And you’re gray already? Gee whiz.”

“Law school does that to you.”

The ballroom was lit and glittering, crystal and silver, with well-dressed men and women chatting and eating all around them. Another feeling washed away Patience’s dread.

This was…an amazing opportunity. All around her were career criminals, murderers and mobsters, all part of one of the Mafia families, and if not, closely acquainted with them.

There was so much she could learn!

She heard a cold, flat voice briefly enter her hearing, and she quickly cast Charles away. She knew that voice. The cold, snake-eyed man from that night she had eavesdropped on the mafia heads—he was the head of one of the families, but damned if she knew which one. He must have been incredibly discreet about his dealings—she didn’t even know his name.

“—Talk about this somewhere else, Tommaso.”

“C’mon Al, we’ve known each other for twenty years. Call me Sharky. Everyone calls me Sharky, it’s no big deal. Or, just call me Tommy! My wife calls me Tommy.”

“Tommy, this isn’t the place to discuss—“

“Aw, shuddup. Nothin’s gonna happen here. It ain’t like the feds are stakin’ this house—you know how careful Leo is about these sorts of things.” Bianconi’s loud, jubilant voice echoed across the heads of the mob wives in front of her, who were having a very in-depth discussion on the flower displays.

The cold-eyed man cast a look over his shoulder—Patience busied herself with a glass of champagne. She could still hear his voice, drifting like a cold breeze.

“Tommy, I’ll come down to Florida in March. And I will have the documents. But you have to assure me—assure me—that it’s a clean joint.”

“Hey, ain’t no coke flyin’ around in Seventh Heaven. I promise. Christ, if I find out who’s been supplying drugs to Garland City—they ain’t never finding the body, get what I’m saying?”

“If it turns out it’s one of our people, betraying omerta…” Al’s voice trailed off, laced with a cold threat.

“Don’t worry about it Al, I’ll have everything ready for you. Now let’s get a drink, fer Christ’s sake. This is a Christmas party, not a damn business meeting.”

Bianconi led Al away, and Patience stared down into her glass of champagne, mind whirring. March. Florida. Seventh Heaven. She hammered those important names and dates into her brain as she wandered off. Evidently, something important was going on down there.

She felt a prickle on the back of her neck. As if someone was watching her. Shifting uncomfortably, she cast a look behind her—and met cold eyes, hidden behind spectacles.

Standing to the side of the room was one Stefano Rizzo—and judging by the look on his face, he recognized her.

His eyes bored into her, filled with enmity. She had never been looked at with that degree of hatred—even Leonardo, during his more unstable moments, had not had the raw loathing that was in Rizzo’s eyes. He was standing perfectly still, head lowered and glasses glinting in the chandelier light.

Panicking slightly, Patience walked off, trying to lose his sight in the large ballroom. His eyes had genuinely terrified her. They spoke of a man who had nothing to lose—and everything to gain—by causing her unimaginable pain.

Patience heard the name “Leo” coming from a corner and quickly changed direction. A cluster of men huddled together to the side, talking in low voices. Patience stationed herself near the nearest group of women, not too close so that they would engage her in conversation, but just close enough so that other people would think she was a part of their group.

“Shit, that was a brutal way to off Nizzola. Leo’s usually more discreet than that.”

Her ears perked, Patience pretended to take a sip of her champagne.

“Ya know, if some sunnuvabitch killed my father and left him on the floor for me to find, I’d be pissed too. Can’t blame him.”

“Shit, remember what Phil did to that policeman? Blew that outta the water. I hear they’re still looking for bits of him!”

They erupted in laughter. Patience lowered her head, mouth tightening in disgust. How could they so blasé about this?

“Man, imagine how fuckin’ horrible it must be to come home from university…walk in the front door…and find your father’s blood wetting your shoes. No wonder Leo’s such a goddamn psycho. If I saw that, I’m pretty sure I’d lose my mind, too.”

“He’s always been a creepy brat. I heard from one of my old friends… he was a little doll, even when he was having the shit beaten out of him. Such a fuckin’ angel, smilin’ with a bloody face while the cops kicked the shit out of him.”

“Shut up, what if someone hears you callin’ him a brat?”

Patience held her head down, carefully listening to their conversation. She fixed her eyes on the placid surface of the champagne.

“You sure Nizzola killed him? I thought that guy was all straight-edge.”

“He’s just like any other politician. Self-righteous on top and merciless underneath.”

“Shit, like the mayor?”

They devolved into a discussion about the mayor of Garland City, who Patience well knew was in bed with organized crime.

Curious about the talk about Leonardo’s father, Patience turned away, and sought out Sawyer.

“Sawyer,” she said, pulling him away from the food table, “What happened to Leonardo’s father?”

Sawyer cast his gaze out over the ballroom, eyebrows knitted. “The old Borghese head? They found him dead at home one day. Leo found him when he came from college. Is that what you to know?” His voice was irritated, but strangely wounded.

“You sound hurt.”

He stopped where he was. “He was a… good friend of mine.”

Patience clutched the back of his coat. “Did Nizzola do it?”

Sawyer cast her a sharp glance. “That’s a subject of deliberation, Winslow.”

His voice was harsh, but she clung onto him, curious as they walked the ballroom. “Of course,” Patience said carefully, “Nizzola did it. But the way Nizzola killed him…”

“It could have been the Senator,” Sawyer countered, talking more to himself. “It could have just as easily been someone else. Someone with access to the house, a key or something …”

“Of course not. Who else could have done it?” Patience challenged him, wanting to know more.

“It wouldn't have been easy for anyone to kill Silvio. The things they did to his body, Christ…”

“Hello, Patty, could I have a word with you?” said a cold voice.

***

Patience let her eyes trail to the sight of the dark-suited man, and her body stiffened.

Salvatore Mallozzi gripped her arm tightly and led her away, his presence a dark shadow beside her. She could smell the thick, smoky scent of gunpowder under his expensive suit.

When he was out of sight, he slammed her against the wall, hidden behind a flower display.

“I know who you fucking are. ‘Patty Winters’, if that is indeed your name. And now you’re Borghese’s bitch.”

His voice was livid, shoulders hard and pressing her to the wall. His eyes were twin chips of flint.

“I knew Leo Angelino had set me up that night. No goddamn wonder.”

He had cornered her against a wall, his voice a breathless hiss of anger. His black irises bore into hers, a few strands of black hair falling over his forehead.

“No, I swear I’m not. He didn’t send me,” Patience whispered to him. Her body felt numb, scared as ever as he loomed in front of her, murder in his eyes. “Salvatore, you—you hate Leonardo, don’t you? You despise him.”

“Well, aren’t we a fuckin Einstein over here.” His breath washed against her forehead, panting breaths like a bull before it charges.

She gripped his cuff tightly. “Mallozzi,” she whispered. “Salvatore. You have to get me out of here.”

“What?” he pulled back, eying her with his brows knitted. “What the hell are you talking abou—“

“Please don’t give anything away. I’m being held here against my will. If you help me escape, I can—I can give you information on Leonardo, on his background—“

“Pazienza,” she heard a familiar voice coo. Patience’s heart froze. A hand settled on Mallozzi’s shoulder from behind.

“Excuse me, Salvatore, but I must speak to my future wife about something.”

As Leonardo led her away, she saw Salvatore staring after her in confusion, his posture less predatory and more uncertain.

Fingernails scraping her wrist brought her back to the present.

“I don’t want you anywhere near that man,” Leonardo said sharply. His face was dead serious. “He’s unpredictable, cruel, and has no regard for human life. You need to give him a wide berth—he’ll slit your throat and laugh about it later.”

“So kind of like you, then?” she regretted the words as soon as they came out of her mouth. Leonardo’s face tightened, then he jerked her aside, behind a dome.

Patience’s legs felt like water as he pressed her against the cold stone. When would she learn to keep her mouth shut?

“I’m sorry,” she squeaked, hating the way her voice sounded.

“No, you are not. We had a deal, you and I.” his voice was flat. “You humiliated me in front of Mrs. Bianconi. Humiliated me. Do you know how important relationships between families are in my line of business? Hmm?”

She avoided his gaze and swallowed hard. “I do. I promise—I’m so sorry. Sometimes things just—slip out of my mouth, you know?”

She was anticipating some sort of punishment—some sort of anger at her—but surprisingly, he let out a sigh. “I know.”

“I didn’t mean it. I was just nervous.” He nodded in silent sympathy. Patience almost kicked herself for the wave of gratefulness that washed over her.

“I understand, I understand. I suppose I was foolish to assume you would be perfectly behaved on our first pubic appearance.” Looking tired, he ran his fingers through his hair and looked away. “We must begin to make concessions for each other. After all…” and his smile was back, bright and sunny and completely, utterly fake. And as soon as he spoke the next words, she felt as though all the fires in the world wouldn’t be able to dispel the utterly cold feeling that enveloped her body.

“We are going to be spending the rest of our lives together.”

***

“What is this?” Patience’s sharp voice echoed around the room as Leonardo loosened his tie and draped it over the armchair.

They were back in his bedroom, the party over and the night growing long. The short hand on the wall clock registered past twelve.

“What is what, dolcezza?”

“All this crap about me marrying you!” her voice was trembling and scared, no matter how much force she tried to put behind her words. Living with Leonardo had stripped away her defiance, her fearlessness, and left her a quivering mess whenever she tried to confront him. As he turned his blank blue eyes on her, phantom pain radiated out from her hand.

“Ah, are you angry because I haven’t proposed to you yet? My deepest apologies, Pazienza.”

He dropped smoothly to his knee and reached into his coat pocket. He withdrew a box, which he snapped open to reveal a gold ring with a glittering sapphire set into the middle.

“Patience Rebecca Winslow, will you do me the honor of becoming my lawfully wedded wife?”

Words failed her. Her fists were slack at her side as she stared at the enormous ring, the light shining through the clear blue jewel.

“No. No.”

“I’m sorry, let me rephrase. You will do me the honor of becoming my lawfully wedded wife.”

Leonardo snapped the box shut. The sudden sound made her flinch.

She shook her head, words failing her. “Why, Leonardo? Why me? Why now? Why me?”

“Is it so unbelievable for you to believe it is because I love you?”

“No. Leonardo, none of this comes close to that. Obsession maybe, lust. But whatever you have for me, it isn’t love. You wouldn’t do these awful things to me if you loved me!”

Her outburst burst out from her throat, a livid, panicked tremor in her voice.

“I don’t think you’re capable of love, Borghese! All you want to do is possess!”

The room lapsed into a deep, swallowing silence. Patience had her back to the bedstead, legs trembling and breaths coming in high gasps.

Leonardo did not deny anything. His mouth was an impassive, uncaring line.

“What’s your agenda, Leo Angelino?” she snarled, her eyes hard. “Why would you ask for my hand in marriage? Why marry someone who hates you, and show her to the world?”

Leonardo’s head was bowed, his loosely curled hair covering his eyes, but as she saw, his ruby-red lips curved into a dark, terrifying smile.

“Oh, Pazienza. You are so clever. That is why I adore you, you know? You are not like most women, who giggle and flitter and keep their minds blank because that is what their fathers and brothers tell them to do.”

He moved forward slowly as she backed away. Her back hit the side of the bed.

“Since you are smart enough to have figured it out, I’ll tell you. You will be playing a big role in the upcoming years, in any case.” He chuckled deeply.

He began to unbutton his shirt. “Being in cosa nostra has a time limit. You either end up murdered or in jail. And I don’t intend on letting that happen. This year, I intend to run for public office.”

Patience stared at him, disbelieving. “You’re…becoming a politician?”

“Indeed. I am already in the public eye, a philanthropist and well-known patron of the arts. I helped build the Garland City Opera House. Why wouldn’t this poor immigrant, pulling himself from poverty to become one of the most successful men in Garland City, want to help the oppressed underclass he came from?”

“You won’t help anybody,” she hissed. “You’ll run rackets across the city and plunge it further into corruption. You’ll undo everything Gerald Nizzola worked for!”

He smiled, eyes fixed on hers, terrifyingly focused. “And what would be better for my campaign than to marry a small-town girl, whose father was a constable and whose parents had been murdered by the mafia?”

She understood now.

By marrying her, it would neatly banish rumors of connections with organized crime. Such a good girl like her would be his trump card—look at this poor young woman, whose parents were murdered by the mafia, marrying a good boy like this, he couldn’t possibly have anything to do with organized crime.

He had it all figured out.

For a moment, she wondered if he had all this planned since he had first found out her name.

The clock ticked. The room was silent and dark. Light glinted off golden curls, brighter than sunshine and darker than gold.

“For your name being Leonardo, you are much more like a spider than a lion.” Her bitter voice broke the silence. “Weaving your web across the city. Taking all the citizens under your control.”

That amused him. She saw his shoulders shift, head tilting back and blue eyes crinkling in mirth.

 “Am I? Then you would be a butterfly. A beautiful spread of wings across the city, enticing them as they went to their doom. Perhaps I should call you Farfalla. So beautiful, yet so misguided, fluttering to your demise.”

He began to unbuckle his pants. “Spread your legs, Pazienza. Let’s make love tonight as a newly betrothed couple.”

Terror and blank despair made their home in her mind as she clutched her legs close together.

Leonardo seized her kneecaps, drawing them apart, and her hand flashed out in panic. His head jerked as she slapped him across the face.

He slowly brought his head back, eyes blank, and backhanded her so hard stars exploded in front of her eyes.

Her mind floating in a sea of white-hot pain and delirium, she almost didn’t notice when he unbuttoned the front of her dress. “There’s not going to be any physical violence in this marriage, Patience,” he said smoothly, pulling her dress down beneath her waist. “I would appreciate if you started regarding me with the obedience a good wife has for her husband.”

She felt cold lips caress her waist, like a touch of winter on her heated skin. Then he abruptly seized her and flipped her around, so he was lying on his back and she was sprawled on top of him. As she tried to struggle up, he gripped her waist and pulled it down until his pulsing cock brushed her opening.

His voice was gently chiding.

“Come on, dolcezza. There has to be some degree of reciprocity to this relationship. Why don’t you try taking the initiative for once?”

Heaving with dry sobs of pain, she forced her lower body to press against his, accepting an inch of his pulsing length inside of her. She gave a shrill wail as he entered her, the sudden shock of pleasure almost enveloping the pain that burned her face.

He gripped her thighs, holding her firmly in place as he moved his hips upward, piercing her deeply.

Leonardo’s warm body underneath her was like a furnace, the tight muscles of his abdomen tensing against her smooth belly as she pushed downwards. Her legs curled on either side of his body.

The blond man’s fingers sank into the pale soft flesh of her legs as she moved rhythmically.
Her heart pumped in her chest as she gripped his sloping shoulders, her tangled chestnut covering her face as she lowered her head. The tips of her long hair tickled his face.

A pale hand cupped her chin, thumb rubbing lovingly across her face. Patience jerked her head away, tears finally starting in her eyes. He gave a stifled gasp as she gave a particularly strong thrust down, her pussy clenching so tightly she thought she might have milked him dry.

“Oh, mia mignotta! You’re so good at this! To think that I have this to look forward to for the rest of my life…!” His voice was mocking, laughing at her expense as she rhythmically rocked her hips. His swollen cockhead lodged against the back of her vagina, her pink insides enveloping and massaging the throbbing length.

Every slide of his cock against her puffy lower lips made her body spark with spasms of pleasure. The friction made thrills erupt in her belly, and she had begun to get wetter and wetter, her juices starting to slicken the way.

He smoothly slid in and out of her, hips thrusting upward as her neck pulsed and her nipples hardened to small berries in the chilly room.

“I hate you!” she wept, grinding down again and again, his thick penis twitching inside of her, pressing relentlessly against her walls. Her clit twitched as his veins pulsed against the opening of her cunt. “I’m going to get out of here one day, Borghese! And when I do I’m going to kill you!”

Leonardo laughed in a high, amused voice as she gave another spasming thrust downward, her churning belly erupting in a wave of pleasure as warm semen burst through her body.

Chapter Text

The sink was running.

The dull trickle of water sounded in her ears as she woke up. The canopy of the bed wavered in front of her eyes before it focused. Patience sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes.

Leonardo Borghese’s room was delicately furnished, with dark hardwood walls and floors. It had a velvet sofa to the side of the floor-length window, and several plush scarlet armchairs set around the room. A large polished wardrobe was hanging open, revealing several sets of neatly-pressed suits, gray and black and white. And to the side was a carved wooden dresser with a silver mirror, under a large photograph of the crumbling walls of the Colosseum.

The water shut off. Leonardo leaned into view, shaving cream covering his chin. “Patience, are you awake? My, my, but you were asleep very deeply. You didn’t move when I kissed or caressed you.”

And probably did even worse things to me, thought Patience with a shudder of horror. She could imagine him slipping his tongue inside her, kneading her breasts to sharp tips and watching, self-satisfied, as she moaned unconsciously and her cheeks flushed pink.

Patience followed him into the bathroom, her head bowed.

She brushed her hair back as she reached the bathroom. The walls were white, marble, surrounding the massive tub in the middle and the long sink. The silver of the faucet glinted in the white light.

As she splashed water on her face, she saw her refection in the mirror. Her hair was tangled and loose down to her elbows, and the smudged makeup that had caked to her face overnight was washing off in rivulets of blue. Her skin was waxy, dark rings under her eyes as water dripped from her face.

She heard scrapes as Leonardo shaved, delicately scraping the foam off his chin. He was dressed-down in a white button-up shirt and loose pants. His hair was uncombed and falling into his eyes. He looked so different from the well-groomed, sleek caricature he showed to the world, of the well-respected businessman and philanthropist Leonardo Borghese.

Soon to be Councilman, Mayor, Senator Borghese. The thought made her sick. She leaned against the counter. Whenever she moved, the place between her legs throbbed in brief stings of pain. He had not been gentle with her last night. Patience was beginning to feel that she would have to get used to it.

Leonardo tapped his razor against the sink. He was humming under his breath, something that sounded like a libretto.

Patience felt misery bubbling up inside her, but it was passionless, without wind, just a useless emotion she had to put effort into. She took a toothbrush and stuck it in her mouth, listlessly going through the motions of the morning.

She stiffened as she felt his hand thread through her hair, untangling her messy locks. “You’re going to have to wash your hair today, darling. Tomorrow we'll have you fitted for a wedding dress.”

His words just made more intense grief erupt inside her. She refused to answer and spat into the sink. Was this what life had in store for her now? As a politician’s wife doomed to smile for the cameras and consent to cheerful interviews about her husband, while the dark underbelly of blood, murder and corruption permeated her household?

“And afterwards, I’ll be attending the Garland City Metropolitan Opera with you on my arm…to make an announcement, so to say, to the world. So don’t be surprised when your face ends up in the Garland City Times.”

That last announcement made her wonder, with a sudden panic, what Michael would do when he saw it. He was a journalist. He would, of course, have access to the newest news…in fact, he may even be the one to write the story.

If he was even alive...

“How’s Michael?” she asked casually, trying to slip in the question offhandedly.

There was a strangely loud scraping noise, and as Patience looked over, Leonardo was removing the razor from his face. Blood was dripping down his chin from a slash against his skin.

“You do know how to ruin the mood, don’t you, Patience?”

His voice was merry, but she heard a crack underneath it, as dark as the mood of the room had turned. She gripped the rim of the sink as he turned toward her.

“I’m sorry,” she said weakly. “It’s just, he’s a good friend of mine, and I—“

“Ssh.” The word silenced her. He gripped her arm and pulled her toward him, caging her in against the counter. She was terrified as he leaned in closer, his abdomen pressing against her belly and forcing her legs apart.

“I think perhaps you should focus on more important things, Patience.” His voice was quiet and gentle but she could hear the bane underneath his tone, running like a black river. “Like what you should wear to our opera excursion…or what color you want the nursery to be decorated in.”

His poisonous tone made her start to shake in fear as she realized her question had tripped a wire.

He used his knees to spread hers open, and she heard the undoing of a zipper. The marble of the counter was cold against her back as he shoved her nightgown up.

“I’m sorry, no, I didn’t mean anything by it—“ her voice was a pathetic squeak.

Leonardo entered her abruptly, without any preparation, his hard, thick length tearing through her dry hole. She nearly cried in pain as he began to pump, his strong waist pushing forward with hard thrusts.

He was panting, not with arousal but exertion. She could tell this was meant to be punishment, by the way he cruelly changed angles and pressed dryly against her soft walls. His hard hands gripped her waist through the filmy fabric of her nightgown.

She wanted to cry, wanted to scream at him for the answer—What have you done to Michael?—but her cry stopped in her throat and her limbs paralyzed when she saw his lowered head and strong shoulders thrusting forward, lips colorless as he sunk his teeth into them. Her words stuck in her throat. All she could do was hope against hope that his sudden loss of temper meant that Michael had escaped from his clutches.

“I think you have too much free time on your hands to be thinking about such things…maybe you should start to get onto your wifely duties, Patience, and give me a baby.”

His words made a sudden, sickening lurch hit her belly. Her fight suddenly renewed, she tried to skitter backwards on her elbows, but his hands like iron gripped her waist, leaving bruises she was sure would show up purple for days.

“Get away from me!” she wailed. She lashed out with a foot, but he caught her ankle, fingers sinking deeply into her healing wound.

“There’s that spunky girl I know! Meraviglioso, meraviglioso. I knew I hadn’t made a mistake when I chose you. This is going to be a very, very fun marriage.”

The agony made a heavy hit of pain reach her head, and she slumped backwards, sobs heaving in her chest as the knowledge of what was happening and was going to happen hit her.

He lovingly drove himself inside her, his glans penetrating deeply into her spasming cunt. To her it felt more like a knife, cleaving her insides and tearing her open to reveal her twitching red belly to the world.

Patience felt him exhale against her skin. She could smell the shaving cream on his skin as he pressed his cheek to hers. His red lips curved against her neck.

“I can’t do this,” she wept, her previously strong voice a mess of weakness and begging. “I can’t…we can’t do this, Leonardo. We can’t get married, we can’t have a family like this. With me hating you. With you doing this to me.”

“Ssh,” he whispered in her ear. Despite his soft tone, the blond man punctuated his words with another hard thrust. Her back squeaked across the hard, cold marble, her nightgown pulled up above her waist. She was pushed against the cold edge of the countertop, both legs spread obscenely wide as he pressed his hard, muscled abdomen against her trembling belly.

“You will accept it in time, as years go by. I won’t have to force myself on you anymore. You’ll have children that you will love and coddle. You will greet me at the door with a loving smile and dinner on the table. You’ll be happy with me. Do you know why?”

The young brunette was beginning to feel a familiar ball of warmth in her stomach. Each time he brought his hips forward, rebellious sparks ignited deep in her womb as her well-trained cunt tightened under his onslaught. Her lower lips, spread like a flower, clenched his hard length as he withdrew an inch.

“I won’t,” she wept weakly. “I won’t. I’ll never stop hating you, you murderer—“

“Because you are lonely. The yawning hole in your chest—you want it to be filled by something, don’t you? Our children will give you joy. I will give you love, a home. And in the end, that is all you really want.”

Patience was glad she couldn’t see the mirror. She didn’t want to see her messy, sluttish face gape and moan as he hammered himself deeper into her, cheeks red and legs spread like a whore.

“Not justice, or revenge. Just a warm body beside you. A loving husband. A sleeping child in your arms.”

She didn’t want this—no, she didn’t want a baby, not something that clung to her chest and wailed when she tried to sleep—not something with Leonardo’s hair and eyes, looking at her with his dark, unfathomable gaze.

But…a traitorous part of her mind whispered…maybe the softness of a child…maybe it would chase some of her loneliness away…

“Oh, ti amo, dolcezza. You might not believe it, but I do. Ti amo. We’ll have a lovely life together, you and I.”

A cold fingertip rubbed her clit, pressing down on the bundle of nerves. A flare of pure pleasure shot through her body. Through her watery eyes, Patience saw cold blue diamonds above her, blank and glassy as his face uttered empty words of affection and love.

“Come on, Patience. Give me a kiss. Give your husband a kiss. Tell me how much you love me. How much you would like to bear my children.”

Leonardo threaded his hands in her hair, pulling her gaze up to meet his. His hips did not slow as he forced his throbbing cock deeper and deeper into her narrow channel. She could hear his breaths, coming short and soft in the room. She gasped, letting out high moans as her pussy clenched his swollen dick. The hole in his tip emitted clear liquid, precum wetting her insides as he prepared to come in her red, traitorously eager insides.

His thumb sliced her clit, his neatly manicured, sharp fingernail cutting through the soft, pliable flesh to make blood well through her spread pussy lips. The sudden sharp pain made more tears stream down her cheeks.

Pazienza. Do it.”

She forced herself up on her elbows, silently weeping, and pressed a kiss to his cold lips.

“I love you, Leo,” Patience sobbed brokenly as he ground forward, his muscled arms tightening and his golden hair loose and messy, brushing her collarbone as he bent over her.

“I love you. I want to have your baby. I want to be your wife, Leo!” Each word was like a knife cutting her throat.

But what choice did she have? All her struggles, her defiance, what had it gotten her?

Fucking nothing.

Leonardo laughed. “You’re going to be a good wife, Pazienza. I can just tell.” He thrust brutally, cock rubbing against the lining of her cunt. His tip pressed through the mucous that clung to her walls, tearing through the soft viscosity. The swollen length pulsed against her walls, making her insides inadvertently twitch and constrict.

Patience’s hand nudged something cold and sharp. As she watched Leo on his feet, screwing himself deeper inside her, a cold, unfeeling smile on his face, she imagined his throat slit open, neck gaping open, showing the red and pink of his throat and lungs and spraying warm blood all over her.

As she gripped the razor in her hand, he suddenly pulled away from her.

She was left panting, gasping with an unfinished climax as the elegant man stood at the doorway, buttoning his pants.

“That should teach you some manners,” he said softly, buttoning his shirt. “Maybe next time I’ll let you finish, if I’m merciful and you please me enough.”

Her rising orgasm faded away into her body, and all she could do was lean back, gasping in unfinished pleasure as her pussy grasped what was no longer there.

“Ahh, I forgot to mention,” he said offhandedly, smoothing his hair in the mirror. “You’re going to have to stay upstairs today, darling. There will be builders here, adding an extension to your room.”

***

“Please, could you do a favor for me?” Patience asked the construction worker. She held out a note in her trembling hand. “Could you take this to someone I know?” she said. “I would be able to pay you handsomely.”

The builder, an older man, looked away. The hallway leading to her room was paved with dust, half of the wall ripped out. Raw concrete blocks showed as they broke through the red barrier.

“I’m—I’m sorry. Please. I have a family.” His voice was pleading.

With those words, Patience withdrew. They knew about Leonardo, and what he would do to them if they were found helping her.

“I’m sorry. Keep building.”

As Patience watched him hurry away, she nervously wondered what they were adding onto her room. A nursery? Leonardo’s words were a dark stain in the back of her mind. He hadn’t finished inside her, but—what about in the future? She gritted her teeth and turned away, her heart pulsing in a sickening beat. She squeezed her legs together.

******

The wire in her hand broke, yet again.

Patience huffed, fixing her eyes on Leonardo’s unopened drawer. It was deep night, and the builders were gone. She had been trying to unlock with the drawer for the better part of two hours. A small part of her questioned whether she should even be doing this—if her fate was sealed, what was the use?—but she ignored it, reaching into her pocket for the next wire.

Instead, her fingertips came into contact with the razor.

Patience froze for a moment, then a thought came onto her.

She slid the razor into the keyhole, and the solid metal held as she as she jiggled it. After a couple minutes, she heard a blessed click.

Unable to understand her luck, she slid the sacred drawer open, eager to learn what was inside.

Tax returns? Physical evidence of his wrongdoings? …no, just a bunch of yellowed paper documents.

Some of them were written in Italian, and thank god she had been studying it. She laid them out, trying to decipher them.

The first was written in crumbing ink, a—birth certificate?

Leonardo Franco Borghese, born August 2, 1929, San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital, Rome. Male, nine pounds.

So he was born in Rome, huh…strange, she had thought he was Sicilian. She flipped the page over and read the paper stapled to the back.

Under the line reading Mother was the name Vittoria Gagliardi. Not Vittoria Borghese. Had Leonardo been born outside of wedlock? There was no name under the line saying Father. But—Patience knew for a fact Leonardo knew his father. Silvio Borghese had been the last head of the Borghese family.

Luogo di nascita della madreBirthplace of Mother: Milan, Italy. Wasn’t that a grand, ancient city? Why would the son of a Sicilian tailor have such illustrious origins?

Born living… of course, she knew that for a fact. Number of child… first. A firstborn, she had suspected as much. Patience had not known of any siblings of his in existence, not through her research anyway, and certainly not living in America. She supposed he might have a half-brother or sister still living in Italy, on his father’s side, but not apparently on his mother’s.

She laid down the certificate and picked up the next one. It also appeared to be a birth certificate, but a little older and fancier with black cursive writing. The date on the top left read 1914.

As her eyes traveled down the page, she saw that it apparently belonged to his mother, the illusive and mysterious woman whose presence seemed to haunt the mansion. The certificate read Vittoria Maria Charlotte Gagliardi. As Patience added up the dates in her head, she took a sudden intake of breath. If Vittoria was born in 1914, and she gave birth in 1929…

Jesus, she had to have only been fifteen. Was that just how things were done back then, in Italy? The young detective could barely grasp what it would be like to give birth at fifteen. Patience was twenty-two and still couldn’t imagine having a child.

As the girl’s eyes traced the paper, another word leaped out at her. Under the line of Father was the title Conte Guillaume Gagliardi. A count? Or was Conte just his name? The title of the mother—Contessa—confirmed it. Vittoria had been born to nobility.

She set it down, wordless. This was too much to take in and too much to decipher. If Leonardo was the son of an Italian countess, why did he arrive as a poor immigrant? Why was his father not on the birth certificate? And why were these papers locked up so tightly and secretively, instead of papers relating to the mafia or dossiers of his illegal wrongdoings?

There were two papers left. The first one was printed in English, and appeared to be the immigration records of him and his father. A black-and-white photograph was on the front, of a tall man in a dark coat with a young blond boy at his side. He had his arm around the child, but the boy was looking away, his soft, delicate features carefully blank. Patience immediately recognized the hawkish nose of the man on the right. Silvio Giovanni Borghese, and son Leonardo. Place of departure: Sciaccia, Sicily, Italian Republic.

Joining the legions of poor immigrants looking for a new life, Leonardo’s story—or, just what Patience knew of it—began here. Except instead of looking for a new life, he had joined his father in installing a corrupt criminal organization that clenched the neck of Garland City in its tight fists. Patience threw the paper down, grinding her teeth. She was about to sweep the papers back into the drawer when she remembered the last one.

She picked it up. It had a bunch of writing in dense Italian, which she could hardly read. There was something watermarked on the top…La chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena, Napoli…Asilo...it seemed to be a church. Asilo? What did that mean?

Malata: Vittoria Gagliardi. Judging from the beginning of the word, mal, Patience guessed it was a word for sick, ill, so a patient. So Vittoria was ill, and at this church-hospital—Asilo! Asylum! That was it!

Admitted to the asylum in…1929.

The year of Leonardo’s birth.

“Pazienza?”

At the sound of Leonardo’s sudden, echoing voice, Patience hurriedly swept the papers back into the drawer and shut it with a click. “I’m coming!’

Leonardo was standing just inside the front door. He was dressed in a long raincoat, the neat leather coat buttoned up to his neck. His hair was neatly swept back, as well-groomed as always, and he was holding a hat.

He smiled as she limped into view. “I will be gone for a little while,” he said. “There is a…special ceremony I need to oversee.”

Special ceremony? Her curiosity was piqued, but she didn’t dare speak up. He bent down to kiss her, and she stood on her tiptoes to accept his press of lips. “I’ll be back later tonight,” he informed her, placing the hat on his head.

“You’re leaving me alone?” she said, trying to keep the hopefulness out of her voice.

“No, there will be someone here to keep an eye on you. He’s a good friend.” He turned the doorknob. “Please behave yourself. Ciao, dolcezza.”

“Ciao,” she said, raising a hand briefly. Her mind was pondering just who exactly this “good friend” was. She hadn’t heard anyone enter the mansion…

As she walked down the hallway to her room, she noticed that there were numerous unfinished concrete blocks, planks and tools littering the floor. The builders had seemed to just drop everything where it was and leave for home. How annoying. She would have to speak with Leonardo about their lack of organization skills.

There was a cold draft sweeping up her bare legs, coming in from the gaping holes in the walls that were covered with canvas. Dressed as she was in only a thin nightgown, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

The curtains were pulled on the windows, and she saw through the thick glass a pair of headlights leaving the estate. In the front driveway was a beaten-up black car that was clearly not Leonardo’s.

She heard a step behind her.

“Well, well, well. Looks like we’re all alone again.”

As the cold, livid voice echoed behind her, she whipped around, her breath freezing as she recognized the voice.

Stefano Rizzo was standing at the end of the hall, head bowed and light shining off his glasses. There was a terrifying smile on his face, cracking his face like a broken plate.

“We’ve got a lot to talk about, you and I. Like how you tried to murder me, that night in the hotel. And just how unsuitable you are for Don Leonardo. Yes, we’re going to have a talk, you and I. A nice long talk.”

And as her eyes trailed to his side, she noticed he was clutching a long, curved knife in his hand, the cold light glinting off the metal blade.

***

The hallway was cold.

Patience took a slow step back. It was matched by a step forward by Stefano. “Please,” she whispered, total terror swamping her. “Don’t—please. It was self defense. I was rescuing Nizzola from being killed by you!”

“You ruined my mission. For the first time, I failed. Do you know how it feels to have the one person you look up to—respect and admire and love—look down on you in anger and disappointment?” He flexed his right fingers, which were swathed in bandages

“Leonardo will be angry,” Patience blurted, still taking steps back as he matched her step by step. “If—if you do anything to me, Leonardo will be angry!”

He spat. “Don Leonardo! Cazzo, puttana! You don’t deserve to lick his shoes. He needs a good woman, one who loves him and tends to his needs, not some American bitch who hates him and will ruin his life!”

Her mind a blank buzz, she shook her head mutely.

“You’re the worst thing that ever happened to him. I don’t know what he sees in you, but I’m going to stop this fucking thing in its tracks!”

He took another stride. She tripped over a nail gun and hurriedly backed up. His eyes were deranged with hatred and resentment as he raised the knife.

“I’m going to slice off your nose, your nipples, your fucking eyes, your fingers,” he hissed. “And I’m going to shove this knife up your cunt and carve out that filthy womb of yours!”

Stefano lurched forward, and Patience only saw the glint of a knife before she threw herself back. The edge sliced through the fabric of her nightgown, barely nicking the skin.

The girl’s mind was going a thousand miles an hour. All her training in criminal justice school—duck and roll, keep out of range, find a weapon—seemed useless in that moment.

Her eyes briefly flicked behind her, down the hallway to her room. There was a dead end there. Cold, terrified sweat trickled down her forehead. Her pupils were pinpricks of fear.

Stefano came forward again, knife held high, and she threw herself back, only to hit the wall. The knife sunk into the soft skin of her belly, tearing open a gash. Sudden pain exploded through her body.

Patience lashed out with a foot, catching him in the midriff. He fell back in surprise, clutching his stomach, and she threw herself forward, trying to wrest the knife out of his grip. His fingers were tight on the handle, and the man turned it toward her again, trying to stab her throat while they grappled. She twisted his wrist as brutally as she could, and his grip loosened enough for her to pull the knife free.

Two hard punches to her already-injured belly and the knife clattered to the ground. Gasping, she clutched her wound. Pain whitened her vision.

Her head smashed into the ground. The knife embedded itself in the wood beside her head.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he hissed. “I think I’m just gonna kill you instead. Be grateful, you fucking cunt. I’m giving you a quick death.”

His hand gripped her neck, cutting her air flow. Behind her was a plank with several broken nails sticking out of it.

Stefano pressed his hand over her face, and through his fingers she saw his face, manic, with a grin slashed across it. His eyes were bright with vicious joy. It was more like the face of a demon than a man. The young girl began to struggle, raw animal panic as he began to force her head down onto the broken nails.

The muscles in her neck worked as she tried to keep her head up, away from the nails that would surely pierce her skull and brain. She gripped his wrists to no avail, struggling as hard as she could, but she was no match for a trained hitman.

She could see a nail gun to her right, through her teary vision. One of the construction workers must have left it.

The sharp metal nails were just beginning to prick the back of her neck when she lashed out in a final, desperate attempt, her knee slamming into his crotch.

He rolled over, gasping in pain, and she was on her feet, grasping the green nail gun and pulling it up. On his knees, Stefano looked up, and she aimed it at his face and pulled the trigger.

There was a wet sort of thunk sound. Like a knife sliding through a pig.

Stefano collapsed forward.

***

It was quiet.

Patience watched as a pool of blood spread below his head. One of the panes of Stefano’s glasses was broken, the glass shattered and caved in from where the nail had entered his head.

She stared at the body, the cold silence of the hallway a dull, heavy weight on her.

The girl bent down and riffled through his pockets until she found a ring of metal car keys. Gripping them tightly, she began to run down the hallway, toward the front door.

The snow was cold on her bare feet, but she didn’t slow down, struggling through the lawn over to the black car.

It was cold and dark inside the car. She tried to slide the key in, but it took her a few tries with her frigid, stiff fingers. It finally started with a rattle, the car coming to life.

The windows of the mansion were dark. Save for the light in the hallway, which bathed the snow outside in dim orange light.

Patience reversed and put her heel on the gas, driving out of the front gate.

The massive stone walls began to grow smaller in the rearview mirror as she drove down the road, until she took a bend and they disappeared entirely.

She felt something warm drip down her legs, and she looked down. Her knife gash was still weeping blood. She looked up and accelerated.

Her mind was blank.

She couldn’t go to her apartment. That would be the first place they would look. She needed to find somewhere else to hide.

Michael.

Her fingers were white on the steering wheel. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a dolly on its back, on the passenger’s seat. Did Stefano have a family? Somehow that thought had never occurred to her.

The suburbs of Garland City slowly turned denser, huge skyscrapers towering in the distance as the houses became more crowded, some made of brick, some with ivy on their balconies. Snow dusted the sidewalk.

Patience didn’t know how long she had been driving. She knew Michael’s house was right around the corner. There would be smoke coming from the chimney, because Michael could never get his radiator to work. He would be in the window, penning his next article, or putting the kettle on. Maybe his glasses would be folded up beside his desk, or maybe he would be wearing them, his eyes wide as he opened the door for her.

Patience parked the car a street over and got out. She threw the keys into the front seat and kicked the door shut. They would know she stole it. She would have to abandon it. She trudged through the snow-slickened concrete, anticipating Michael’s red roof rising in the distance. She didn’t even notice her ankle leaving a trail of blood in the snow behind her.

As she rounded the corner, instead of his merry little house, she saw…

Ruins.

His house was a burned ruin. Snow and ash covered the broken beams, burned nubs of furniture, and the overgrown lawn. It had been razed to the ground. What few walls that were left standing were blackened and scorched.

The cold, solid feeling in her chest burst.

Patience began to wail, her face buried in her sleeves. Oh god. Oh god. Michael. His house had been burned to the ground. All his work, all the files and recordings, everything he and her worked and risked their lives for was destroyed.

And Michael, her dear Michael, her friend, her staunch ally...

He was…he was…Leonardo must have…

He could be alive!

He was…

He could have gotten away!

Gone.

***

Flora Haywood was awoken by several heavy thuds on her front door. Rubbing her eyes, she put on a house robe and slippers, walking out to the hallway to see who it was. She had not been sleeping well since her daughter died, and it was one of the few nights were she had fallen into a sleep, fitful as it was. The middle-aged woman wondered who could be calling at this time of night.

“I’m coming,” she said sleepily. She unlatched the door and opened it.

Her cat Mickey darted through her legs, running outside.

There was a young woman on her doorstep, tears caking her face. Her hair was wild and her eyes were red and crazed. She clutched a torn, bloody nightgown around her body.

“Please,” the girl said, her voice cracked and pleading. “Please. You have to help me.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Through sobs and coughs, her story came out.

Flora sat with her, her face turning pale, then ashen. Her hands, held in hers, began to tremble.

After a while, Flora drew her tightly into her arms, her body shaking. She held the young girl close as she sobbed spasmodically into her shoulder. The warmth the older woman gave to Patience made the first shreds of comfort, for a long time, start inside her.

Patience lay against her, face pressed against the smooth fabric of her nightgown, crying and confessing like so much poison escaping her throat.

Flora’s hand gently cupped the back of her head, her touch gentle and loving, so different from his touch. She held Patience like a mother cradling her daughter, soft skin and gentle words, the tips of her faded red hair lightly tickling her face.

It was impossible to believe. No no no it couldn’t have happened. Patience was free. Was she free? Had this happened? Was this just a cruel dream swirling in her head as Borghese enacted injustices on her body as she lay spread out in the canopied bed? Her mind hit her with heavy waves of fear and panic, making her dizzy. It seemed she had lived the last few hours in a nightmare. It seemed as if she had lived the past few months in hell.

“Patience,” was the gentle whispered voice against her hair. “Ssh. It’s okay. Honey, it’s fine. You’re safe.”

Eventually, Patience found herself in bed. The shallow cut on her belly was cleaned and bandaged, and the patchwork quilt was soft against her chin.

“No,” she choked as Flora turned towards the exit. “Please—they’ll find me. No, please, they’ll kill you, I know they will—“

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Flora. There was a hardness in her voice Patience had never heard before. Her eyes were dark with an unbreakable promise. “I have a gun in my dresser. If anyone comes to my door, they’ll know what to expect.”

As she closed the door, Patience was alone.

***

Days passed in a blur. Patience saw things—the pink of the doilies, the polished wood of the dresser. The sunlight through the lace curtains.

She felt the breeze on her skin. Once she woke screaming, imagining that the soft tickle of air on her hair was Leonardo’s lips, caressing her head. The window was kept shut from then on.

When Flora was in the room, Patience clung to her, afraid it would be the last time she saw her, that Leonardo’s men would gun her down in the street. The older woman soothed and embraced her, but every time she left, Patience felt her panicking mind start to break at the seams. Every moment alone was a moment in hell as she was left to her own memories.

She dreamed about his eyes. Every spot of blue on the china was his iris. She dreamed about his hair. Every gold glimmer on the wallpaper was his soft curls. She dreamed about his touch. Every time her hand strayed down between her legs, it was his soft, pale fingers, sinking deep within her, making her moan unconsciously in her sleep.

 

There was a man in the house today.

Patience stared at the doctor.

“Who are you?”

The man—kindly, with soft brown hair like Michael and a stethoscope around his neck—looked apologetically to Flora.

“He’s here to fix your ankle,” the older woman said soothingly. Her hand gently massaged her shoulder. “He’s going to put you under for a while.”

Patience was afraid. Her fingers dug into Flora’s arm. The doctor gently took her arm and slid a needle into her skin. The clear liquid seeped through the tube, into her veins.

Soon, her gaze refracted into a thousand pieces, and her mind sank into sluggishness, then unconsciousness. Her grip on Flora’s arm loosened, and her fingers fell limp.

***

The room was dark.

So damp and abandoned—like one of the buildings in the town where she had found Caroline. The walls were dripping with some indefinable dampness, pooling on the algae-covered floor.

It smelling of rot and must. With the same distant stink of decaying flesh, like the field of bodies that appeared before her horrified eyes in the moonlight.

Patience tried to move her arm, but she was tied to the chair with cords. She pulled, but it held firm. Dizzy, she lifted her head.

A spotlight beamed on the floor in front of her. In the middle was a figure, tied to another chair. His head was bowed, light brown mussed.

Her breath shorted out as Patience recognized the figure in front of her. “Michael!”

The short man said nothing. His body heaved with deep breaths. A glove-covered hand emerged from the darkness, gripping his hair and forcing his head up.

Michael’s face was a mess of bruises, eyes swollen shut and nose mashed to an unrecognizable pulp. As Patience watched, another figure stepped into a spotlight. White light shone off flaxen curls.

The man stood tall and elegant in the light. His black suit was neatly fit; impeccable, with nary a wrinkle. A fedora was tilted on his head. He looked like a gangster of the old days, like Al Capone, a caricature, with a white scarf hung around his shoulders and black tie tucked into the front of his suit. His hands, hooked in his pockets, were clad in black leather gloves.

But he exuded no air of jauntiness, no slick cockiness that characterized the glamor and glitz of the olden mafia. The rim of his hat was tilted over his eyes, but she could see his smile, quiet but brutal, like a spider watching its prey cocooned in a web.

“No,” Patience said, her voice trembling. “No. No.”

Slowly, Leonardo lifted his hand to his mouth and, using his teeth, gently freed each finger from the glove. He let it fall onto the ground, the leather lying there, shining dully in the white light.

Patience saw the gleam of metal as he raised a knife to Michael’s face.

A soft voice echoed around the room. “Didn’t I tell you that I when I found your Michael, I would give him a slow death?”

His knife pressed onto the bruised skin of Michael’s face and began to slowly carve downward.

Michael began to scream, choking on sobs as his flesh was sheared off.

“He doesn’t,” she sobbed. “He doesn’t…we’re not…he’s innocent, of all of this, he doesn’t deserve…”

“Deserve,” he said, “has nothing to do with this.”

"Patience," said Michael, gurgling as he drowned in his blood.

Leonardo sounded almost regretful. “Tsk, tsk…if you had just kept silent about him, then he would be alive today. But no, you had to run off and call him at first opportunity…” His pale fingertips sunk into the flap of skin and began to peel it off, accompanying his movements with saws of the knife. “See? You did this, Pazienza. This is all you.”

“No! Please, no! He's guilty of nothing!” she screamed.

“I hate to see you cry, dolcezza. But maybe after this, you’ll think twice before looking at another man.”

“Why, Patience?” sobbed Michael as blood streamed down his collar.

“Why? Why did you have to call me? Why did you have to be my friend? Look what you’ve done to me!”

Patience woke with a garbled scream in her throat.

It took her a few seconds, in the confusion of the pitch-black room, to realize she was safe in Flora’s home, and not in that dark, dank room. Her breaths came in terrified pants.

Her ankle ached, just a little bit. She switched the lamp and checked it. There was thick bandaging swathing her leg.

The house was silent. Flora had left for her job at the department store. She was alone again.

Patience wrapped her arms around her knees and sat there, in the darkness and loneliness of the empty house.

***

The inside of the bank smelled sterile.

Patience felt as if the outside was closing in on her, the dark walls and marble counters and blank-eyed tellers tapping away at their typewriters. The unfamiliar sweater of Flora’s was too tight, the fabric rough against her soft skin.

“Yes?”

The sharp voice pierced her ears, making her flinch. The woman in front of her was middle-aged, dumpy, with pointed glasses under which watery blue eyes stared accusingly at her.

“Do you want to make a deposit or withdrawal?”

“Um...” Patience let her weight shift from foot to foot. Her ankle still ached after the operation. “I’m here to make a withdrawal. Michael Sheehan. He has some papers for me in a safety deposit box …”

The woman turned away for a second, and it was the longest second of Patience’s life. She felt as if the long hand on the clock above them took an hour to click from tick to tick.

Her fingers bit into the fabric of her sleeve. Her breaths came in short and harsh in the cold room.

“…I’m sorry, but the files were taken several weeks previously by his brother.”

“What?!” her voice was rising, a sick feeling erupting in her stomach. “You let someone take the papers out?”

“They were taken out of the safety deposit box by one Seamus Sheehan on November the—“

“His brother is dead!” she screamed uncontrollably. “There is no Seamus Sheehan!”

Patience had sunk onto her knees, heaving with terrified breaths. The polished wood blurred in front of her eyes. Leonardo Borghese. He took them. He knows.

“Why?” she gasped. “Why did you do it? Why did you just fucking let him in there? Didn’t he have identification? Why did you just let him take those papers out?”

“Please, madam, if you keep making a scene, we’ll have to call security—“

Patience slowly rose to her feet, her flowing hair shielding her face. Why? Why? Why did they do it? It was fucking ruined, it was all gone, all of it! Everything!

***

On her way home, the headline of a newspaper caught her eye.

On the front page, printed in black-and-white, was the smiling visage of the man who had haunted her nightmares. Dressed nicely, he was standing in an opera house, next to several well-known politicians, his bow tie crisp and red and his dinner jacket well starched. His features were as calm as a cat, exuding a certain contented joy. The headline said MAYOR BOURBON MEETS WITH NOTED ENTREPRENEUR LEONARDO BORGHESE AT GARLAND CITY OPERA HOUSE.

Patience stared at the black words for a long time, until colorful spots bruised the front of her eyes. Then she turned and began to walk home.

***

That night, Patience sat at the dinner table. Her fingernails, broken and chipped with gnawings, rested on the tabletop. Her hair, unraveling and dull, fell past her shoulders, down her back in messy tangles. The girl's head was lowered, eye bags pulling at her lids. Stress acne had begun to break out on the corners of her forehead.

She thought of the weeks she had spent in the library, ever moment of her free time, researching and begging police for the records. Painstakingly gathering every mugshot, every criminal record she could, gathering all the hints and clues into a bigger picture. Years and years. Her entire adult life.

And it was all gone. Michael’s paper trail, his proof of Leonardo Borghese’s criminal doings. Her files, her grueling research. Her apartment was ransacked and staked out ever since Leonardo had learned her name. Michael’s house burned down and his files stolen. All she had worked for in her life. Her sweat and blood.

Her life’s work. All of it. Gone.

Really, what had she ever managed to accomplish in her shitty, miserable life except getting Michael killed? Cause a few divorces? Was that it? Was that the impact she'd had on the world?

Karma is infinite. Whatever we do in this life carries onto the next one. The words of her favorite philosophy professor, Mr. Durham-- the only teacher who had not thought she was a freak-- echoed through her mind. Well, if that was true, then she was most certainly fucked in the next world.

Patience wondered if Mr. Durham even thought about her anymore. Then Leonardo’s words echoed in her mind— find it interesting, Patience. That even though you’ve been gone for almost two months, not a single police report has been filed—and she figured probably not.

She heard a rustle at the front door, and a key scraped the lock. The first few days Patience had stayed with Flora, she panicked whenever she heard footsteps approaching the door, expecting it to be Leonardo’s men coming to take her back. But now it barely made her lift her head.

However much she had worried, Leonardo had not come for her. She wondered sometimes, remembering his face on the newspaper, so carefree, so gentle and peaceful. Not a hint of worry or unhappiness. Had he forgotten her? The thought should have made her happy, but somehow it made a sick, depressed feeling erupt in the pit of her stomach. Just another person who had forgotten about her.

“Patience, honey? I left you meat loaf in the oven. Did you eat it?”

Patience shook her head, mouth dry. “I wasn’t hungry.”

There was a rustle as Flora put her bags down. “Are you feeling okay? How is your ankle? Have you been doing your exercises?”

“Yeah. I’ve been fine. I barely notice it hurting anymore.”

Flora put her soft hands around her face. The older woman’s pretty brown eyes were worried. “You don’t sound well. Why don’t you go to bed early? I’ll make you some herbal tea.”

Her gentle voice made tears sting Patience’s eyes. She didn’t deserve all this kindness. Patience saw the way her daughter haunted her—the way her eyes trailed to the empty places where Caroline’s photographs used to. The way some nights, if Patience listened intently, she could hear her crying in the next room. And if Patience hadn’t run and fessed to the police, Flora would have at least been able to bury her daughter.

But that was what Patience did, wasn’t it? Ruin people's lives. Michael’s. Flora’s. Just a bad-tempered, reclusive bitch who fucked people’s lives up without even trying.

Hateful. Lonely. Miserable. That man’s words echoed in her mind.

 

She had not had her period lately.

Sometimes when Patience went to the bathroom she stared at the toilet paper, at the pale tissue without a drop of blood on it. She figured it was the stress of the last couple months that caused her to stop menstruating.

 

 

***

When Flora left for work one night, Patience gave her an extra tight hug and kissed her cheek. The older woman, a little surprised, hugged her back and asked if she was all right.

Patience plastered a fake smile on her face and assured her she was fine.

The girl watched Flora leave the house, walking down the sidewalk until her bright red coat disappeared from sight. Then she stared a little longer, just to imprint the memory in her mind.

She took the revolver from the top drawer of Flora’s bureau. She didn’t want to leave a mess for the gentle woman to clean up, no, not after all she had done for her.

Patience slipped on a pair of rainboots—the scuffed pair, she didn’t want to take Flora’s brand new ones— and left the house. Snow had begun to fall heavily, the flecks of white dotting her dark hair. It was very cold, and her nose began to numb several minutes into the walk, but she ignored it. It wouldn’t matter soon anyway.

The high-rise skyscrapers towered above her, great black domes with thousands of glittering lights. She wondered why she had never noticed the beauty of the great city. When she arrived, just an eighteen-year-old with a degree, she had first been awed by the vastness and beautiful architecture, but the wonder had quickly been swept away by her workload and research into the Borghese crime family.

But now it was all gone—all her files, her research, her life’s work—and she could only marvel at what had been in front of her eyes all this time. The streets stretched in front of her, long black stripes weaving through the gray buildings. She saw the great expansion cords of the Ironground Bridge in the distance, the headlights of cars glimmering like so many stars in the night.

If she had one complaint, it was that she wanted to see the sky. All the streetlamps and the headlights blocked out the expanse of the beautiful night. She wanted to be seven again, running with her playmates through the woods, spotting figures in the starry October sky.

Black fire escapes zigzagged the ancient apartment buildings, some windows black and empty, some drawn tightly with curtains. Patience heard a siren in the distance, whining high and low. She lowered her eyes and trudged on.

The scenery became more familiar. A playground with a rusted merry-go-round, where teens used to hang out and catcall her. A dirty water pump that was always broken. The buildings became more derelict, ivy creeping up the sides.

She hadn’t seen her apartment in months. Even though she had never thought of it as anything but an abode to sleep after her exhaustive work, somehow, the sight of it gave her a warm lick of satisfaction. She climbed the crumbling stairs, as same as they were after four years.

The girl knew Leonardo’s men were probably watching her, but she didn’t care. Her eyes sought out a few dark, dormant cars on the opposite side of the street. They had to have been staking the place out for weeks after she escaped.

There was an Eviction notice on the front of her door. She ignored it and pushed in her door, emerging into her familiar living room.

Unsurprisingly, it had been stripped bare, no doubt by Leonardo’s men. Useless papers littered the floor. All of her work, her important files, had been stolen and destroyed. Even her parents’ picture lay shattered on the floor, knocked off by some clumsy goon.

Patience had spent so long in this apartment. Sitting on the beat-up sofa, sorting papers. Crashed on the bed without bothering to snuggle under the covers. Showering after an exhaustive car chase, feeling the sweat and expiration slide off of her. Dressing in the mirror, adjusting her cheap clothes, trying to make herself presentable for her upper-class clients who would still look down at her with veiled contempt.

Soon she would be away from all of this. Her shitty, cheap life. Her miserable future. Leonardo’s wandering fingers, his sadistic smile and gentle words, breaking down all she was. All the memories, haunting her mind, would be wiped out with a motion of her fingers. And then... she would see Mommy and Daddy again.

Patience wished she'd been able to avenge them. She wished she been the one to stand up and deal a fatal blow to Leonardo Borghese, and make them proud from beyond the grave. But all she could do was hope they would be happy to have their little girl back.

The girl sat on her leaning wooden chair. The familiar, stained green tablecloth loomed in front of her. The silver of the revolver glinted in the dull light.

Maybe Mike would be waiting for her. The distant memory of their last conversation drifted into her mind, of his impassioned confession to her that she hadn’t even had the guts to answer. At least now Patience would be able to say “I love you” back. Then she would ask him to forgive her. And he didn’t have to answer her—didn’t have to forgive her—but just saying the words would lift a weight off of her shoulders. Yeah. That would be swell.

Her heavy eyelids drifted shut.

Slowly, Patience pressed the tip of the gun to the back of her throat.

Her knee brushed paper.

Patience’s eyes snapped open. She removed the gun from her mouth in surprise. Then she bent down under the table, reaching under until her fingertips brushed parchment.

Papers spilled on the floor. Mugshots. Files. Tapes.

The gun clattered onto the floor. Patience sifted through the mounds of paper, which had been concealed underneath the table, pinned between where the leg of the table met the underside.

Dossiers. Recordings. Arrest records, some crumbling, some brand new. Rough-faced mugshots, assembled after hours at the Garland City Public Library. Schedules of dates. Photographs of dark-coated figures meeting on street-corners—all of them taken meticulously by Patience.

A reason for living. A struggle against the dying light, the one thing she could cling and grasp on to make her life worthwhile.

Michael, she thought suddenly. His last hiding place. The one portfolio they hadn’t found.

The slight brown-haired girl slowly collapsed on the pile of papers, her body heaving.

For the first time in weeks, she let herself cry.

***

“Patience,” said Flora. “You look—so different!”

That was the only thing the older woman could utter as she saw the young detective pack her suitcase. Flora stood in the doorway, stunned, a stack of folded laundry in her arms.

Patience shot a dazzling smile that Flora had never once seen on the morose young woman. “I cut my hair! You noticed!”

That was only one of the things that changed the appearance of the formerly lifeless and hollow-eyed girl. Patience’s formerly thick, tangled waist-length locks had been cut. Now they fell just above her elbows, shining maple brown and combed pin-straight. Sharply cut bangs now put her brilliant green eyes on show, the color of fresh ivy leaves. Her eyes which no longer had the characteristic dull black ring around their outside, but were bright with liveliness.

And not only that, but Flora noticed as Patience arranged her papers and clicked her suitcase shut, she was wearing a brand new skirt suit instead of her usual unwashed nightgowns. A gray pencil skirt was cut just above the knee, with dark pantyhose that ended in two shiny black high heels. On top was a dark gray suit jacket buttoned over a white blouse and tie.

Patience turned, her newly cut hair whipping around. A bright smile on her face, she pulled the suitcase off the bed and strode out of the room.

”Where are you going?”

“My job!” Patience called happily behind her.

***

High heels clicked on the sidewalk. The shiny black handle of a suitcase was clutched in a firm hand. Up ahead was the metropolitan district, billboards and neon lights, smoky dens and glittering skyscrapers.

A gust of wind ruffled her hair. Patience strode forward, one step after another, each one making her heart swell with conviction.

She wasn’t a weak, sobbing waif anymore, tearfully acquiescing to whatever injustices that monster wanted to perform on her body. She wasn’t a limp and miserable corpse, her mind shut in on itself in a deep mire of self-hatred as her body and dreams went to ruin.

She was Patience Winslow, and she had some sleuthing to do.

 

 

Chapter Text

Click. Click.

Laughing and chatting with his friends, the man strolled down the street, hand in his pocket and a paper bag nested in the corner of his elbow.

Patience lowered her camera, her eyes narrowed as she tracked the dark figure up to the gates. The house was large—one of the many roomy two-story houses that lined the streets of the comfortable suburban neighborhood.

The man waved his companions off and began to try the key in the padlock. She made a note on her timetable—Monday, 2:20. Above her writing were neat lines of ink, all documenting the times when the man entered the house.

The man—Tommy “Sharky” Bianconi—did not appear with his family when he came to this house. Occasionally he came with a woman, more often than not a cabal of dark-suited men or roughshod workers—but never his wife or grandchildren. That led Patience to believe that his house was a second home where he conducted his affairs in secret. And given his line of work, one could easily guess what those “affairs” were. She had gotten the place from Michael’s research—the house on Old Mill Street had been circled by a thick line of red marker on his file. The words Andreotti family hideout? had been scribbled on the upper right.

So that meant Bianconi headed the old Andreotti family. The Andreottis dabbled in white-collar crime, trade unions and and embezzlement. Which meant, of course, that there would be a virtual mountain of files and documents of their returns to indict them. And Patience had more than an inkling as to where some of those files were stored.

Bianconi appeared at the house some weekdays, from around twelve o’clock to four o’clock. Occasionally he stayed nights. She now had a good idea of when he would not be there.

Concealed in the row of cars on the opposite side of the street, Patience slid the key into the ignition.

***

Friday, six o’clock. The sun was starting to drift toward the horizon. Bianconi had not appeared all day.

Patience climbed over the fence in his back garden, which backed into a nice stone pathway that ran through a grove of trees. Thankfully this fence was smaller and shorter than the one surrounding the body dumping ground—she struggled over with minimal effort.

She slid her lockpick into his backdoor, looking over the rims of her sunglasses at the peaceful pathway and tomato plants that lined the garden. It was tranquil, to be sure—but who knew how many bodies were buried in his garden, feeding the ripe red tomatoes that glistened in the evening sun?

The lock clicked, and she slid inside.

Surprisingly, the house was—lived-in. She could see dirty dishes in the sink, and crumples in the carpet. She carefully stepped through the kitchen and emerged into the living room.

The dull black face of the television stared at her from across the room. She nearly upset an overflowing ash tray as she brushed by the coffee table, but whipped back and righted in time before it spilled all over the rug.

Her heart was thudding. Patience was afraid of touching anything, of tipping them off that there had been an intruder. She could hear her shallow breaths in her ears. Pictures lined the walls, of old man Bianconi—younger, with a full head of pitch-black hair—sitting in cars with his friends, or in a family picture with his wife and children.

The young detective passed a toothpaste-stained bathroom (with the toilet seat up, she noticed disdainfully) and spotted an open door. She caught a snatch of bookshelves and a cluttered desk, and she headed for it immediately.

As she riffled through the papers on his desk, she was struck by how much of a goldmine it was. The innocuous house held the greatest secrets—balance sheets, timelines, scribbled lists of employees—holy moley, the Teamsters? That explained so much.

Fascinated, she thumbed through the sheaves of papers. So they were in bed with the unions… unsurprising, the unions had a reputation for being mobbed up. Her father had always said as much. But it was good evidence for the future legal battle. She pocketed a few choice papers, and rearranged the rest.

The next room was innocuous. A pool table, set up in the corner. A whiskey cabinet. A boy’s club.  

Patience passed the pool cue, lying askew on the green table. Her skirt twitched as she turned to survey the table sitting in front of the window. A stack of cards was scattered on the table top.

She heard the distant slam of a door. Loud voices entered her ear. “Fuckin feds, they’re everywhere now…we can’t catch a break. I tell ya, kid, shit ain’t like the twenties anymore. They’re startin’ to catch on.”

A thrill of fear ran through her body. Sudden terror blinded her—they were here, why were they here, they weren’t supposed to be back this late—and she looked around, panicked, and saw a closed door to the side.

Patience tried the doorknob and rushed in, closing it securely behind her. Hearing the mens’ muffled voices in the distance, she sighed in relief, sinking down the wall.

She turned around, ready to critically survey the room—but what she saw stopped her heart.

For a moment her mind tried to make sense of what she was seeing—was it a man, or was it an animal, a deer? But the mound of flesh tied to the chair was slumping in far too human a way.

Patience took a slow step forward. She felt like the bottom had dropped out of her stomach, so she put her hand on a table to steady herself. The thing was vaguely human-shaped below the waist, with a pair of legs encased in what looked like blue jeans. But the top was nothing but pulverized, raw meat like she never seen before, with white fat and blue veins running along the glistening red surface.

Even the head was nothing but a nub of swollen red, like a grapefruit. The rest was encased with blood-caked cloth, most of the skin on the shoulders and head either shredded or beaten until it was an unrecognizable mass of bruised skin. A bloodied baseball bat was leaning on the wall.

The girl hesitantly held out a hand. She wasn’t even wholly sure it was a human. How could a human even be left in this condition? Her fingers approached, trembling.

An inch away from the raw, bloody skin, the body suddenly lurched up, emitting a high, agonizing moan.

The voices stopped. A voice—“Shit, he’s still alive?”—and she heard the clunking of shoes come nearer.

Her mind was a blank. Every nerve in her body screamed at her, to get out, to hide—but her body was paralyzed, her knees feeling like water. The doorknob turned.

Patience quickly slid behind the door as he threw it open. Body trembling, still as a board, she watched through the sliver of light as a tall man stepped forward. All she saw was a broad back, criss-crossed with suspenders.

Two horrible crunching noises sounded. Patience’s breath shorted out. She felt as if her bladder was going to collapse. Utter terror shot down her spine.

“Hey, Sharky, that motherfucker was still breathing! Can you believe it?”

She heard a baseball bat clatter to the ground. The figure turned sideways, and Patience got a look at his face.

She recognized the pitch-black hair, plastered with sweat to the nape of his neck. The rough profile, weathered skin—oh god. Oh Jesus. It was Salvatore Mallozzi.

His eyes were still fixed on a point beyond her. He stepped past the doorway and into the next room. This was her last chance. Patience ducked down low and crawled under the table—the tablecloth didn’t even finish twitching before she heard the heavy stomps of Sharky Bianconi come into the room. “Tough bastard, huh? I once slit a Polack's throat and stuffed him into the trunk of my car. I went clubbing afterwards—this was in the ‘30s, mind you—and you won’t believe this, but when I stumbled back you could still hear him moaning!”

Mallozzi matched Bianconi’s laugh with a disbelieved snort. Patience heard the scrape of a chair, and two legs, clad in black pants, slid under the table. She had never been so glad that she was a tiny girl—she wrapped her arms around her knees and made herself as small as possible, petrified that one of them would nudge her with their feet.

The idea of what they would do to her if they caught her made her sick. Bianconi was an old-time gangster with traditional values, she was sure that he would be more merciful, perhaps kill her quickly. But Mallozzi… she saw something in his eyes that made her paralyze like a rabbit. He seemed more animal than human, the look in his eyes like he wanted to rip her apart. What he would do to her, she didn’t know. Her throat went dry just thinking about it.

Bianconi sat down heavily. Patience heard the sound of a drink being poured. “Motherfuckers in Chicago are getting uppity,” said Mallozzi over the clink of glasses.

“Us, or the Irish?”

“Who the fuck do you expect? The Irish are always uppity. I’m talkin’ bout the Falucci crew from the West Side. Some little splinter group came out this October, started throwin’ their weight around. Braggin’ about being in the mob. Big John isn’t doing a damn thing about them.”

“They’re just young bucks. If they’re too stupid the cops’ll take care of ‘em.”

“They’re fucking disgraces. What happened to men of honor? About keeping it in the brotherhood?”

She heard Mallozzi sigh and mutter something in another language. Bianconi answered in his hoarse tone, and they both laughed. 

Patience’s limbs were beginning to get stiff. She wanted to move, but was too afraid that if she did they would notice. Even when her limbs began to scream, she dared not shift, even minutely.

“So are you comin’ up this March? I’m sending a couple men down. They could use your help.” Sal’s shoe moved, polished leather tapping the floor.

“Don’t know. I’ll be in Florida on March the twenty-fourth. Takin’ care of business.”

“Really? What kind of business?”

Bianconi sighed. “Remember Leo’s guy? Carlo? Carlo Varetti?”

Carlo Varetti. Patience’s breath froze. She knew him. The sound of the gunshot echoed in her head, and she remembered seeing the man fall backwards, limp, with blood gushing out of his forehead, Leonardo standing immaculate and elegant with his gun smoking.

“Yeah, didn’t Leo Angelino whack him for runnin’ his mouth to his girlfriend? Poor guy didn’t deserve that…”

“Yeah. That’s him. He ran this club, you see…Seventh Heaven…”

Things were beginning to click in her head. The conversation she’d heard back at the Christmas Party in that horrible house…the mention of a place, Seventh Heaven, of incriminating documents.

“And now he’s dead, they’re scramblin’ to hand this place off to someone. Leo offered it to me. And shit, Florida, who doesn’t want a piece of that pie?”

Every moment was another piece of information. Patience barely breathed, internalizing every word, storing it in her memory.

“So you’re off down there…should be a good time. Got some nice girls down there. Easy, too.”

“Oh, yeah. Supposed to be a ‘business’ venture, but… hell, that’s what I’ll tell Martha, anyway!”

They both laughed, their deep voices echoing around the room. Sal crossed one leg over the other, the hem of his leg shifting to expose a sliver of blue sock.

“I’ll meet Al there too, he’s thinking of contributing some funds.”

“Sounds like a deal.” Mallozzi shifted. She heard another drink being poured.

“He’s fuckin paranoid as ever, thinks there’s coke flying around.”

“Shit, it’s Florida, why wouldn’t he think that? I went there one weekend and I still don’t remember half of it!”

Bianconi guffawed. “What about you, Sal? What are you up to this week?”

“I’m doing the heist with Ton and Jack Salandra this Tuesday. Should be a clean getaway, like the others. We’re thinking four, five thousand dollars.”

“That’s a good bit. Which bank?”

“Merrimont Public Bank.”

Merrimont Public Bank! Patience had just been there!

“I still don’t know why you don’t leave it to your men. You’re the boss. You shouldn’t have to put yourself in danger like this.”

“Tommy, I grew up dirt poor in Brooklyn. So did my men. You’re telling me I’m better than them, just cause I’m their boss? I’m not Leo Angelino. That fuckin polentone puts on so many airs, you’d think his shit smells better just because he has blond hair and licks the shoes of politicians.”

Patience heard the scrape of a chair. “Hey, you want some dinner? I’m fucking famished.”

“Yeah, put some pasta on. What kinda sauce you got? That dog food you served me last time, Christ, my stomach still hasn’t recovered from that…”

The two men moved out of the room, chatting, and she heard their voices become distant. For a moment she thought about staying where she was and waiting for them to leave the house, but they were having dinner, and she had a feeling they would both be staying a while. She kicked her shoes off, slowly stretched her legs out and crawled out from underneath.

Her bare feet padded lightly on the carpet. The men were talking in Italian, their voices rising and falling with laughter. She spotted a bathroom at the end of the hall. A window shone white sunlight onto the floor.

Patience entered and closed the door behind her. She could hear every soft thud her bare feet made on the carpet. She was anticipating with dread when the laughter stopped, and shoes would start crashing down the hall as they heard her footsteps. The girl gripped the edge of the window and pulled. Several tries and she managed to get it open, and slid it halfway before she hung a leg out.

One look back—the voices were still laughing and talking, and she jumped the few feet down into the garden.

Her feet sunk into soft soil. She was barely on the ground before she began running.

***

Once back in her safe house, she leafed through the papers, adding each crumpled one to her portfolio. Then she pressed her face into her hands and sighed. Nothing, not any of this, led anywhere near Leonardo. The Seventh Heaven debacle sounded as if it might lead to something—but she still had no way of knowing where in Florida it was located. Lists of union leaders working with the mob, yes, that would be helpful for the overall case, but she needed hard, solid evidence. The recordings she had were a start. But she needed returns, witnesses, documents leading to the man himself.

“Putting together your mafia evidence, are you? Don’t stay up too late.”

“I won’t, Flora,” Patience said, a tone of resignation in her voice that suggested she would indeed. Despite herself she smiled, though—Flora was just like a mother, with her chidings and rules.

Flora leaned over her shoulder, and the light scent of flowers brushed her nose. “My word, you have a lot there to work with.”

“It is…” she sighed. “And it’s still not enough.”

“What are you missing?”

“I need evidence connecting Borghese to his doings. I’ve got some good stuff on Bianconi—he’s another mobster, Flora—but Borghese’s so careful, I didn’t find anything, even when I was…” her throat froze up, her last words in the house of horrors unsaid.

Flora noticed immediately, and gripped her shoulders tightly in a hug. “Keep your mind off it, darling.”

Patience ploughed ahead. “When I had Michael, at least it was us two working, but there’s so much to do, and it’s so dangerous…”

“Hmmm. It looks as if you need a partner or something. Someone who knows the ins and outs and wants to take down that awful man as much as you.”

Someone who knows the ins and outs. Somebody who wants to take down that awful man as much as you.

A sudden notion—an absolutely crazy, insane notion—came to her mind. It was patently unworkable, really. Completely bonkers.

One that, if came to fruition, could send her on the fast path to prosecution of the man who had ruined her life—and give her more than a passing knowledge of the criminal syndicate that she had been struggling against for four years.

“Flora,” said Patience slowly. “I’ll be coming to bed later than usual, I’m afraid.”

***

Patience told herself a thousand times it wouldn’t work. And really, why should she want it to? It was dangerous. It was insane. And the man himself was the most terrifying person she had ever encountered in her life.

So why was she standing outside Merrimont Public Bank, dressed in a nice coat and scarf, waiting for a nondescript car to show up?

She told herself she would run if she lost her nerve. But somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she wouldn’t. She was Patience Winslow, she thrived on crazy ideas. She checked her watch, tapping her heel impatiently. It had already been two hours, and it was high noon.

A beaten-up white car suddenly cut someone off and slid right in front of the stairs of the bank, where it was illegal to park. Patience jumped to alert.

Almost as soon as it had parked, two men in long, dark coats jumped out and began to walk briskly up the stairs to the bank. This was what she had been waiting for.

She strolled close to the idling car. One window was open a crack, and smoke was billowing out. She grabbed the door facing the street and yanked it open.

The man in front jerked his head up, and she stuck her pistol in his face. “Don’t move.”

Hands frozen half off the steering wheel, he slowly dropped them. “Who…who the fuck are you?”

“I’m here to speak to your boss.”

“You one of his ex-girlfriends?”

She repressed an eye roll. “No. I’m here to talk business.”

Screams were beginning to echo out of the doors of the bank. Patience’s ears perked. Soon enough, two figures were breaking it down the stairs, one clutching a large bag. She saw now that they were wearing ski masks.

Doors were yanked open. Yells filled the vehicle. The tall figure in the front seat slammed the door shut and shouted at the driver to drive. Patience pointed her gun at him. “Not so fast.”

It was like a switch had been flicked. The car was silent even with the yells and commotion surrounding it. The bag of money on the seat beside her rustled as she shifted position. “Start driving. I’ll tell you where to pull over.”

The car started so abruptly it nearly knocked her off balance.

She kept her eyes on the man in the back seat with her, her other gun still pointed at the tall man (and she had a feeling it might have been Salvatore Mallozzi)’s head.

The silence was deafening. The man in back was frozen in place, and she saw the gun in his hand began to lift.

”Don’t you dare!” she hissed. “Fling it down, big boy, or your friend’s going to get a hole in his forehead!”

He slowly laid down the gun, and she hooked it towards her with her high heel. Her heart was racing. She couldn’t quite believe she was in this situation. Sweat trickled down her forehead.

She could feel the mens’ attention concentrated on her, and god knew what they were thinking about. Probably how to dispose of her body.

“Pull over here.”

They were a few blocks away. She wanted to go farther, but she was afraid one of the men might try something. They parked in a narrow alleyway strewn with trash, lines of wet laundry hanging above them.

She slid closer to the passenger seat. Using her free hand, she gripped the ski mask of the man in front and slowly pulled it off.

A few strands of hair came off with it. His head tipped backwards as she pulled it, and when he lowered his chin, his two eyes as black as blazing pieces of coal fixed on her.

His hair was ruffled, not neat and combed back as it usually was—his face was pale and rough, contorted in disbelief.

“You,” he rasped. “You’re Leo’s woman. Patty. What the fuck are you doing here?”

“My name's not Patty,” she corrected him coldly. “I’m here to…offer you an ultimatum.”

“Ultimatum? You’re thinking quite highly of yourself. Do you realize who we are? You’ll be lucky if I don’t track you down after this and beat you to a bloody pulp, like Leo does with his hookers.”

By the tone of his voice and the look in his eye, she was sure Mallozzi would do much worse to her. But she plowed ahead. “You hate him, don’t you? Leonardo Borghese. Well, so do I. And I have important information about him."

“Why would you hate him? You’re his woman.” He twisted around in his seat. His eyes met hers, black as midnight’s hide and filled with raw contempt. The contrast of his pale skin and the pitch darkness of his hair and eyebrows made it seemed as if he was a penciled character. “You’d better get out of here soon, sweetheart, ‘cause your little double-agent gig is not gonna pan out.”

She heard the distant wail of sirens.

“Listen,” she hissed. “I’m not his woman. Believe you me, I hate him just as much as you do, if not more. Remember what I said to you during the Christmas Party?”

His brow furrowed, a memory seeming to rise into his mind. “I remember. What the hell was that about?”

“Listen. I have to go soon. We can bring him down, if you just trust me. Let’s meet somewhere to discuss terms. Just you and I.”

His thick eyebrows knitted as he stared through the windshield, mind obviously whirring. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.

“Fine. Name the place.” His voice was a guttural growl.

“Café Bellanta. It’s on Fifth Avenue, north side of the city. I’ll be there, next Sunday. Ten-thirty.”

The sirens were getting closer. She grabbed a few bundles out of the bag of money and opened the door.

”What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Put that back!”

“I’m calling it a sign-on bonus,” she yelled back. She took off down the sidewalk, barely able to constrain her smile. The sirens echoed behind her, and she strode through the crowd of people, the money hidden beneath her coat. It was enough to pay for a year’s rent, at least.

It seemed fate was finally looking up for Patience Winslow.

***

“Where. Have. You. Been?”

Candace Kingley, rich socialite and showgirl extraordinaire with a list of boyfriends longer than the mafia’s kill list, flung her feather boa down on the bed and whirled to face Patience, her perfectly made-up face glowing like a hawk.

Patience stood in the doorway, like a duck out of water with her gray shirt and rumpled skirt in the sea of feathers and sequined red bikinis. The private investigator had reached out to one of her old clients, a rich showgirl who had often lent her clothes, to reestablish old connections and ensure a steady supply of money. It seemed perhaps as if she should have left this old client by the wayside.

“I’ve been calling you for weeks! I left you dozens of messages! And you didn’t answer a single one! Just when I needed you the most!”

“I, um,” Patience offered when there was a lull in the ranting. “I was just visiting my parents’ graves. It’s the anniversary of their deaths.”

“Well, next time you do that, leave a note pinned to your door or something! You left me high and dry!”

“Well,” said Patience, trying to keep jovial, “What can I do for you, Candace? I’m back, and I’m ready to help.”

Candace took a deep breath, and suddenly the topic of her anger switched somewhere else. “It’s my boyfriend! That two-timing fuck! He up and left me without even a goodbye!”

Patience took a seat on the bed, offhandedly brushing aside a discarded makeup brush and masquerade mask. Back to the grind for old Patience, it seemed.

“He just disappeared! I bet he took off to get away from his bitch of a wife. That frigid cunt was always yammering on about how he was spending toooo much time at the theater…”

“And what is your boyfriend’s name?”

“Carlo, Carlo Varetti, he’s from Trenton Island, he used to meet me at the—“

“Waitaminute. Carlo Varetti?”

Patience was suddenly up in a whirlwind, her eyes as wide as saucers, hands gripping Candace’s soft shoulders. No fucking way! What were the odds?

She could hardly believe she was living in this world. Her old client, Candace Kingley, who called her every other week for boyfriend advice, was dating the center character of a mafia plot. Then again, there probably wasn't a man in Garland City she hadn't dated at some point...

“Yeah! Va-ret-ti. You know him?”

“Candace,” said Patience. Her mind was spinning. “I—I’m sorry. But I think—I think he may be…Candace, I’m sorry, but you know, I’m a private investigator. I hear all sorts of things. I think he may be dead.”

There was a tense moment of silence. Then Candace buried her face in her perfectly manicured claws and began bawling. “Oh, my god. Oh, Jesus Christ! I knew it!”

Patience moved to her side and put her arm around her. “It’s okay, Candace.”

“Oh god, oh god, my Carlo, my baby! Oh lord almighty. They killed him, didn’t they? They whacked him!”

Patience was caught off guard, before she remembered the exact reason Carlo had been killed. “Kill the girl, she’s the one who knew…”

“I… did he tell you?”

“Tell me? Christ, everyone knew. Carlo was in the mob, and god, did it suit him—he got me diamond earrings, took me to the greatest galas—and now he’s gone, those bastards whacked him, and he’ll never kiss me again!”

 A wave of confusion overcame Patience’s mind. Candace's hysterical sobbing muted for a moment. Carlo was killed for blabbing to his girlfriend about being in the mafia—but apparently, it was common knowledge? It didn’t make sense.

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” said Patience, brushing aside her ponderings. “Please, could you answer me a question? Did he ever talk to you about a place called Seventh Heaven?”

“Seventh Heaven? That was his club, he used to run it down in South Florida. How did you know—“

“Where? Did you know exactly where?”

Candace crossed her legs and tossed her hair. “St. Petersburg. Near the beach. He took me there a couple times.”

Internalizing the information, Patience patted Candace’s back. She had a vague idea in her mind, unfinished and unrealized, of what needed to be done.

***

Sunday was a chilly day. The sky was gray and cloudy, threatening to send puffs of snow down onto the black, slick sidewalk. People hurried down the streets, bundled in sweaters and woolen skirts, rushing to their destinations.

The snow had been neatly swept off the cobblestone floor of Café Bellanta. Shiny black high heels twisted on the floor.

Patience was dressed in her usual clothes—pencil skirt, coat and blouse with a tie. It had not been a good idea for such a cold day. She had spent nearly half an hour waiting for him, and her fingers and nose felt like icicles. She ordered another coffee and swept her eyes around, looking for the familiar tall, rangy figure to appear in her eyesight.

“Cloudy day, huh?”

The rough whisper in her ear was enough to put her into panic mode. She froze up as a hand gripped her upper arm.

A hand pulled her off the seat, fingers biting deep into her arm. “What are you doing?” she hissed. He yanked her across the floor of the café, behind a wall.

She felt his body slam against her as he pushed her against the wall. Her face pressed against the wallpaper. His hand went down her body, his long fingers probing through her coat and running down her heaving chest.

“Stop it!”

“I’m checkin’ for a wire,” he whispered in her ear. The deep tone of his voice reverberated through her body, and she shuddered as his hand reached her legs. He slid his hard hand between her legs, and a spark of excitement ignited in her head as his fingers brushed between her legs, the tips skimming her cleft under the thin layer of pantyhose.

Suddenly his body was gone, and she was slumped against the wall, shivering in humiliation at her sudden burst of lust.

“Sit here.” His voice was authoritative.

Salvatore Mallozzi sat back in a metal chair inside the café. He was wearing a long, thick coat and hat tipped over his eyes. His lower face was visible under the brim, mouth in an impassive line. His coat was buttoned up his neck, concealing the scar on his throat. All she could see was stray curls of black hair peek out from under the brim of his hat.

“So whatta you got to say to me, sweetheart?” His words were casual, but his voice wasn’t, instead being hard and flat.

Patience swallowed and sat opposite him.

“Look. I know this must seem strange to you…”

“You’d better fuckin believe it seems strange to me.” his voice snapped, making her flinch. “You don’t go from being on his arm at a gala to offering his enemy a deal to kick him out of his high spot. What’s the deal with you and Leo Angelino? What the hell was all that “he’s keeping me here against my will” bullshit? Leo doesn’t do that to girls. Why would he need to when half the women in this city want to ride his dick?”

The girl swallowed. The details of her captivity still haunted her mind, and she really didn’t want to indulge it to such a vulgar person as Salvatore Mallozzi. “I…listen. Just add it all up in your mind. If I was working with Leo why would I approach you like that? Wouldn’t I just approach you in your home or something? Have you really seen me with Leonardo aside from that party?”

He hmmed under his breath, a low, curious sound. She could feel his eyes on her, sharp and beetle-black.

Patience took a deep breath. “I want to put him in jail. Listen—I’m putting my trust in you by coming here. Now I’m begging you. Can you trust me?”

As her last plea faded into the silent emptiness of the café, Mallozzi was quiet. His arms were crossed, and she saw a long finger tap on the crook of his elbow. He appeared to be in deep thought.

He slowly leaned forward across the table. And as he bent forward, the brim of his hat shifted to reveal two black holes, simmering with dark fury like a cat with a mouse in its claws. The look in his eyes made her breath short out as she suddenly realized how much danger those manic eyes held.

His mouth was a hard, livid line.

“No,” he said. “I don’t trust you.”

A heavy blow knocked her head forward. From behind, an arm wrapped around her head as her skull was ringing, pulling her backwards. She tried to scream but the pain was splitting her skull, and in her hazy gaze, she suddenly realized how strangely empty the café was.

***

A bulb flickered and turned on, dousing the room with white light. The sudden brightness nearly blinded her. She felt something warm trickle down her head, probably blood.

Dark shapes swam in front of her. Crates of goods were stacked up against the wall.

Café Bellanta is a mob joint? No fucking way…

“You awake, sweetheart?”

A voice floated in the distance, a twanging accent softening the edges of the words. A rough hand curved around her face, thumb rubbing along her soft, flushed skin. “Mmm, cara mia?"

A sudden searing pain erupted across her face as he slapped her. Her head was yanked to the side

She smelled cigarette smoke, the dark, heavy scent flooding the back of her throat. Through her hazy sight, she saw a figure in front of her pacing back and forth.

His coat and hat were off. The light glinted off coal-black hair, ruffled and messy, falling in strands into his ghost-pale face. The top buttons of his suit were undone. His suit was rolled up at the elbows, revealing heavily muscled biceps and a loosely cupped hand in which he clutched a lit cigarette.

As she took a rattling breath, she saw him turn towards her.

There was a scraping sound, and a chair was dragged in front of her. Mallozzi seated himself on the backward chair, elbows resting on the back of the chair.

“Patty…is that your real name? I’ll find out soon enough. Patty…”

He blew smoke out, eyes glowing in the haze of smoke. His iris was the only part that reflected the light, dully shining like the solid eyes of a bull.

“You came in the middle of a job, stuck a gun to my head in front of my men. Ambushing me like that outside the bank…that was a blow to my pride. And my pride is very important to me.”

His finger tapped on the wooden arch of the chair. He wore a gold band on his pinky finger, the metal glinting in the light. Patience wondered if he was married.

He leaned forward and took another drag on his cigarette. Close-up, she could see his raw bone structure. Handsome, but angular and sharp, so unlike Leonardo’s soft features. Long nose, thick eyebrows, and weathered skin. There was something so harshly rural about him, as if he had been plucked from a Sicilian farm and set down in the middle of Garland City.

“There’s only one thing stopping me from gutting you cunt to throat, bitch. And it's that so-called information you have.” His voice was hoarse and ragged, naturally low in a guttural way, like he’d had his throat slit at one point. She watched the scar on his throat twitch.

“So you’d better start talking. And fast.”

There was a sizzle as he crushed the lit tip of his cigarette on the chair between her legs, a hair’s breadth from her skin.

 

 

Chapter Text

Patience felt the heat through her thin nylon as Salvatore Mallozzi crushed the cigarette an inch from her skin. His pinky lightly brushed the inside of her thigh, sending a tremor up her spine.

She heard a rustle behind her. The room was filled with the dark silhouettes of men, standing to the side, silent sentinels. Someone guffawed.

“First off, tell me who the fuck you are.” Mallozzi’s voice snapped in the cold room. “And don’t give me a fake name either. I want to know exactly who you are.”

“My name is Patience Winslow,” she said, trying to keep the tremble out of her voice. “I, I’m from Greenhaven, Massachusetts. I’m a private investigator.”

“A private investigator, huh.” His voice was quiet, but she didn’t like the sedateness of it. “I’ve had some experiences with private investigators. Tall fuckers, long coats, all smoked like a forest fire. It’s strange, one or two pliers to their teeth and all their bravado just gets peeled right away...”

The almost loving way he described it, as if it were a pleasant fishing trip, make a shudder run down her body.

“You’re too pretty for me to do that to you. I’d like your parents to be able to give you an open-coffin funeral.”

Patience closed her eyes. Mallozzi trailed off into a laugh, and commented something to one of the other men in the room. Her heart felt like a stone. Each breath she took seemed to last a lifetime, as if it were the last breath she would ever take.

The charcoal gray of her skirt and the blackness of her tights blurred in front of her eyes. A sharp shard of white cut into her vision, and she felt the heaviness of his hand slide onto her thigh.

The dampness of his sweat soaked through the thin fabric, and it rested there, clammy and hot even in the chill of the room.

She looked up and he was still staring into her eyes, his face stretched in a rictus of a grin, while his eyes were a swamp of ruthlessness.

“Mallozzi,” she said, her voice cracked. “Salvatore. Can I ask you something?”

“I thought I was the one askin’ questions.” His joviality melted quickly, and his tone once again became steely even as he kept the smile on his face. He switched tempers so quickly, unpredictable and dangerous.

“Salvatore, do you think…women are equal to men?”

There was a frozen silence, and Mallozzi stared at her, forehead knitted in incredulity. He leaned backwards, his leather shoes scraping against the floor.

He scoffed in a rough coughing sound. “Are you fucking with me?”

“No.” She shifted, her body aching where the cords bit into her skin.

Mallozzi’s eyes were fixed on hers, blacker than smoke and charred wood. They glinted in the light from the swinging bulb, shiny but strangely dead, like those of an animal.

“Well, of course not.” He said it lazily, still frowning and staring at her as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. His arms were slack, loosely draped over the back of the chair.

“Why not?”

“Women are meant to obey men. They're just not as strong as men are. They’re soft, weak-willed, so they’re meant to raise babies, cook… stay in the house... it’s just natural.”

The way he was looking at her, she could tell he wanted to make her at least two of those things.

She breathed out lowly through her nose, her head still aching where she had been bashed. “So… you’re saying, women are weaker than men? Is that it?”

His grin widened. “You learn quickly, don’t you?”

Patience heard a movement behind her, as if a man was shifting from foot to foot, or pulling out a revolver.

The girl’s heart was thudding so hard it felt like a rabbit’s, before a fox catches it in its jaws. Her face was warm and slick with sweat, even in the dank coldness of the room.

“Then…do you think that a woman could ever be the opponent of a man? Be a dangerous adversary to a man?”

His grip tightened on her thigh. She felt his short fingernails, worn down with god knows what, dig into her soft skin through the thin nylon.

“No. Of course not.”

Her eyes snapped open. She looked him in the eye, and put all her force into her voice, even though it still came out as a croak. “Why am I tied up in a chair, then?”

The silence that followed weighed heavy on her ears, like a thin sliver of glass waiting to crack. All she could hear was her low breaths in her ears. Salvatore’s eyes were flat, livid, like dark thunderclouds.

The dark-haired man exhaled in a one relieving breath. He stood up and made an offhand gesture to one of the men, and soon she found her cords being cut, giving her freedom of motion.

Patience heard a click, and saw Salvatore lighting another cigarette, one hand cupped over to shield the flame.

When he turned towards her, his face was a mask of dark lividity. “Okay. Start talkin’, Patty. I’m done playing games.”

Patience rubbed her legs and wrists as he approached her again. This time he prowled, the muscles of his neck tense and his thumb rubbing against the hilt of the knife behind his waist.

She took a deep breath. “Leonardo Borghese. He’s—he’s of nobility. His mother is a countess. From, from Milan.”

“His mother is some northern noblewoman? Everybody knows that. Fuck, he’s not even full Italian—his mother’s half French!” He spat his words. When he turned back to her, he was shaking his head slowly, eyes even darker. “If this is all the information you have to give me…”

Her heart was thudding faster and faster. He had his head tilted, thumb still rubbing his knife and eyes calculating.

“No! No. I’ll tell you something you don’t know.” She took a deep breath. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the knife at his waist, the sliver of metal that glinted as he pulled it an inch from its hilt. She could imagine that knife cleaving through her flesh, sliding through layers of blood and muscle until blood poured from her arms and legs, soaking her like a red gown.

“Leonardo’s…he’s planning on…planning on becoming a politician,” she managed, her tongue paralyzed. Tears of fear were starting in the corners of her eyes. “He’s going to run for mayor of Garland City.”

There was a split second of silence, Mallozzi staring at her with something akin to shock, before he erupted.

“That fucking cocksucker!” he yelled, his voice straining, then yielding as he spouted a stream of words in another language. He cursed, kicking the chair over. “God damn traitor! Of course he would try to go clean, after all this time! Porca puttana! That sneaky, loathsome fuck!”

“Boss, she could be lying…It doesn’t make any sense…” one of the men stepped forward, trying to reason with him.

“It makes perfect fucking sense! Cazzo! It’s just the sort of thing he would do! Leave us all in the dirt as he dines and wines with the congressmen and politicians…he always thought he was better than us, he always did, that smug...”

Patience was beginning to feel relieved as she saw his fury directed to another person. She rose to her feet; her legs still wavering with remnants of terror. “Will you...will you work with me?”

He made an offhand gesture toward her. “Jack, give her my number.”

Someone seized her shoulder and steered her away. She emerged into the clean inside of Café Bellanta. It was still empty.

She saw the pale light shine through the glass doors. The red sign screamed OPEN to her on her side of the door.

A scrap of paper was shoved in her hand. “Go on. Fuck off. Don’t tell anyone about what happened here today.”

With those curt words, she was shoved out the door and into the street. As she looked back, she saw the red letters blaring CLOSED, and heard distant yells and voices echoing inside.

Her legs frozen, she forced herself to walk, shoulders trembling, her mind almost disbelieving that she was suddenly, abruptly free, that in the end her plan had worked perfectly.

***

Patience stroked Mickey, the warm old tabby that Flora owned. The girl was curled up by the fireplace on a pink, overstuffed armchair, Flora’s fat old cat plunked on her lap.

Her thumb toyed with the copy of Roughing It she reading. She had always loved Mark Twain. Her mother used to read her Huckleberry Finn at nighttime.

It wasn’t often Patience had time to herself, and she was making most of it. Her cases for the week were done. Her files were neatly stacked and sorted, hidden securely under her bed. The phone was still silent. She hadn’t gotten the courage to call Salvatore Mallozzi. How pathetic was that, two weeks after her encounter, that she was still afraid of Mallozzi? He had let her go. She had nothing to worry about. But she kept remembering him, his teeth and his eyes, and whenever her hand strayed toward the telephone she let it go limp.

But it was a good day. Patience was resting. She needed to relax, to clear her head from the muddiness that had made its home there. The private investigator had noticed that as of late she had been tiring sooner and sooner, falling asleep at the wheel where she parked, spying on whichever unfaithful lover she had been hired to track. She would have said it was insomnia catching up to her, but strangely enough, for the first time in her life she had been sleeping well. But during the day—she felt unwell. The young girl couldn’t put her finger on it, but her body felt different. She supposed it was the lingering remnants of her captivity, feeling Leonardo’s fingers arch deep inside her, being made to feel that her body wasn’t her own but merely a receptacle for his desires.

The doorbell rung. Patience heard Flora step out of the kitchen to answer it. Mickey yawned and kneaded her slim legs.

Flora’s head appeared beside the door. “Patience? Someone for you, dear.”

It was probably one of her clients. As the younger girl got up to pass Flora, the woman caught her shoulder. Her face was worried. “Patience…Patience, you’ve only been doing your research at the police station and library, right? That’s all you’ve been doing?”

“Yes,” Patience lied, removing her hands while squeezing them. “Why?”

Flora looked down the hallway, face wan. “You haven’t been meeting with any of… those men, have you?”

A cold tremble of warning shot down Patience’s back. Flora was well aware that she was researching the mafia, but Patience had not told her the specifics of her plan. For all the older woman knew, all the young investigator was doing was putting files together at the Garland City Public Library.

“W-Why do you say that?” she stuttered.

“This man…he’s wearing a suit, he has dark hair…he looks…I can’t say it, but he looks like a—“

“Say no more.” Patience patted her on the back as she stepped by. Her throat was dry. “It’s just a client.”

It was Salvatore Mallozzi. He had found her, finally. Patience knew it had to happen sooner or later.
He wanted her, perhaps tired of her not contacting him. She had to face him. She would have to look him in his black eyes and go with him, to whatever he had planned for her, whether it be murder or her on her hands and knees, being taken by him like a dog.

There was a man standing on the doorstep. He looked back as she arrived at the door. “Miss Winslow?” he said nervously, in a smooth mid-Atlantic accent.

He had black hair, combed smoothly in a side-part, but he wore a tailored Boston University suit, brown and official and yet strangely ill-fitting on his stout frame. He was olive-complexioned and round-featured, with his mouth screwed up tight and his shoulders stiff. He had very dark, furrowed eyes and small glasses perched on the end of his nose. He had to be in his late twenties, at the very most, with the air of a worried scholar.

“Uh…yes?” said Patience, her previous fear evaporating like a mist.

He stepped forward and extended a hand. “My name is Benjamin Nizzola. Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”

***

Steam rose from the stream of tea, filling the pale china cups. The sun shone onto the white lace tablecloth, bright and warm.

“Tea?” Mr. Nizzola indicated a cup.

“I’m more of a coffee person, thanks. I’m assuming that you’re a relative of the late Gerald Nizzola?” she cut straight to the point, suspicious. He seemed harmless enough, but one could never judge on appearances. Leonardo Borghese was living proof of that.

He nodded, his glasses slipping. “He was…my father.” Distracted, he toyed with the handle of the teacup.

“For Christ’s sake, stop fidgeting and look me in the eye. What are you here for? How did you find out where I live?” Patience had abandoned her old apartment without even a return address. It ground her gears that someone was able to find her with all the precautions she took.

“After my father’s death, I was sorting through his old belongings. In one of his suits I found a phone number and address—just that. Circled twice. Under it were the words she knows. Now there are a few ways you could interpret that. What does ‘she’ know?”

The man shifted and leaned forward. “Miss Winslow. Do you know how my father died?”

“Of course,” Patience hissed. “They got him!”

“Exactly!” he narrowed his eyes. “The mafia! They killed him!”

They fell silent for a moment, both taking in what had just been said. “So you know, too,” she said dryly.

“They said it was suicide,” said Benjamin, his teeth gritted. “But my father was the happiest he’d ever been. He was getting married. He was on the fast track to Congress. But…but when his housekeeper came to his home after a weekend, she found him on the floor, flies all over his body. He’d drunk a gallon of drain cleaner and shoved glass shards into his eyes. Psychotic break, they said.”

Benjamin’s voice was bitter. She saw his fingers clench on the tabletop.

“He was on the fast track to eradicating the mafia in Garland City,” said Patience grimly. “I can see how that would have made him a lot of enemies.”

“There was no one more dedicated to serving his country than Gerald Nizzola. He wanted to make Garland City free, of the corruption, the murder and blood, free of the black hand that gripped its throat. And for that, they killed him. But I’m not going to let his legacy die.” He straightened up.

“When I found your address, I went to find you, but your apartment was abandoned. I got a name—the occupant, Patience Winslow. But you were gone. Over the next few weeks, I tracked your name down—I had nothing, until last week, when a rent check was cashed in Merrimont Public Bank, made out to Flora Haywood, but in the name of Patience Winslow. From there, it was just an easy matter of finding Miss Haywood’s address.”

God damn it. Patience could have kicked herself. Next time she would use a false name. “So, what? Do you want my help? How exactly?”

“I have a seat on the city council. This year I intend to run for mayor.”

“Mayor of Garland City?!”

Benjamin was so plump, so stern, with his greasy combover and his trembling cheeks. For some reason, she was reminded of Michael. “Leonardo Borghese is going to be running as my opponent. My wife told me last week—she runs in their circles.”

The side of her mouth twitched. The memory of Leonardo was a dark shadow hanging over her head. Every mention of his name was as if a serpent slid out of his mouth.

“He’s a… mafioso,” Patience said, her teeth gritted. “One of the worst of them.”

“Oh, I know about him.” His voice was rough, depreciating. “My father talked a lot about him before he died. You have to understand, I can’t lose to him…I can’t. I want to continue what my father started. I want a better Garland City for my wife and children to grow up. I want the mafia to be a thing of the past. I want us to be free of all this, damn it!” his last words were spoken with emotion. “And…I want you to help me.”

Benjamin took a deep breath and leaned back, smoothing his hair back. “There are few people I can trust. Everyone is either in their pocket, or unaware of what’s going on. There are a couple people…close friends of my father, or vigilantes…but they’ve all dropped off after his death. I think that, if you'd consent, perhaps we could bring him down together!"

She leaned over and took his hands. “Mr. Nizzola,” she said. “I would be honored to help you. In fact, there’s someone I think you should meet…”

***

The faded numbers on the telephone stared blankly at Patience as she dialed the number. It took so long for her pale finger to move from number to number, trembling. 

It rang twice before a rough voice picked it up. “Yeah? Who is this?”

“Th-this is Patience Winslow,” she managed. “I-is this Salvatore Mallozzi?”

“Patty, huh?” his voice was amused. “I was thinking I was gonna have to come find you. You’ve been avoiding me so much. I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about me.”

His soft purr made a shiver run down her body.

“I…I want to talk to you. About an ally. A valuable ally. I think he could be the turning point in Borghese being arrested.”

His low voice sighed over the receiver. “Now is not a good time. Patty… how about you come and meet me this weekend? There’s a little butcher shop in South Garland...”

***

Flags of green, white and red waved in the frosted air. Cold winter sun beaming down on the piles of snow swept to the side of the square. The butcher shop was in the middle of Little Italy, tall brick apartment buildings and little stores tucked away on street corners. The edges of the fountain were frozen, frost creeping up the clear gray water. The statue of a horseman stood elegant and still in the frigid air, cold stone hand rested on unmoving scabbard.

Patience tugged her coat around her slender waist. The square was neatly swept of snow, unlike the cracked and decrepit borough of Patience’s old apartment. Her shoes cracked sheets of frost.

The butcher’s shop was painted in faded colors, advertising something in a different language. She entered in through the glass doors, and the bell tinkled.

Inside was cleanly-swept, smelling of tart spices. Rows of cured meats and sausages sat behind the glass counter. Signs and photographs made their homes on the wall—Patience spotted Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe (she instinctively thought of her mother) and Coca Cola signs in swirling white words.

Patience could hear voices behind the door to the back, rising and falling angrily. She nearly jumped when she heard the door slam open.

A tall figure strode out, arguing animatedly with another man in a white apron. Cazzata, mannaggia, vaffanculo, she heard being yelled periodically, along with a litany of other swear words. As soon as the tall man spotted her, however, he calmed down.

He was wearing his usual suit—neater this time, black and smooth as his hair. His polished leather shoes squeaked on the floor as he turned to wave the other man off.

“Ah, Patty! I was wondering when you were going to come…It’s been a long time since I’ve seen your pretty face.” A bright smile spread over his face.

Flirtations aside, Patience took a seat opposite him at one of the tables. Salvatore Mallozzi was well groomed as opposed to last time, looking more like the first time she met him. Hair slicked back, red tie neatly tucked into the front of his suit. The dark hair scraped away from his face put his features on display, hatchet-faced but strangely handsome with his arching eyebrows. He reminded her of Frank Sinatra.

Mallozzi ordered coffee. Patience liked coffee. As she lifted the cup to her mouth, she could see his eyes follow every movement of her slender white throat, a cocky Casanova smirk on his handsome face. She felt the edge of his shoe toy with her ankle, rubbing slowly.

“You wanted to talk to me…about an ‘ally’, correct, cara mia?” His rough finger rubbed the polished wood of the tabletop. The winter sun shone off his gleaming dark hair. It was amazing how much his demeanor had changed from that night. Now he was more like the flirtatious young man she’d met, courting her with bats of his lashes and overtures.

“Yes. He could be crucial to bringing Leonardo Borghese out of the mayoral race.” The girl spoke nothing of Benjamin’s anti-corruption platform. “He’s the opposition candidate. If we play our cards right, I think we can get him elected instead of Borghese.”

“What’s this guy’s name?”

She had been hoping he wouldn’t ask that…”Benjamin Nizzola.”

Mallozzi hummed under his breath. “Nizzola, huh? I remember his father. Put some of my best men in prison. It would be hard for me to do this for you, I hope you realize…” His voice was jocular, but she noticed his gaze going sharper.

“Just give him a chance. Please. He could be just what we need to bring Borghese out of the race. I swear, he’s incredibly incompetent. Nothing like his father. He couldn’t tie his shoes correctly. He won’t be any harm to you, I swear.” Patience lied blithely, still hoped that Mallozzi’s hatred of Leonardo eclipsed whatever reservations he had about it.

The mafioso rested his chin on one hand, still watching her. His blinked once, twice, lazily, like a stallion in the sunlight barely noticing the flies bothering him. He extended a finger, brushing it against her hand.

“Okay. I’ll do it for you, little Patty.”

She shivered at the timbre of his voice. “We’ll meet him on Wednesday,” she said, getting up.

Mallozzi looked behind him. His arm was rested on the tabletop, the glint of his ring glittering as he clenched his fist. “It’s settled, then. Lillo!"

His hoarse voice summoned the man in the white apron, who appeared behind the counter. “Che cosa vuoi?”

Patience gathered her purse together as they argued. Salvatore was agitated again, gesturing and furious. The white sun reflected off his cufflinks, gold and light as his eyes were dark.

Finally, he let out a sigh and pointed offhandedly at her. “Patty,” he said. “Can you drive?”

“Well, how do you think I got here?” she was affronted.

“You’re coming with me.”

“What?”

He ran his fingers through his hair. “My man Johnny bounced. We’re short a driver.”

“But I can’t—“

“Can’t, won’t, you have functioning arms and legs, don’t you?” he snapped. He grabbed her arm and propelled her outside, and all she could do was rush along after him.

***

The wind chapped her lips. She buried her hands deep in her coat, trying to fend off shivers.

A polished leather shoe tapped the frozen sidewalk. Mallozzi had lit a cigarette, his flat dark eyes looking out at the road. The evening sky was deep blue, darkening quickly, and the temperature was falling.

Patience breathed on her hands to warm them and frantically rubbed them together.

She felt a nudge on her arm, and looked over to see Mallozzi proffering a cigarette to her between his fingers.

“I don’t smoke.”

“Have one. It’ll calm you down.”

She took it. The man held the lighter up to her, the flame a burst of heat that warmed her face. His hand was cupped around the flame to shield it from the wind, and the edges of his fingers brushed her face, a light touching of rough skin on smooth. He watched her carefully, a smile pulling at the edges of his mouth as she withdrew, the tip of the cigarette smoldering.

Patience had never been a fan of cigarettes, or alcohol, which could have been attributed to her strict Lutheran upbringing. But she couldn’t deny that the smoke flooding her lungs calmed her. Her eyes lidded. What would her parents say if they saw her now? Sharing cigarettes with a known crime boss, while his touch awoke feelings she never wanted inside her? She reassured herself that it was for the greater good. Anything to take down Leonardo Borghese.

Mallozzi leaned down. His face was so close for a moment, she wondered if he wanted to kiss her. The tip of his cigarette lightly brushed hers, flakes of ashes falling off.

“I gave you a kiss,” he smiled at her, taking a puff on his cigarette. “A cigarette kiss.”

Patience felt a red blush rise to her cheeks, and she turned so he couldn’t see her.

“Sal! Sal!”

At the voice, they both turned. A bulky man, clad in a long coat, was running down the street, waving at them. "Luca! Where the hell you been?" grinned Mallozzi, withdrawing a hand from his pocket to wave back.

“Hey, Sal! Sorry for the wait. Had to take the car to the body shop.” He looked at her. “Who’s this?”

“This is Patty. Johnny couldn’t come, so she’s driving. She’s a friend of ours.” There was a strange way he put his emphasis on the last syllables. The man—Luca—blinked, his brows knitted, and turned to Mallozzi.

“Una ragazza?” his voice was low.

“Ricordo, io sono il tuo capofamiglia.”  Mallozzi’s voice was hard. His eyes were steely.

There was a tense silence for a moment, then Luca nodded and gestured behind him, his face unreadable. “Let’s hit the road, then.”

***

The car was packed.

Three people, one of them being Salvatore Mallozzi, were in the back seat, and one man was in the front. They argued animatedly, about everything and nothing, the weather, the elections, their families, baseball teams. She drove aimlessly through the streets, wondering what their destination was.

The young man beside her strongly protested when Mallozzi said that he preferred winter to summer. “Are you crazy? The frost is freezing my damn whiskers off!”

“I’ve had worse. I used to live in New York City, Christ, colder than the devil's taint down there...”

Patience rolled her eyes as they argued. She really had better things to do than escort a bunch of arguing mafioso to their strip club or whatever. She stalled at a red light, tapping her finger on the wheel.

“Hey, Patty, pull over next chance you got, okay?” This was Mallozzi speaking up over the cacophony.

The side of a building by the road was vacant, only a few empty cars parked there. Patience pulled over there. The car went dormant for the moment. The sun had set, and the only light in the darkness was the yellow of a streetlamp shining onto the dashboard.

“Phil,” said Mallozzi after a silence, and the young man turned his head around.

“I’ve heard some things.”

His voice was offhand, concerned about something far away. Phil scowled and leaned back. “Yeah? What things?”

“Some acquaintances… say you been talking to police.”

“They were all ours, the cops. I promise. Is that all?”

“No.” She couldn’t really decipher Mallozzi’s soft voice. “Not only the police. But a friend of mine…working in the FBI office…said she saw you there sometimes. Talkin’ to the feds.”

There was a pause.

And then, a sudden harsh gurgle.

Patience looked over. She saw Phil’s face, and his mouth was contorted, his face a rictus of agony. There was a black line cutting through his throat.

The young man’s mouth was gaping in a horrified scream. He writhed, but the cord cut deeper, the ends of it clutched deep in Mallozzi’s hands. Mallozzi, who was right behind him in the back seat.

A scream bubbled up in Patience’s throat as she watched, her entire body frozen in a sudden shock of what is happening.

Phil screamed, a rasping whistle, but the garrote cut into his throat, sinking deep into his soft flesh. He writhed, hands clawing desperately at his neck.

Harsh breaths echoed in the interior of the car. Dark eyes gleamed in the dim light.

Those hands which had been gently tickling hers earlier that day were taut as he pulled the black cord towards himself, tighter and tighter and tighter, forcing the cord deeper and deeper and deeper until the young man’s body was rammed straight against the headrest of the car.

Mallozzi’s teeth were bared in disgust. But his eyes were cold, dark, merciless and unfeeling, like those of a wolf’s before it gives the killing bite to a deer.

It was as if the skin had fallen off his face. The gentle flirtatiousness of the past day had sloughed off to reveal his raw, true face. A silver veil, like Leonardo’s, shielding a brutal predator.

Mind screaming, body shaking, her hand scrabbled for the door. All at once, Mallozzi’s eyes flicked to hers. There was a dark gleam behind those dull eyes, brutal yet calculating. And she realized.

This is a test.

Her fingers slackened on the handle.

As Phil’s throat tore and gasped, his body writhing in the gray seat, Patience sat wordless. All she could see were the black eyes of Mallozzi, his focused on hers with a horrifying intensity. She knew that if she ran, it would be her dying by his hand.

The girl turned and stared ahead, at the streetlamps in the distance, at the deep night stretching forever in front of her. She forced herself to mute, to block out any sound of the dying man beside her.

This is a test. You must pass it.

Mallozzi began to saw back and forth, the metal cord cutting into the flesh of the dying young man. Blood sprayed the windshield. Patience felt dark warm droplets pepper her face.

The inside of his throat was red. Red and purple and pink. The hard cord sliced and bruised the skin, cleaving it sideways, revealing the pulsing throat pipes and convulsing vocal cords. His limbs twitched and writhed in a useless act of pain, but the nerve endings shorted out soon.

His arms dropped to his sides.

There were no gurgles of mercy, nor writhings of panic. Just silence.

“Patty.”

The voice was the deceptive, gentle tone he had affected earlier that day.

“How bout you start driving, sweetheart?”

 

 

Chapter Text

The dark forest seemed to stretch on forever. The heavily rural outskirts of Garland City were thick and dense with pine trees as she drove through. Her hands trembled as she navigated through the winding, empty road.

There was a dead man beside her.

Phil’s head was tilted back, mouth opened in a mummified gasp of pain. Patience drove beside him through the neverending night, her eyes wide open and hands tense on her steering wheel.

They were talking. They were talking. Shooting the shit, one would say.

“Sounded like a damn broken radiator,” said Tony. “My wife doesn’t scream that loud when she stubs her toe.”

“Phil always sounded like goddamn Mickey Mouse when he laughed.”

“Well, he won’t be laughing anymore.”

It was like they didn’t care. They had killed their friend and they didn’t even care.

“Pull over here, Patty,” Mallozzi sounded lazy, content. Out of all of them, he sounded the happiest. “We’ll bury him a couple feet into the woods, snow will cover him during the night, and they won’t find his body till spring.”

She rolled a short way into the woods and parked. Her mind was still numb, those black eyes of his rolling through her mind like a camera reel.

The men got out, still laughing, and instinctively Patience did too. She stood in the snow, her coat drawn tight around her and winter wind blowing through her hair. In the distance, she could see the glittering lights of Garland City across the Boone River.

Mallozzi and a man grabbed his arms and dragged him out of the car. Blood formed in a slush around his limp feet as they dragged him through the snow.

The tip of a shovel hit the frozen ground. The men, still joking, began to dig. Patience spotted a shovel on the ground. She picked it up, her arms feeling as if they belonged to a different person.

Mallozzi spotted her. “This is a man’s job, sweetheart. Go back in the car and turn the floodlights on.” His sleeves were rolled up despite the cold. His hair was loose down to his chin.

Patience wordlessly got into the car and switched the lights on. In the brightness, the men dug and laughed and smiled as the dead body lay cooling a few feet away from them.

Her face was pale and blank in the sideview mirror, eyes strangely empty. She felt how she looked. Patience noticed dots on her face, too dark to be freckles. She rubbed at them and they came off.

They were droplets of dried blood.

She rubbed harder. Her arms began to shake, and she scrubbed harder. Soon she was digging her knuckles into her face, breaths coming in high gasps in the empty car.

***

“Your face is all red,” commented Mallozzi as he slammed the door after him. His fingers were damp with something, sweat or blood, as he roughly took her face and turned it towards him.

She yanked her chin out of his grasp, bangs shadowing her eyes.

“Phil had a couple hundred in his pocket,” commented Luca from the backseat. “Let’s say we hit a bar tonight, eh?”

Patience forced herself to speak up for the first time, her heart pulsing. “Please, it’s getting late and my landlady’s probably worrying—“

“You’re a grown woman, aren’t you?” Mallozzi said with a toothy grin. “You’re allowed to stay up late if you want to.”

She wanted to argue, but all her words failed when she met his black smile. She started the car.

His hand squeezed her shoulder, and his voice turned comforting. “Come on, Patty. A drink will do you some good.”

***

The bar was nice enough, but set in a ratty part of the city. A nice two-story brick building with Happy Hour flashing in neon lights in the front window. “The car window is still…stained,” she blurted in panic as they got out of the car.

Blood was still splattered on the windshield, dripping down the glass and drying dark in the streetlights.

Mallozzi looked unconcerned as his hand closed over her arm. “No one will raise a fuss,” he said self-assuredly. He gripped her arm, pulling her toward the bar. Her high heels clattered against the tarmac. She didn’t want to go with him, but his grip was hard as steel as he led her up the stone steps through the glass doors.

The bar was crowded. The counter was neatly polished, and the bartender—an older man with thick sideburns and a drooping mustache—smiled as Mallozzi entered the glass doors with a tinkle of bells. “Sal! Come va?”

“Evenin', Hugo.” He shoved her onto a bar stool. “Let’s get a round for my boys and…my lady friend here.”

Patience didn’t like the way he said those words as he looked over at her, his eyes glittering. She stared at the glass countertop, her fingernails, bitten to the quick, resting on the smooth surface.

Soon her first drink came. She downed it in one go, anything to erase the memories of the last few hours. The next one came soon enough. She downed that one too. The chatter of the men around her was a dull buzz as she took one after another, the alcohol making her mind fuzzy and disoriented.

Patience could dimly hear the music playing over the radio, jaunty and cheerful. You can dance—every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight—

Phil’s face was imprinted in her mind, twisted and contorted, tongue protruded, the insides of his throat so many colors, red and pink and purple as he fruitlessly clawed at his neck.

She downed another round.

“Fuckin’ Joe, looks like a drag queen, he really got the balls to knock him off?” laughed a man with a drooping mustache.

Oh I know that the music’s fine, like sparklin’ wine—

Mallozzi’s harsh retort was cutting, but she couldn’t quite hear it through the veil of chatter. Patience looked down into her clear gin and tonic--was that what it was? In the reflection, she saw her own pale, drawn face, fearful and cowering like a frightened dog.

“I heard he was dealin’ in you-know-what, Vince,” said another man darkly. “It’s no wonder…”

She downed her drink. She downed the next. And the next. Anything to wash away the image of an hour ago. Her belly began to churn with nausea. All she could see in her mind’s eye was that man’s twisted face, mouth gaping like a fish as his throat was split in two. In the bright chatter of the bar, all she could see was dark blood spattering the windshield, dripping in long dark threads down the glass.

Patience was vaguely aware of Mallozzi’s hand on her leg, a hazy touch of skin over the nylon, his pale fingertips sinking deep into her soft skin. Those hands which had strangled that boy to death, that boy who could have had a family and loved ones.

Repulsed, she shoved him off.

The dark-haired man’s face was pale underneath the yellow light. His face was split into a wolfish grin, eyes gleaming in the sickly light.

His hand slid onto her again, traveling higher. She felt the rough pads of his fingers, rubbing the warm, damp nylon over her trembling skin. He was undressing her with his gaze, pure animal lust coloring his dark, wet eyes.

She drank. The bar was beginning to spin, the lights and figures blurring together in a mess, and all she could focus on was his soft touch skimming upward, gently caressing her leg. It brushed the seam between her legs, and a shiver ran down her lower back.

Baby don't you know I love you so

Can't you feel it when we touch

The cheerful lyrics echoed in her ears while his finger dug into the soft cleft of flesh between her legs, expertly pinpointing her swollen nub. Her body shuddered in a sudden wrack of pleasure, and she nearly upset her drink.

His hand clamped over hers. “Careful, honey.” His voice was a smooth purr, but she could sense the malevolency beneath his tone, like a dark shadow over every word.

The man began to rub in slow circles over her clit. Her arms and legs were shaky, her gaze spinning, and all she could feel was his warm finger dig between her lower lips, circling her bundle of nerves, expertly teasing her until spasms of warmth spread down her thighs and into her belly. Her heart was thumping and her tongue wet as she clenched it between her teeth. Sour vomit bubbled up in her stomach, burning her throat.

Another finger made its way lower, burrowing into the wetness beneath, sliding deep into her clenching slit. Her wet slickness soaked the pantyhose, seeping through the threads to coat his long, searching finger.

Mallozzi was closer to her now. Sweat and gunpowder. He smelled harsh, not sweet, not like Leonardo. His breath tickled her neck. The girl kept her head down, bangs shielding her face, shaking hands clutching her glass and her stomach churning.

Her hips were beginning to move, unconsciously with the movement of his fingers. His whole palm was pressed between her legs, warm and soft and so wonderful, urging her into pleasure while his foul breath panted down her neck.

He was so good… those hands which had choked, slit, killed so many people, were working their magic under the table. She felt as if she would scream any moment now, as pure pleasure raced along her nerves with every press of his thumb. Her weak hand was gripping his arm ineffectually, limply clutching him as he thrust and rubbed and coaxed her into climax in the crowded bar.

But don't forget who's takin' you home

And in whose arms you’re gonna be

The relentless press of his teasing fingers made her legs spasm and her mouth gape in a moan as thrill after thrill made its home inside her, stars bursting in front of her eyes.

Darling, save the last dance for me.

***

Patience vomited.

It was cold outside. Her legs wobbled, her bare face frozen by the winter wind. Her vomit hit the mound of snow outside of the bar.

“Couldn’t take a drink, huh?” Mallozzi’s voice was amused, but slurred itself with liquor. “And I told the bartender to go easy on you, too. Don’t worry, Patty, it always happens the first time. Few more binges and you’ll be fine.” He clapped her on the shoulder, but then he gripped her, steadying himself carefully.

Patience wanted to tear away from his grasp, but in her wobbliness, she couldn’t. She leaned against him as she heard a moan from other end of the parking lot.

“Tony, whatsa matter?” asked Luca as he bent down to him. The fat man was sobbing in front of the bar, tears rolling down his cheeks as he sifted through the snow,

“My wife’s wedding ring… it’s gone. I was just fiddling with it.”

”Calm down—“

“She got it from her grandmother. I can’t lose it. I just can’t.”

Mallozzi steered her away. “Let them look. It’s probably in his pocket anyway.”

He was intoxicated, she could see, stumbling and smacking into the side of the building. Cursing, he fumbled in his pockets for the keys. “I’ll drive.”

“What about—“

“They’ll take a taxi.” His voice had a note of finality to it that made words stick in her throat when she tried to protest.

Patience got into the passenger seat. Something wet soaked through the seat of her pants, and she realized with a thrill of horror that it was Phil’s blood. The car started with a dull rumble.

Blood coated the windshield, drying in dark streaks in her drunken vision. Her body felt numb as he reversed out the parking lot.

If she looked closely into her reflection, she could see her mother, face pale and pleading as a gun aimed at her head. Then it shifted, and it was her again, young and scared while her voice echoed through the car.

“Please take me home,” she asked, trying to fight off a whimper.

“Too far, and I don’t know the address. We’re going to my brother’s house.”

She wanted to argue. She really did. But Mallozzi’s hands, loosely resting on the steering wheel, were the same ones that had caused the blood to soak into her clothes, the same ones who had clenched the cord and ended that man's life, and because they could so easily clench around hers, she stayed silent.

The stopped in some decrepit neighborhood, at some peeling address with a row of squat brick buildings lining the street.

The doorbell rung once, twice as Patience leaned against Mallozzi, drunk and unsteady. His body was warm in the frigid coldness of the night.

When the man answered the door, she thought she was seeing double. He looked just like Mallozzi, with the same dark hair and thick eyebrows and bony face.

But there was something fundamentally different about him. There were no scars. His lips weren’t colorless and drawn, nor were his eyes dark and hard. His hair was a bit shorter, cut just above the ear. All in all, there was an air of nervousness, of gentleness about him that Mallozzi didn’t have. “Sal! Jesus, it’s so late—what are you--"

“I’d love a room,” he cut him off, towing Patience past him. “It’s been a hell of a night.”

Mallozzi’s brother followed him, eyes transferring to her. “Who is this? Is she one of your—“

“She’s just a friend,” Mallozzi cut him off over her protests. “The guest room is empty, right, Gabriele?”

Gabriele nodded, though he looked a little sick. “Please don’t make too much noise. The kids have school tomorrow…”

“Stop worryin’. I’ll be gone tomorrow morning.”

The room was small, bare-walled save for a dirty window set into the wall closest to the road. There was only a small bed in the middle, covered with a single sheet. There wasn’t even a lamp. The door hadn’t even closed before Mallozzi was stripping off his shirt.

“Don’t you dare!” Patience squealed, backing away into the room.

“Don’t worry, girl. I won’t do anything to you…fuck, even if I wanted to, my cock’s soft as a pillow.”

His unruly voice managed to comfort her to some degree as he collapsed onto the bed.

“I won’t sleep in the same bed as you.”

“Sleep on the floor, then.” His voice was curt.

Patience sat against the wall, watching him until he began to snore, sprawled over the covers.

She could have just left and taken her chances in the city. But she was tired. Tired and drunk. So she gingerly crawled into bed beside him, staying on the edge of the bed farthest from him. Eventually she fell asleep, her arms dangling limply over the edge of the bed.

***

The cobblestones were smooth under her feet, gray and fragmented and sliding on her soles as she ran, and ran, and ran.

Cloaks swirled, gold thread glimmered, plumes blew in the breeze. Painted masks stared at her, their eye sockets dark and empty, their rich robes and dresses gleaming silk and silver in the bright sun. She heard nothing, the silence weighing heavy on her ears like a dark blanket.

It was following her. She couldn’t see it, but she could feel its presence, like a dark shadow swathing her no matter how hard she ran.

Her legs pumped, and her white dress fluttered around her ankles as she ran through the streets. The narrow streets closed in on her, looming with cracked, ancient walls and dark, blank windows.

Innumerable people stared at her, masked faces blank, their billowing dresses decorated with a thousand vibrant colors. A harlequin smiled at her as he twirled across her path, white mask stretched in a garish grin.

It was behind her.

And no matter how fast she ran, it was coming closer.

***

Her eyes flickered.

The moon was a sliver of silver, staring into her eye, the thin slice reflecting on her iris.

Patience felt hot, heavy breaths on her neck. Washing over her nape like a furnace in the cold winter.

She tried to move her legs, but they were entrapped, two strong legs keeping them forcibly entwined.

The girl found her breath in a long, rattled gasp. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

Just a rough chuckle answered her. Hard hands gripped her thighs, and forced them apart.

She was barely aware of fighting back, being flipped onto her belly so her smooth skin pressed against the cool sheets. The remnants of alcohol slurred her words, dulled her mind.

Hot hands slid down her ribcage, over her uncovered breasts. His fingers were rough, brushing her soft nipples.

Mallozzi’s hot body was above her, pinning her to the bed.

When she realized, she began to struggle harder, old memories and impulses wracking her body. She thrashed her shoulders, trying to push him off, but he just bore down on her harder, his bulk pinning her to the bed.

Her pantyhose was pulled down. Her skirt came next, stiff with dried blood. She was forced into an uncomfortable position, on her hands and knees. He held her knees, keeping her in place even as she struggled and fought.

“Get off me! Get off! Don’t, don’t you dare. Mallozzi, Salvatore, I swear I’ll—“

“Swear you’ll do what? Leave me? Call the police? You’re an accessory to murder now. You’re a criminal. No one’s going to listen to you.”

A hand went between her legs, caressing her, the dried secretions of earlier that night flaking off her with every movement. The memory of a few hours ago was fresh in her mind, and she felt a wave of pleasure hit her gut as he suddenly gripped her clit.

“Don’t you fucking—“ she spat before he forced her head down onto the pillow.

“You know, you talk too much. You curse. I don’t like it when women curse. Maybe if you just relaxed a little, this would be better for you.” His voice was crude as he kept her down, suffocating her on the thin pillow.

She felt the head of his cock press against her twitching slit, hard as a rock. No matter how much she kicked or fought, he pressed forward suddenly, and with a sudden pressure against her soft folds, was inside her.

“How big am I?” he hissed in her ear as his waist thrust forward, sheathing him in her for the first time.

The girl’s pink nipples brushed the sheets as he gripped her hair, bringing her head up to meet his. His breath was a mixture of carrion and booze as he whispered into her ear. His body was hot against her back.

“Am I bigger than him? Tell me, cara mia. How did he fuck you? Did his cock make you climax or was he that limp fucking frocio I thought he’d be?”

He was so big.

Although she tried endure his length by tensing her belly, he had suddenly thrust into her. The largeness was almost too much for her to comprehend. Her lower lips stretched for him, but she still broke, a thin line bleeding down her thigh.

The girl’s throat worked, and her mouth screamed silently as he began to hammer her slim body. His hard fingers gripped her waist. At first he thrust shallowly, but then it became gradually deeper, reaching further inside her. His hands gripped her breasts, rough fingers painfully pinching her nipples. Salvatore's ring was cold against her breast, the metal biting into her soft skin. With each deep thrust, painful pleasure swelled deep inside her, threatening to burst every time he dragged himself out.

Oh…oh…

Salvatore was nothing like Leonardo. He did not allow her any pleasure. This was just for him, and him only.

And somehow, she still climaxed.

The dark-haired man was buried inside her, his cock scraping the wetness off her inner walls as he shoved it low and deep.

His hands had migrated to her wrists. The man held her down as he took his pleasure, like a Roman soldier would a slave.

Patience could almost see him, lifted off her body as his loose black hair brushed his pale tense shoulders. Pinning her down as if she were nothing but a doll, a warm body meant for nothing else but satisfying his sexual lusts.

“Put your hips into it,” he hissed, “Come on. I don’t want you laying here like a wet fish. Didn’t Leo Angelino teach you anything?” He punctuated his words with a hard thrust, making pain and pleasure sear through her. “If you’d been my woman, you would have known to screw like a whore by now.”

His hands gripped her hair again, forcing her head upward until the muscles in her neck screamed in pain and her eyes teared up at the agony on her scalp. 

Weeping bitterly, she forced her lower body to grind backward against his solid body. She felt his cock get bigger inside her as she matched him thrust for thrust, grinding rhythmically against his waist. The fires of her climax were still burning hot, flaring against her will and making her knees tremble.

He exhaled against her ear, shaky. “God…you’re so soft and wet. I want to stay inside you forever.” His voice was strained as he ground forward, lips sealing onto her nape in a wet kiss.

She could barely breathe. All she could feel was the swollen length piercing her, dragging along her pink twitching walls, a hard sword in her soft innards.

I must be cursed, a distant part of herself thought as he brought his hard body forward again and again, to have this happen to me no matter what I do, where I go.

The girl gasped against the pillows. Her eyes bled tears as Salvatore slammed forward, his hips tense and muscled against her tender legs.

He tore her legs apart, forcing them to splay against his body, forcing himself deeper and deeper into. So deep she worried that if he let himself go, he would be the father of a child.

“Not inside…” she mumbled weakly as he forced himself deeper.

”Why not? Don’t you want to have my baby?” his voice was deceptively gentle. “Don’t you like kids? Do you wanna be a spinster forever? Is that it?”

His cock slipped through her narrow opening, the swollen head reaching deep inside her. The man’s face was bared in a feral grin, but Patience couldn’t see with her face pressed into the bed.

The young woman’s body was limp now, accepting the heavy thrusts. Patience could almost taste the red, brutal muscles of his cock as he shoved it deeper into her. She pressed her small chin onto the pillow as his legs braced against the mattress. His dark hair tickled her shoulders.

Her unfocused eyes were cloudy with tears. The girl stared dazedly at the wall as he forced himself deeper, splitting her open with his hard thighs and cock.

And she was so weak, she couldn’t even fight back.

Salvatore moaned as he came inside her, a rough groan in the whimpering atmosphere of the room. The warm rush inside her womb made her legs tremble.

When he rolled off, she felt the weight shift off her, and she tried fruitlessly to struggle free as he pulled her into his embrace. His mouth covered hers briefly in a forceful kiss, his lips sealing onto hers. His teeth bit into her gums as he forced her head towards his, and she smelled cigarette smoke. Day-old stubble brushed her chin.

Patience lay in his thick muscled arms, wordless and mute. She let her breaths out, frightened and soft as he held her close. She could feel his heart beating under her scrunched hand, hard and fast.

She bit her tongue so she wouldn’t cry.

***

The sun streamed in through the window.

Patience tugged her torn clothes around her and rubbed her eyes. Her soft undershirt was rough on her tender breasts as she did the buttons.

The door slammed open. Almost scared, she whirled around.

“Breakfast, you wanna come?” asked a cheerful girl. She looked too much like Salvatore, with her long black hair and her dark, sharp eyes.

Patience shook her head curtly, and then began dressing. Her clothes were a mess—her brand new skirt suit—all stained with blood and bodily fluids. She turned the skirt inside out so she would at least be suitable for the outside world, and discarded her ripped coat entirely. In the cracked mirror she had the air of a just-fucked woman, with her messy hair and bite marks and slovenly clothes, but she just needed to get home. Then she could change.

She walked out into the living room, an unkempt-looking room with dusty lampshades and beaten-up furniture. Salvatore Mallozzi was sitting on a red sofa, one leg crossed over the other as he listened to a boy talk on the sofa beside him. He had one arm slung over the back of the sofa, the other loosely draped over the boy’s shoulder. A smile played with the corner of his mouth as the boy chattered to him in Italian. Salvatore was wearing a sleeveless white shirt, and his black hair was loose, stray strands brushing his chin. His roughshod features seemed relaxed, not sharp and cruel as they usually were.

His entire manner was different, kind and gentle, and he laughed as the boy flung his hands in the air to illustrate a point. He spotted her and smiled.

“Sit down, Patty. Have some hard rolls.”

“I want you to take me home,” she said immediately.

“Later, after breakfast. Go on, Junior.”

Patience forced herself to sit down. She was limping heavily from the other night. Every step she took sent pain radiating through her belly. Her fingers bit into her sleeves.

Endure.

“Are you Uncle Sal’s girlfriend?” asked the black-haired girl brightly.

So he was their uncle… Incredulous, she stole another look at him and the boy. The man that had just strangled a human being to death and disposed of his body was sitting like a dog with its ears perked, laughing and chatting with his nephew, his entire manner replaced by something… kind and playful.

It was like he was a different person.

“No. I’m just…his friend.”

“I like your shirt,” the girl said, pointing to her white blouse. Patience nervously tugged the shoulder over a hickey.

The door opened, and the man from the other night came out with a tray full of rolls, his sleeves rolled up.

Salvatore looked up. “Where’s the mick?”

“Barbara,” Gabriele said icily, “Is at work.”

Salvatore snorted. “It’s an absolute disgrace. Letting a woman do all your work while you sit home doing nothing all day. And a shanty Irish like her, no less. No wonder mamma won’t talk to you anymore.”

“I am looking for a job,” Gabriele said testily.

Salvatore leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. “I’ve offered before. I could help you, little brother. All you’d have to do is drive a truck. Transport some goods…”

“No. I don’t…I don’t want to get involved in your sort of stuff. Come on, Sal. I have kids to take care of. If something happened to me…” he trailed off, looking at Patience worriedly.

Sal didn’t seem concerned that she was witnessing all this. “You’re just weak. You always have been. Piscialletto.” The boy laughed at that, and Salvatore smiled and ruffled his hair.

“I have to get home. My landlady must be out of her mind with worry.” Patience spoke up again, hoping the presence of Gabriele would make Salvatore reconsider against forcing her to stay with him. Salvatore sighed and got up, shoving the boy off the sofa. “All right, already. Come on, Patty, let’s get you home before your landlady hangs herself out of grief.”

At the door the small girl intercepted him and flung her arms around his waist. “Uncle Sal, there’s gonna be a fair next week. Will you take me?

“That’s how you always are, Gina! You never hug me unless you want something!” he smiled and pinched her cheek. “Sure I will. You can bring your friends too, if you like.”

Was Patience looking at a different man? He must have been replaced by a clone of himself that looked and acted the same, but was somehow a loving uncle and not a sadistic butcher.

The girl laughed and squeezed him. “I knew you would, Uncle Sal!” she stepped back. “Will you bring your pretty girlfriend?”

“I’m afraid I’ll be busy next week,” Patience said before Salvatore could get a word in. “Sorry sweetie, but we really need to leave.”

She was dreading being alone with him, but when she closed the car door the atmosphere didn’t change a bit. It was a warm day for winter approaching its end, and he wasn’t wearing a coat, just a sleeveless white shirt. He lit a cigarette and turned the radio to some jazz station.

Patience felt as if there were a wall separating the two of them. They did not speak, save for her terse directions. Salvatore hummed under his breath, the wind from the window ruffling his black hair, seeming laid-back, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Patience was squashed against the door, keeping as far away from him as she could. Every time she moved she felt him inside her, the aches on her thighs, in her body.

Sun dappled the dashboard, making motes of dust swirl and speckle in the light. The snow was melting on the edge of the sidewalk. She saw some children slushing the wet snow with their boots, kicking it towards each other.

When the car came to a stop in front of her house, she nearly wept in relief. She gripped the handle.

A hard clamped down on her other wrist.

The inside of the car turned icy cold, the dark, chill feeling reverting back to last night, when she had looked over in the darkness of the car and seen that young man die in front of her.

Salvatore inhaled a mouthful of smoke, smiling easily. But when he turned his eyes to hers, they were cold and black as two balls of obsidian.

“There’s a custom in my homeland,” he said, “If an unmarried man and woman spend the night under the same roof… they’re considered man and wife.”

He blew a mouthful of smoke into her face, his fingers clenched around her trembling hand.

“Guess that means we’re married, huh?”

His smile split in a nasty grin, baring teeth as white as a wolf’s.

Her hand curled into a fist, she wrenched her arm out of his grasp. As she slammed the door after her, she heard his mocking laughter echo behind her as she hurried up the steps to her house.

When Patience was inside, she slowly slid down the door, her body shaking. All the horrors of the last night rose up in her mind as she broke down.

Back against the door, she buried her face in her hands.

What have I done?

 

 

Chapter Text

“Patience, you don’t look so well...”

“What? I’m fine,” Patience said. Flora’s eyes were furrowed and worried as she watched Patience tinker with her recording machine, trying to get it to work. Perhaps Flora had noticed that the dark rings that had previously disappeared from underneath her eyes had made their home there once again. Patience’s nights of sleep had, once again, vanished.

“You haven’t been eating lately.” Her voice was still soft and gently nagging.

“It’s just a stomach bug.” Patience said shortly, willing the conversation to end. She turned toward her bedroom. “I paid the rent this week, didn’t I?”

“Honey, please tell me, when you came back that morning…tell me, were you—nothing happened to you, did it?” Flora’s voice burst out, and Patience froze.

I can’t have this conversation with you tonight. “No, nothing, I stumbled into a bad part of town and got into a bit of a tussle with a few hooligans, but that was all.”

Flora bit her lip, still worried. “… you can tell me, honey. I know. I know what that awful man did to you. I’m your friend. If anything happened to you, I’ll help you. I’ll help you get through this.” Her voice was so honest Patience just wanted to throw herself into her arms and confess everything.

But Flora didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve having to know that Patience was being raped and beaten, putting herself in danger and nearly getting killed. It would just hurt her. And Flora didn’t need to be hurt more than she already had.

It was Patience’s load to bear. And she would get through it, like she always did. When her parents had died and she was sent to stay with her relatives, she had spent most of her nights crying and miserable. No one had comforted her then either. But she had managed to survive.

“I swear, everything’s fine. Nobody hurt me. Just a few bruises, that’s all.” Patience took her shoulders and smiled at Flora, although her smile felt more like the grin of a skull rather than the genuine emotions she tried to put onto her face.

Flora still looked worried, but relented. “If you say so. I believe you. But, I’m always here, okay?”

Patience squeezed her shoulder comfortingly. “I know.” Her voice cracked with tenderness for the older woman. Flora had sheltered her when she didn’t need to, risked her life to give her a home. It would take a thousand years for Patience to pay her back.

Which was why she didn’t intend on getting her involved in the danger of her investigations.

“And you stay away from the rougher parts of the city! Only do your research at the library and the police station.” Flora’s voice took on a scolding, motherly tone.

“I swear, it was just a wrong turn!”

Flora smiled, but her eyes were still concerned as she turned away. “Oh, Patience, I brought you something from the department store.”

“Really?” Patience’s interest was piqued. She hoped it was a new skirt suit, since her previous one had been ruined.

“Close your eyes.”

Patience obediently did. She heard the crinkling sound of paper unwrapping. When she opened her eyes, Flora was holding a shimmering red dress in front of her. It nearly took her breath away—it was perfect, from the ruffles of the bottom to the satin bodice. Well-tailored in every way, from the expert stitching on the sleeves, to the silk roses fastened to the hip of the skirt. She couldn’t even imagine how much it cost.

“F-Flora! You shouldn’t have!”

Flora beamed. “One of our customers ordered it, but didn’t like how it looked, so she left it. My boss said whoever wanted it could have it, so I took it home with me.”

“It’s so beautiful…”

“It’s your Christmas present! Well, late Christmas present. A very late Christmas present.”

Patience caught her in a hug. “I can’t thank you enough, Flora.” The silk smoothness of her nightgown was comforting as the older woman returned her hug.

“Well, go on! Try it on!”

It was a little loose. She had lost weight, almost imperceptibly, and it sagged a little on the bosom, although it was strangely tight around the waist. In the mirror, it looked good enough on her body, even if it was clearly meant for a bigger woman. The sleeves were long, but her shoulders and the tops of her breasts were bare and exposed. Patience wondered if it had been made for an actress or singer like Grace Kelly, who could wear it to parties and dinners and not risk their reputation.

When she came out, Flora gasped. “Oh my lord! Patience!” she came and stepped around her, hands covering her mouth. “You look perfect! The dress fits you so well! If you’ll excuse my language, you look like a… sexpot!”

Patience blushed a little. “You’re too nice.” She was sure Flora was just saying that to be flattering.

The red-haired woman’s face seemed genuinely taken as she stepped back to observe her. “You look like…” then her face fell. “You look… a little like Caroline…”

The silence that befell them was short. Patience stepped forward to throw her arms around her. “I love it. I love it so much. Thank you, Flora. I’m going to keep this forever!”

Her cheery words seemed to have their intended effect, and the older woman’s face brightened into a smile. Flora returned her hug, and Patience inhaled the clean linen smell of her nightgown. For a moment, all her worries melted away.

***

The restaurant was high scale, expensive, more than Patience could ever afford. There was a band playing in the corner, which she could vaguely hear from out on the veranda. Benjamin Nizzola was sitting at a polished wood table, nervous despite her reassurances, sipping a cup of coffee with his pudgy fingers.

Patience looked out over the balcony, her hair streaming across her face. She knew she would face Salvatore Mallozzi soon. Deep inside, she was afraid, but she forced that part of herself away into a deep corner of her body. It was necessary, necessary to keep his company. Because soon she would put Leonardo Borghese behind bars.

Soon, rough footsteps echoed in her ears, and the chair by the table was pulled out. “Ah, greetings, Benjamin!” called Salvatore joyously. He extended a hand. “Piacere di conoscerti! Come sta?”

Benjamin looked intimidated and confused as he took Salvatore’s hand. “…I’m sorry, I’m third generation. I—I never learned how to speak the old language.”

Salvatore’s smile waned, and Patience could tell his respect for him had dropped ten degrees, but he took his seat all the same. He leaned back and observed the nervous man, head cocked like he was watching a particularly uninteresting television program.

When Patience moved over to the table, his gaze fixed on her, and his smile widened. The change in his demeanor was instant. The sudden glint in his eye was like a buck spotting a doe. “Patty girl! Come on, sit down.”

She took the seat beside Benjamin, farthest away from him. Salvatore’s arms were hung back, one leg crossed over the other. “Well, start talking. I’m a busy man.”

I’m sure you are. “As you know, Benjamin Nizzola is the opposition candidate this mayoral race, running against Leonardo Borghese," she said as Benjamin nervously stirred his coffee. “I think—given your histories together-- think we could come to an understanding.”

”You’re doing a lot of talking, Patty,” said Salvatore sharply. He pointed his spoon at Benjamin. “Let’s see what the fat man has to say for himself.”

Banjamin spoke up, still looking incredibly intimidated. “Mister Mallozzi, I was thinking, perhaps you could lend a hand in our favor. With your help—whatever you can do, simply—I could prevent Leonardo Borghese from becoming mayor of Garland City.”

Salvatore smiled. “Tell me,” he said condescendingly. “What would the son of a notorious pain in the ass and anti-mafia campaigner possibly have to offer me in contrast to an actual Mafioso?”

Benjamin’s eyes lowered in something resembling shame. Patience ground her teeth together, fury and protectiveness soaring inside her. “You know, you’re awful confident for a criminal,” she snarled, her words bursting out before she could stop them. “Why, I wonder? Why the bravado? Overcompensating? Did some priest get fresh with you when you were a boy, and now you feel as if you have something to prove?”

The flash in his eyes was instant and livid. In a moment his hand was curled around her throat and she was halfway pulled across to him. His hot breath panted over his lips as he hissed, his tone guttural with fury. “You had better watch your tongue if you know what’s best for you, Patty girl.”

“Stop,” said Benjamin. “People are watching.”

Salvatore slowly let go of her, and his posture melted back into easiness. But she could still see his eyes, sharp and glinting with a hardness that hadn’t been there before.

“Borghese becoming mayor would bring a host of problems, for us and for you,” continued Patience once she got her voice back. Rubbing her neck, she glared at him from across the table. “You know this.”

He nodded. “Of course I do. Believe me, there is nothing I would like to see more than that son of a bitch fail and be trampled into dust. We go back a long ways, him and I.”

Salvatore leaned forward. “But, I would have to demand some compensation in return.”

“What do you want?” said Benjamin.

The lean man smiled. He was rubbing his fingers together, thumb playing along the length of his index finger. “Immunity. I want total immunity for everyone in my crew, everyone connected to me.”

***

“I can’t do this,” said Benjamin.

Patience cast a glance over his shoulder where Salvatore was still sitting at the table, sipping his coffee and watching her with keen eyes.

“These men are dangerous, Miss Winslow. They’ll run rampant over Garland City if we let them do as they please. Murder, rape, robbery… even I’ve heard about Sal the Bull’s crew...” he shuddered and looked over his shoulder.

“Listen,” she said. “I know better than anyone how awful they are, and what they’ll do to you if you meet them in a dark alley way. But you have to think. Who is the worst long-term threat? A bunch of ruffians, or Leonardo Borghese as the mayor of Garland City?”

Benjamin looked away, gnawing on his lip. She continued. “Sal and his crew will all be gone soon. They’re young men, they’re in the mafia! They’re not going to survive long. Leonardo, on the other hand…how much damage do you think he’ll be able to do as mayor? The whole infrastructure of the city, the laws he passes…you tell me, Benjamin!”

He exhaled hard, forehead scrunched under his glasses, and looked to the side. He opened his mouth and closed it. “…I suppose you’re right, Miss Winslow. I just hate the idea of it. Asking the mafia for help… it makes me look no better than they are. I swore to my father that I would never stoop to their level—and now I’m—”

“It’s for the greater good,” she reassured him, and patted his shoulder. “Just keep that in mind.” And if it wasn’t, at least they would be able to jail Leonardo. And that was all that really mattered.

When they approached Salvatore again, Patience nodded tersely. “We accept the terms of your agreement.”

“So it’s settled then.” Salvatore sat up. “I’ll see what I can do about securing your vote for my districts.”

Benjamin picked up his bowler hat and nodded to him, never looking him in the eyes.

Patience bid Benjamin goodbye outside of the restaurant. She folded her arms and watched him drive off, internally worrying about how shaky and wan he had seemed. She hoped the man would be able to deal with the rigors of being a mayor better that he dealt with meeting a criminal in a crowded public space. Patience was sure Michael wouldn’t have cowered like he had—he would have stood tall by her side and demanded her terms of the agreement. If he had been there, they both would have been able to accomplish anything.

A strong hand wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her backward. She stumbled as Salvatore pressed a kiss to the nape of her neck. “Ah, Patty girl. So sorry about what happened in the restaurant back there. Let me make it up to you.”

“Thank you, I’m fine,” she said pithily, trying to shove him away.

He kept his arm hung around her neck, his body warm and close to her. “No, I insist. I want you to come with me next week to a…social event. A party.”

“You get invited to parties? Consider me shocked,” she shot back bitterly, and his grin widened as he tightened his grip. “I’ll come for you on Sunday. Wear your best dress.”

“I’m not coming with you.”

“Oh, you will. If I have to drag you out of the house naked, you will.” He squeezed her neck with his arm, and his voice turned deep and guttural for a moment before he let her go. Rubbing her throat, she walked away from him, heart thrumming with the reverberations of his voice through her body. She wanted to turn back and argue, but right now all she needed was to get away from him.

***

“Why are you all dressed up, honey?” asked Flora from her sewing table.

Patience really had no idea herself.

Mostly it was her desire to avoid a scene. When Salvatore Mallozzi wanted something, he got it, and she was not half as strong as to challenge him. So Patience would endure it. She had entered into a partnership with him, and now she needed to face the consequences.

Besides…thought Patience as she stared at Flora, sewing needles poking out of her red mouth as she kept her gaze on the sweater she was repairing. If he came here and yelled at me and dragged me out, then Flora would know, and Flora didn’t need to know. She didn’t need to know about anything.

Patience crossed her legs under her rich red dress, feeling resigned. “Oh, I’m just going for a date.” She had applied makeup, just hints of it, to her lips and eyes, enough to conceal the shadows and give her face a lift. A hint of pink on her lips, dark eyeshadow, and blush to cover her sallow skin. She supposed she looked pretty, but to tell the truth, she thought the bodice too low, revealing too much of her bosom. She hoped Salvatore wouldn’t make any cruel japes.

“Oh my! Who’s the lucky man?”

“I met him at the police station last week,” she lied blithely. Patience kept her eyes on the clock, waiting for the short hand to reach the twelve. Like Cinderella waiting for her prince. Except the man she was waiting for was nothing even approaching a prince. She felt as if she would prefer her dress to turn to rags and her shoes turn to bare feet instead.

The doorbell rang and Patience was out in the hallway immediately.

When she yanked the door open, she saw a tall figure leaning against the rail, a silver ring glinting on his pinky finger.

For a moment she was struck dumb. He looked like a completely different person. Salvatore was dressed nicely, in a plaid suit that fitted him well with a white bow tie. His black hair wasn’t slicked back, but combed neatly in a side-part. He looked almost…normal. She had expected him to come dressed to the nines in a dark suit and slicked-back hair that gave little doubt as to his identity, but he could almost pass for a regular person now.

When he saw her staring, he spread his arms. “Like what you see?”

Patience huffed and averted her gaze. She heard footsteps begin to patter behind her, and Flora poked her head out. “Oh, you must be the boy taking Patience out for a date!”

“And you must be the landlady I’ve heard so much about.” He smiled and extended a hand. “Salvatore Mallozzi. And you?”

Flora’s smile had vanished as soon as she heard the Italian name. She stared at his outstretched arm, then glared at him. “Patience, are you sure you want to go with this man?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said tiredly, although she empathetically knew she would not be.

Flora kept her glare on him as he lowered his hand. “You be careful, Patience. You hear?”

“I will, promise. See you later.” she snapped the door closed and took Salvatore’s arm. “Come on, then. Let’s go.”

It was a nice car, black and shiny, expensive enough to have a driver. Looking at it, she was suddenly reminded of the car in which she had lost her virginity. To the same sort of man, even. Sickened, she shook the thoughts out of her head and slid into her seat.

The driver started the car wordlessly. He might have otherwise been a plank of wood for how emotive and conversational he was. He didn’t even answer her good-evening.

Salvatore was quiet the first few minutes. His finger toyed with the leather upholstery, and she could see his eyes, sharp and glinting in the dim light. She stayed on the far edge of the seat, unwilling to even speak to him to ask where they were going.

The mafioso was smiling in a way she wasn’t fond of. Not that there was any smile of his she liked. He never grinned in a way that made her feel safe. His smiles were cruel, toying, condescending, or some mixture of the three.

His smile was of a more sly kind this time. Toothy and grinning. He showed a lot of teeth when he smiled. Like the Big Bad Wolf. To her, he had always seemed like a wolf, hoarse and snarling and sharp-toothed. Patience felt like Little Red Riding Hood in her red dress, small and timid and utterly helpless as he slavered and grinned.

“Surprised your father didn’t come to see you off and give me ‘the talk,’ he commented. “Instead of some antsy old middle-aged broad. Was he busy tonight?”

“My father is dead,” she said shortly.

He was silent for a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice had lost the snide tone it had previously. “I’m… sorry.”

She didn’t bother to answer. After a moment he spoke up again. “How’d it happen?”

“Leonardo Borghese,” she said.

“Ah. I…well, that…” he sighed, sounding stressed. “That answers a lot of questions. I’m… shit. I’m sorry.”

Maybe it was her natural habit of trying to make things better—she hated being pitied—that made her snort dismissively. “It’s fine. He probably wouldn’t have been here anyway. He was away a lot of the time.”

Salvatore shook his head in disgust. “It fucken stuns me that there are fathers that don’t want to be involved in their kid’s life.”

His pitying tone ticked her off. “My dad was a perfectly good father. Better than yours, I expect. He must have done a piss-poor job to make you what you are today.”

Her words had the expected effect. The black-haired man jerked his head around. “You bitch. How fucking dare you insult my father like that—“

The car stopped abruptly, and she was flung forward. He caught her wrist and brought her face up to his.

“Listen,” he hissed. “You might wear the pants in the relationship with that fat little pissant, but you have another thing coming if you think you can pull the same shit with me.”

Panicking, she gripped the front of his coat, trying to drag him away. He just tightened his grip on her and pulled her forward until she was sprawled on top of him, her legs twisted around her dress and hands sinking into the soft leather.

Salvatore took hold of her legs and forced them to spread over his. She writhed, kicking out, but his grip was tight as iron. His fingers sunk into the satin red of her skirt.

She could see bright lights outside the misted windows. Hear the muted chatter of the guests outside.

“I was feeling quite sorry for you for a minute there,” he whispered in her ear. ”You almost made me regret what I was going to do to you.”

His fingers hooked her panties and pulled them down. She felt her bare lips press into his belt buckle, a shock of cold to her innermost parts.

“No,” she said shakily, although in her deep of deepest of hearts she knew it would have no effect, because that was just what men did, have their way with her whether she wanted to or not. “Don’t you dare—“

“Isn’t that a damn shame,” he rasped in her ear. “Because I intend to fuck your pretty pussy tonight whether people see or not.”

Patience could feel his rough, warm hands between her legs, undoing his buckle. His knuckle brushed between her legs and came away wet.

His smile widened. “Already wet for me? Did I leave you addicted the other night?”

Patience yanked her thin arms, trying to writhe free, but he suddenly pulled her downwards, the hard movement nearly dislodging her arms from their sockets. His mouth met hers, teeth digging into her soft lips. She thrashed, yanking her head away, her brunette hair coming undone from her bun as she tried desperately to free herself from his hold.

His cock was thick and pulsing against her thigh. With one smooth motion it slid into her. Her body went stiff as he penetrated her, the overwhelming pleasure making her belly muscles spasm.

Salvatore’s coat wrinkled as he slid his arms around her waist. His breath steamed across her face. She twisted her waist, although she knew it was useless.

Patience could see the figures of people, moving outside the frosted window. Blurred figures of white and black moved beyond her sight. She hoped to god that no one could see her.

Another hard thrust made prickles of pleasure erupt in her belly. Her head fell forward as he rhythmically shook her body back and forth. The girl breathed in, face pressed against his shoulder. The cloth still smelled like a tailor’s shop, stiff and ironed.

His neck was damp with sweat, warm under her panting lips. In a sudden fit of desperation, she sank her small teeth into his skin, biting down until tasted blood.

His body jolted, but she could feel his cock getting even harder inside her. He let out a breathy sigh. Was he getting turned on?

She chewed harder, until she felt flaps of skin start to come off in her teeth. His heartbeat was thudding rapidly, speeding up with each bite she took out of him.

“Adoro quando fai cosi…” he moaned. His knees went up, trapping her closer to him. His knees pressed into her ass, forcing her lower body down onto his hips. “Oh, my god…”

Salvatore drove forward, forcing his cock into her slickened passage as deep as it would go. His length made shreds of pain intensify in her belly.

The man’s face was flushed and his eyes lidded, mouth gaping in delirious pleasure. He gripped the back of her head and smashed it into his own. His tongue stabbed deep into her mouth, blood mingling as he entwined her tongue with his.

His cock was drooling inside of her, wetting her pliable insides. Every sloppy thrust made liquid seep out onto her legs. Her legs were lifted, pale thighs exposed.

Gasps soared inside her. Her brain was a blasted plane of pleasure.

Patience tilted her head back. His hard abdomen ground into her clit with each thrust, making her heart leap to her throat and her cunt spasm. Hard nipples brushed the inside of her bodice, ripe red and pebbled and begging for someone to clench them.

Salvatore suddenly pulled back. The throbbing head of his penis was half-in, half-out of her twitching hole when he let himself go.

Hot semen drenched the surface of her pussy. His ejaculation came in several spurts, first wetting her pink insides, then her lower lips and her thighs. She was left trembling, hot wetness seeping down her legs, as he let out a rushed sigh of satisfaction.

His grip loosened. Patience freed herself from his hold and she furiously wrenched the door handle. She stumbled out into the street, into freedom. The cold air hit her in a blast.

The scarlet dress fell to cover her knees. The red silk covered the pale white of thick semen trickling down her thighs, warm and creeping down her soft skin.

The girl’s watery green eyes traveled down, down her trembling legs. Her lovely red dress streamed down to the ground. The hot, heavy liquid was wetting the inside of the soft satin, soaking and staining it permanently.

A lump lodged in her throat. Her lovely gift, given so selflessly and lovingly by Flora, was ruined, defiled by filth and lust.

Flora would have spied it lying forgotten to the side. She would have begged to take it home, because, oh, it would look so nice on Patience.

Every molecule of semen sinking into the soft fabric was a disgusting, humiliating reminder of the girl's failure.

Tears welled in her eyes.

Why? Why had he done this?

Salvatore got out of the limousine after a moment, hair smooth and suit unrumpled. His face was contentedly relaxed, sly and scheming in an unfamiliar way, as if he had planned all this.

When he stood up, Patience decked him. She put all her force in one swing, and the force knocked him back a couple steps.

In full view of the guests, Salvatore clutched his bruising cheek. When he grinned, she was reminded of the harlequin’s smile in her dreams. Unhinged, yet happy and bright.

“If you do that again,” she told her lowly, with a bright cracked smile on his face, “I’ll wring your throat out until you die.”

Patience looked into his skull grinning face, her face cool and blank. “Vaffanculo,” she said, her words spitting like venom.

***

The inside of the building was vast, with domes and arches towering above her. The red and gold walls blinded her, towering vast beyond her fingertips.

Patience lifted her long dress, soft slippers treading on the rich weave of the carpet as she elbowed her way through the upper class of Garland City. She angrily snitched a glass of champagne from one of the black-suited waiters, downed it in one go, then tossed the glass behind a potted plant.

Scowling, the girl wondered what building she was in. She couldn’t tell as she eavesdropped on the guests. Whatever they were celebrating escaped her mind.

Patience spotted a beautiful face, the talking, laughing visage of Candace Kingley in the crowd. She was dressed nicely in a long olive green gown, instead of her usual sequined showgirl getup. Patience wondered which sugar daddy had invited her—and saw a younger man hanging around her, laughing at every word she said. Maybe Candace had tried monogamy for once.

Beautifully embroidered armchairs and ottomans lined the marble walls. The ceiling was hung with crystal lanterns, stretching down the hall. Patience could see a stone staircase on the other end of the hall, disappearing behind a vast red curtain, and she wondered what it was hiding. The double doors were open, and people trickled in intermittently from the stone balcony or garden, dressed in dark suits and a rainbow of glittering dresses. Some people were on the dancefloor, twirling quickly and elegantly and falling into their partner's arms.

Patience’s blood-red dress twitched as she moved to take another glass of champagne, and she nearly trod on the hem. Just what I need, she thought bitterly. Another stain on Flora’s gorgeous dress. As soon as she got home she was going to wash the inside out with soapy water.

Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a woman who was making a trail thorough the crowd of people, head held high and strong throat upthrust. Her pitch-black hair tumbled down her shoulders, and her outfit—a cream-and-gold brocade gown— was just showy enough to betray a singer, or opera star.

Opera star…

A frown creasing her heart-shaped face, Patience looked behind her at the vast red curtain. The memory of a long-forgotten conversation rose in her mind.

“Indeed. I am already in the public eye, a philanthropist and well-known patron of the arts. I helped build the Garland City Opera House.”

A soft touch alighted on her shoulder.

The soft voice was like the tip of a swallow’s wings, a breath of the lightest frost. But when she heard it, it was as if a shard of ice pierced her spine and shattered her body into pieces.

“My, my. What a surprise. I was certainly not expecting to meet you here, of all places and of all nights. It seems as if God still has his surprises …

 

dolcezza.”

 

 

 

Credit goes to the amazing Pandorally!

 

 

Chapter Text

Dolcezza.

Her glass fell from her nerveless grasp to roll onto the floor. Champagne soaked the rug.

His voice echoed strangely, quietly in the chatter of the vast room. For a moment she wondered if she was in a dream—no, a nightmare. Only in her nightmares had she heard that voice, and that word.

The grip tightened—so lightly she hadn’t even noticed, but for its soft pull to turn her around. She tried to move, but her legs felt like tree trunks planted into the ground.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

He pulled her backwards, soft thumb pressing into her pale shoulder. The sudden pressure roused her slightly—just enough to take a step backwards and turn.

White, her glitching mind managed.

The suit he wore was white, white as his skin, with only the tips of flaxen curls touching his white shoulders. Dark gold against downy feathers.

The red rose bloomed like a drop of blood on his breast. His suit was well-fitting, tailored nicely to his slim waist, matched only by the leather saddle shoes that glinted darkly in the light of the chandelier.

His flaxen curls were swept back, away from his face—his face that was the same one she had seen every day, seen smile and laugh and go blank, until she had memorized it to the point she could point out every characteristic. From the pale white scar on his hairline to his elegantly aquiline nose, and those eyes those eyes, those eyes the color of the darkest lake. Blue as a sapphire mined from blood and death. Blank as a mirror.

Long, light eyelashes swept down, and lips as red as lamb’s blood curled in a gentle smile. “You look well,” he greeted congenially, as if she was an old friend. “Your cheeks are rosier.” But she knew that he knew that it was only blush, blush covering her quickly draining face.

“Whu-what are you doing here?” she managed in a squeak, only the surface thought of her malfunctioning brain making it to the surface.

“The Venetian Opera Company is touring the United States. They are performing Puccini’s Tosca here tonight. Why, isn’t that why you’re here?” his amused voice quirked. Everything suddenly made sense to Patience.

Salvatore, she thought bitterly. That was the reason he had brought her here. To trot her out in front of Leonardo Borghese. To prove some misplaced sense of masculine pride.

Patience felt a slight pressure on her waist, and when she looked up, she saw that Leonardo’s eyes has transferred to her midsection.

“Your dress doesn’t fit your figure,” he commented, his tailor’s gaze picking out the imperfections. “The bodice needs to be looser. The waist is too tight—I can see the fabric stretching. Have you been gaining weight, Pazienza?”

The girl instinctively pulled away from his grasp. She stumbled a step backwards, uncoordinated and frightened.

“Why are you so nervous?” he asked, smile gentle. “It’s a fine night. And you are so radiant. Could I perhaps ask a dance of you, Miss Winslow?”

The artificial words escaping his tongue were like the slide of a snake against her back. Like the feeling of leather against her skin.

Her throat worked with words that never made it past, but his grip was already tightening on her wrist. Suddenly she was right in front of him, his arm around her waist. Before she had noticed, they were on the dancefloor.

The music had changed. Now it was something sharp, clear, foreign, something that made the dance partners stand up straight.

“Do you know how to dance the tango, Miss Winslow?”

His arm locked around her waist. His breath was a soft murmur against her ear

Leonardo led her a step forward, in sync with the other partners. His body was close to her, so close that she felt a panic start to freeze her limbs. Cologne flooded her throat, the sickly sweet smell making her want to gag and scream.

But instead, she forced herself to meet his gaze.

“Where is Michael?” she ground out as her arm wrapped strongly around his shoulders.

***

“Ahh, Pazienza. You hurt me so. Our first reunion in a long while and you ask about your old lover?” his voice, contrary to her expectations, didn’t have the cold bent it had previously when she had asked about Michael.

“He wasn’t my lover,” she hissed as he led her a few steps forward. Their heads were bowed, foreheads almost touching, so close she could feel his light breath against her lips. “He was my friend. What did you do with him?”

He chuckled under his breath. His easiness put her on edge. “If you hurt him, I swear to god—“

“Ssh,” he whispered in her ear. A hand slid under her leg and lifted it to wrap around his waist. “Lift your leg. Like this.”

The sweet smell of his perfume, the slow movement of his body against hers, they eased her body into an artificial calm. Her muscle memory remembered the days and nights she’d spent by his side. The feeling of his body between her legs made instinctual warmth blossom between her legs.

Then he was gone, and his legs were twisting a quick beat across the marble dancefloor. She could hardly believe that such a tall man could move so limberly—but he did, and he pulled her along with him.

Leonardo pulled her arm up to the moan of the music, pressing their beating chests together. “I have to admit, dolcezza. You have done something I never thought you had the capacity for. You have impressed me.”

He twisted her around, and she stepped a few small steps forward. “How so?” she said.

When he spun her around, all she could see were the dimples in his cheeks when he smiled. “Why, you killed my best caporegime. A small girl with an injured leg took down a trained hitman. And left me lost, without any lead to follow. “

Patience sniffed a panicked tangle of mucus into her throat. “He tried to kill me.” The memory of the sound still echoed in her dreams, the thunk as the nail entered his brain, the dark pool of blood slowly spreading across the floor.

“I figured as much. Thank goodness you managed to escape. I underestimated the situation. That man who called me boss, who I respected and trusted, turned out to have been nothing but a simple, jealous street thug all along… rest assured, if he had succeeded, I would have punished him for it. I would have peeled his skin away, bit by bit.”

Leonardo, in the midst of the dance, fell down on one knee, warm hands in her own. “First his chest, then his arms and legs. I would have left his face for last. Piece by piece I would have fed his skin to him. My godson hates chicken skin. Do you think a man would feel the same way, fed his own peeling flesh?”

“Stop,” she said. “Stop talking about that.”

His face broke into a smile. She had a distinctive feeling that he was enjoying the way he made her squirm.

She twisted her arms, trying to free them, but he pulled her towards his body. “I’ve always loved this dance,” he said. “It is so intimate. One has to move in perfect sync with their partner to achieve success. I don’t think you’ve ever danced it, though?”

He lifted her hand high in the air and twirled her around as she struggled to keep her balance. His warm hands were on her waist, holding her steady.

“I’m not exactly a dancing kind of person,” she said tersely, save for dancing a clumsy sidestrut with bug-eyed Hank Yancy on the night of her Senior Prom. It was an unpleasant memory that she preferred to forget, especially when one of the popular girls had intentionally spilled punch on her fluffy dress. Even Yancy had left her after that.

His hands closed around her back, trailing over her skin through the thin material of the dress, dragging his nails across her shivering skin.

Leonardo was so different from Hank Yancy, but no less repulsive, even with his beautiful face and curling gold hair. There was something so deeply wrong about him, like he was a shadow of a human instead of a human being. All surface, nothing beneath, just blank, empty eyes floating above a kind smile.

***

“Mind if I step in?”

The rough voice was almost relieving. Almost.

Leonardo broke away from her. “Salvatore,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight. High culture never seemed to have any appeal to you.”

Rather than getting angry, Salvatore smirked. “Well, even a Brooklyn boy like me sometimes gets a penchant for ‘high culture’ as you put it.”

“Did you get into a tussle outside?” he asked sweetly. “That bruise on your cheek... strange to see a lowlife picking a fight with you outside of my Opera House.”

Salvatore’s eyes drifted to Patience, and his hand went up to caress the dried blood around his wound. “No. Patty girl and I just got into a lover’s spat in the car…nothing less, nothing more.”

The sudden chill in the air almost froze her. Her heart felt like a stone sinking into the depths of her body. She trained her eyes on the floor, the cracks in the marble imprinting themselves on her eyes. A hundred people chattered, danced, laughed, all in the globes of their own lives.

A sudden shift from Leonardo beside her had her turn her eyes up again.

His body was still. His face was blank. The blankness terrified her—for just a moment, it was like the face of a dead man. Not just devoid of emotion, but lacking it from its inception. His eyes were like the dark and bluing fingers of a human corpse.

Then he smiled, bright and happy and back to the man he was previously. “Complimenti! Oh, my best wishes for you two. Please, as congratulations…won’t you come with me to my private compartment? We can watch the opera in peace and quiet,” he said, extending a hand. Before she could protest, Salvatore took it. “I’d love to.”

The despicably proud sneer in his words made her frightened, but not as much as when Leonardo took her arm in his and began walking her up the stairs.

***

She’d never been in an opera compartment before—she wondered if all of them were this roomy, or if it was because Leonardo owned the opera house. It was decorated with velvet curtains, pulled back to reveal the massive glittering stage. The wallpaper was dark, with rich streaks of gold, in the style of a palazzo. A red sofa was seated in front, and the velour was soft under her fingers.

Leonardo had his hand wrapped around her arm, and as he pulled her down beside her, Salvatore took his seat on her other side. She had never quite been aware of how small she had been until now, sitting between these two big men, feeling their warmth and sweat. Patience was reminded of something the girls at her university used to say. Don’t stick your dick in crazy, and don’t let crazy stick its dick into you. As if she could measure the amount of crazy that had stuck their dicks into her.

Salvatore leaned over her. “How does it feel,” he said lowly, “To know that your favorite girl has my seed running down her legs? Tell me, Leo Angelino.”

Patience placed a hand firmly on his chest and shoved him back. “You’re disgusting,” she said. “Shut up. Shut the fuck up.”

But Salvatore wasn’t paying attention to her. This was between him and Leonardo. Leonardo who wasn’t looking livid or offended, but smiling placidly. “Salvatore. We’ve known each other for a long time, haven’t we? We’ve worked together. We’ve had our arguments, of course, but in the end, I’d like to think of us as friends.”

“Are you living on a different fucking planet?” scoffed Salvatore. “Don’t pussyfoot around, you blond son of a bitch, we’ve both hated each other since the first time we met. You smug arrogant prick. I fucked your woman and she moaned around my cock. How do you feel about that, huh? Tell me.”

The poison in his voice as he spat those words made her cower. His black eyes were fixed on Leonardo’s impassive blue ones, filled with an unspeakable rage.

The compartment was filled with an almost physical silence. The starting notes of Tosca were beginning to fill the air. The high wail drifted through the compartment as the two men stared each other down.

“Salvatore,” said Leonardo finally, “We had a good agreement between us. Do you really want to give that up? Al doesn’t know. Tommy doesn’t know. There’s no evidence to connect me to anything in Florida. I’ve made sure of that. But, Madonna, is there a lot to connect you.”

Florida. The name clicked. Seventh Heaven.

Sal jerked back, the terror in his eyes something Patience had never seen before. It was sudden, like a cow coming sight of the slaughterhouse. In a moment, he was transformed from a brutal bull to a quivering wretch. “You…you wouldn’t…” he stuttered.

Patience’s eyes slid from Salvatore to Leonardo, who was now watching the opera. The seat beside her suddenly creaked as the black-haired man left the compartment. Patience turned around in her seat, but Leonardo’s hand on her shoulder kept her where she was. “Focus on the opera, my love. Let him have his tantrum. You don’t have to worry.” His voice was comforting in the way only Leonardo’s was. “Things are going to turn out very badly for him soon.”

Alone with him, the feeling was a chill she couldn’t quite name, but was like ice water trickling down her thighs. The shadows were twice as dark in the small room. A sliver of light fell on his golden curls, shifting with every movement of his head.

“Aren’t you enjoying the opera?” said Leonardo. “You seem preoccupied.”

“I—“ she started. “I can’t understand what they’re saying.”

“They’re speaking Italian,” he said. She felt the shift in the air as he bent down to her, and the smell of cologne tickled her nostrils.

“The Baron Scarpia is arousing the beautiful Tosca’s suspicions, as she believes that her lover Cavaradossi and his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, are having an affair.”

She felt a butterfly-light touch on her knee. “The Baron Scarpia will eventually demand that the beautiful Tosca make love to him for a night, in exchange for her lover’s life.”

He leaned closer, and his voice became intimate. “I missed you.” The words were barely more than a whisper, but with something underneath it that seemed strangely tender.

Patience kept her gaze on the stage. She thought if she looked him in the eyes, she would start crying and panicking. Alone in a room with Leonardo Borghese. Could there be any worse situation for her to be in?

“You made me worried, my love. So many sleepless nights I lay, awake for you… out there all alone, like a wounded gazelle, away from me… you know I would have protected you. You made me so lonely, dolcezza.” She hated the way his tongue curled around that word.

His voice was so gently hurt that she almost felt bad. As if he were a little boy missing his mother, and not a rapist and torturer who had made her wish she were in hell instead of his clutches.

Her lips were dry. She turned her face away, but his hand brushed her chin, turning her head towards him. His other slid up her thigh, fingertips seeking beyond her dress line.

“Don’t you worry about that boor, Pazienza. I’ll take care of him. You can even have a part in it, hmm? Wouldn’t you like that? That crude thug, whatever he did to you— even if he’s lying about it, he’ll pay for it all the same. He’s nothing more than an uncultured swine from a backwater village. He needs to know his place before putting his hands on something so precious as you.”

Her pale green eyes stared into his deep, sapphire ones. Leonardo’s touch was light, the smooth pads of his fingers trailing gently up her thigh. He was so close to her she could feel his cologne flood her throat.

But when she spoke, her voice was hard.

“You like to pretend you’re so different from Salvatore,” she said lowly, “But you’re exactly the same, deep down. You like to pretend that you’re different from the street thugs in your employment—but there is no difference between you. You are all criminals, making your living off the suffering of other people.”

The atmosphere changed in an instant, a sudden chill sweeping the room. His eyes were dark and frozen, although he still kept the smile on his face.

“And you can go operas, Leonardo, you can donate to build public parks, you can get fitted for as many suits as you like—but nothing will change the fact that you have are no better than a petty thief. You and Salvatore are exactly the same in my eyes. And you always will be.”

***

The opera wavered in the background, low baritone drifting through the compartment. His touch was cold, fingertips sliding higher to lightly brush the wet seepage of semen and juices that had been wetting her thighs all evening.

“I see,” Leonardo said. “So he wasn’t lying.”

The blond man’s body was very still in shadows of the opera lights. He was something different now, she could tell even though his voice was the same level. “I thought he had been boasting in that way he usually does. But I see, this time, you willingly—”

“I wasn’t willing,” she managed. Patience hated saying it. She hated even thinking about it. The memory of Salvatore’s body on top of her, under her, felt like bile rising up in her throat.

“Not willing? You must have been some measure, or else blood would be wetting my fingers instead of your lust.”

She tried to force more words out of her mouth, but his hand suddenly slammed into the velvet beside her head. He was looming over her now, the lights in the background shadowing his face. His proximity made her spine stiffen and her waist paralyze. For a moment she was in his bed again, under him, with his soft voice in her ear making her weep and heave as he tortured her body.

A light sheen of sweat slickened her thighs—or was that her excitement seeping out of her? The memory of his fingers, his tongue, made her breaths come in short and her clit tighten.

His hand suddenly clamped over her mouth, forcing her head against the back of the sofa.

“Mia mignotta,” he said playfully. “Poor Patience. What do you think your parents would have to say to you about this? That you were selling your body to criminals like a common whore to appease some misguided sense of justice?”

The mention of her parents made her go taut, and she gripped his arm to tear his hand away from her face. Tears were starting in her eyes as his fingers began to bite down in the softness between her thighs. No, no, she was thinking, but the thought of her parents seeing her with her legs spread, letting Leonardo or Salvatore fuck her, made shame wash over her..

“Seeing their little girl spread her legs to whoever could even remotely help her… some of my girls would spread their legs for a glass of gin. I see more resemblances between you than differences.”

Her fingers tightened on his arm, trying to wrest it away, but the muscles of his biceps bulged under her fingers, slamming her head into the back of the sofa. The cold bead lining pressed into her neck.

“And Michael, your dear friend Michael, what would he think? Whoring yourself to a scum like that… in return for what? What is Salvatore Mallozzi going to give you but empty promises?” She gave a muffled wail as he dug his sharp, evenly cut nails into her soft vaginal walls. “Because oh I know what you’re doing, dolcezza. Did you really think you could get it past me?”

His voice was still playful, teasing, like he had lifted her skirts in a grocery store instead of torturing her with his fingers embedded in her cunt. He slid a third finger inside her, stretching her protesting slit. Her fingers sunk into the fabric of his sleeve, fruitlessly trying to pull it away, tearing her head back and forth in an effort to get out of his grip.

Mike would have understood, she thought, in a dim sort of way, remembering his voice crackling through the phone speakers into her ears. “Patience, you…you’ve been hurt so much. So much. And you’ve been so alone.”

“What would he have said when you came to him, seed dripping down your thighs, and flung your arms around him? When he learned that you were whoring yourself to the scum of the earth? Would that man have accepted you into his house and his life? Dear, lonely girl. Do you think anyone will want to call you their own after this?”

With those last words he forced his fingers deep inside her, so deep her scream reverberated against his fingers.

The pain was almost enough to forget her mental agony, and she focused on it, to drive away her thoughts of Michael’s face twisted in disgust. Yes, he would have, he would have, she told herself. Michael would have understood even if she fucked that man Salvatore in exchange for his district’s vote (because that was all it was, wasn’t it?). Michael cared about the same thing that she did, and he would have forgiven her even with her cunt raw from another man’s fucking, because Michael was so gentle, so perfect—

His fingers crooked, digging bloody channels through her. “I think it would be better for you to say what you’ve really become, Pazienza. A whore.”

The swell of the orchestra burst through the air, accompanied by the high shrill wail of the soprano.

His voice was cobwebs brushing her ears. Four of his fingers were inside her, submerged in her clenching heat, scraping the semen out of her insides. The opera’s wailing notes echoed through the small compartment.

Agony burned her like a thousand razors slicing her insides apart. The girl’s sobs were coming out against her will, like waves of water drowning her. Is this what giving birth is like? Tears streaked down her cheeks, dripping between the clenched fingers of his hand. Her teeth dug into her lip, spasming and carving holes in the skin as the pain threatened to burst her head.

To a third person, it looked like a tall figure bent over a small one. The small one’s legs were spread, the hem of her dress pulled up. Her head was bent backwards over the back of the sofa. The tall one had its legs caging her in. His head was against hers, side by side, whispering into her ear as his fingers dug deeper and deeper.

“Ambrose Bierce once said, that patience was a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

Ruby-red lips curled into a smile over the sobbing girl, her mind and body writhing in agony.

“I think that’s more true than not, isn’t it?”

***

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Let go of her!”

At the sound of the hoarse voice, she jerked, and Leonardo took his hand away from her face. A strong pair of arms wrested her away, out from under him, and she stumbled as her feet hit the floor.

Salvatore.

“You sick son of a bitch,” hissed Salvatore, his eyes gleaming fury. Patience grabbed onto his arm to keep herself steady. “You’re disgusting. I knew there was a reason she hated you so much.”

Leonardo smiled at her. His hand was bloody up to the wrist. Then he turned back to the opera. The blood was shining dully off his wet hand.

Was he just letting her go? She nearly sobbed with relief, her mind scrambled and fractured, pulling Salvatore toward the exit on trembling legs.

Leonardo was watching the opera once more, one hand curled beneath his chin, a contemplative look in his eyes. His gaze flicked to hers once more.

“Run along now, dolcezza. I rather enjoy this game of cat and mouse we play.”

And then Sal was tugging her away, away, into the brightly lit hallway.

When they emerged outside it was nearly empty, as most of the people were now in the audience watching the third act. A few people were having a smoke, and Sal lit a cigarette too with trembling hands. His hair was limp and slick with sweat, and there was a kind of panic in his eyes she had never seen before.

“You’re bleeding.”

She looked down, and saw a trickle of blood make its way past her knee. “Oh,” she said, her voice emerging in a harsh crack.

“You need to see a doctor,” he said.

She shook her head. “No. I’m going home.”

”Get in the car, then.”

“Not with you.”

“Have it your way.” He turned away from her. He was wrapped up in his own problems, whatever they were, and so he left her alone on the streetside, the early spring air freezing the wet warmth between her legs.

***

The black hand of the clock ticked two.

The red sweater in Flora’s hands was not responding well to her stitching—wool was notoriously hard to mend, and that was no more obvious than now, when the rough fabric kept coming apart in her fingers. She needed it mended by Tuesday, or it would be another mark against her in the department store. Her boss had been demanding more hours of her, and Flora was taking her job home with her as of late.

The phone rang, startling her. Who could be calling so late? When she picked it up, a hoarse voice she nearly didn’t recognize answered. “Could you come pick me up?”

“Patience?” Flora said.

The voice was silent for a moment. “I’m at the Garland City Opera House.” The dial tone rung.

Flora got in her car, slightly worried about Patience—that sweet girl, solitary and a little secretive in a paranoid way that made the older woman worry about her. She had gotten involved with those Italians, and they were never good news, those people who had taken her Caroline from her (not a day went by when she didn’t think of her sweet face). Flora drove with her fingers tight on the steering wheel.

The streets were crowded with people leaving the opera, limousines jamming the streets, and it took her half an hour to reach the front of the Garland City Opera House.

Flora spotted Patience immediately. Her red dress first, then her small, thin figure and her oak-brown hair hanging over her face. For a moment the woman was reminded of Caroline. The showy hem of the dress and the bleached blond hair were different, but not the slumped posture, standing on the street.

Flora stopped the car to call out the window. Patience got in her car without a word. No matter how many times the older woman tried to make conversation, she was quiet through the whole journey home.

When they arrived home, Patience went straight for the door without speaking a word. When Flora entered the house, the small brown-haired girl was seated on the beaten-up sofa. Flora really needed to replace that sofa, Mickey had worn his claws on it too many times…

If she looked closer, Flora could see faint indentations on the edge of her mouth. “Patience?” she said. “How did your date go?”

The edge of the girl’s mouth twitched, bruised holes and all. “Not well.”

“You need to stay away from those Catholic boys,” said Flora, her voice tight. “They’re nothing but trouble—“

“Flora,” said Patience, her voice hoarse, “Have you ever woken from a nightmare…and then as you’re waking up into reality, your mind realizes that all of it wasn’t real, and it’s the most blessed feeling on this earth?”

Flora fell silent. There was something in Patience’s voice, something that reminded her of the time when she had come to her, torn and hurt and begging for help from the tortures of that man.

The tick-tock of the grandfather clock echoed through the empty room.

“When I was living with my aunt and uncle, something like that would happen. I used to have dreams…I’d dream my momma was with me, holding me. And when I woke up, for a moment I could still feel her with me, lying beside me.”

The girl’s hands bit into her bare arms—and could Flora see fingerprint bruises on her skin?

“But then my brain would wake and that warm feeling would fade away, and there would be nothing left but cold sheets and an empty room. And I clung onto that last strand of my dream, I clung to it so hard, but it every time would slip through my fingers.”

Flora was silent. Patience’s legs crooked under her beautiful dress, the dress that Flora had spent so many hours adjusting.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” Flora said finally. “There’s a hole where they are, and it never really goes away.” The face of her daughter swam in her face, plump cheeks and joyful smile and her arms wrapping warm around Flora’s waist. Oh sweetheart.

Patience bent lower. Her body was trembling. “It does,” she said finally. Something red seeped below the hem of her dress. Something that trickled down her pale thighs like a vein of blood.

The grandfather clock boomed, the long deep sound washing over them.

“I can’t just stop. I can’t wake up from this dream anymore. I’m in too deep. I need to see this out til the end.” Patience’s voice was shaking, near a sob, like a thin line stretched too taut and about to snap.

“Cause--cause there’s another girl, just like me, waking without her momma, or a girl like Caroline who’s being hurt and can’t find a way out of her suffering. All this hurt that happens to me, it has to be for a reason, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?”

Her voice was cracked and broken.

“Tell me I’m doing the right thing, Flora. Please. Tell me.”

***

The light of spring shone through the window, remnants of overnight storms making the grass outside glisten.

The black lines of the calendar were sharp in her gaze, and Patience traced an index finger from the twenty-third of March to the twenty-forth.

And if her timing was right, a man called Al was taking a trip to Saint Petersburg, a briefcase full of documents in his hand. Documents that could not only reveal the link between Tommy Bianconi, but also Leonardo Borghese and Salvatore Mallozzi.

It was time to go to Florida.

 

 

Chapter Text

The day before her flight was about to leave, Patience received a phonecall she had only been half-expecting. What she hadn’t been expecting was the shaky, hoarse tone of voice. “Patience? Patty?”

“What do you want, Salvatore?” Patience looked up from her suitcase, rumpled clothes still half-stuffed in.

“You need to come over. Right now. It’s an emergency.”

“Why can’t you call one of your men?” she would be lying if she wasn’t enjoying the way his voice cracked at the words.

“Goddamn it Patty, just come over right now!”

Patience looked at her open suitcase, a scowl tugging at her mouth. His panicked tone aroused her curiosity. Was he in real danger? He couldn’t die. She still needed him to unseat Leonardo from the mayoral race.

In the end she took a gun with her, in case he tried anything. The memory of his hands on her thighs was still fresh in her mind, and she wasn’t liable to start trusting him so easily after that.

Patience was surprised to see the kind of house Salvatore Mallozzi lived in. She was expecting a nouveau-riche gaudy sort of mansion that suited his personality, or at very least a nice-sized apartment. What instead greeted her was a derelict single-floor house much like the one his brother owned, scarred with black ivy and with a cracked stone doorstep. The curtains of the window were drawn tightly. Shadows fell starkly across the overgrown lawn from the flickering streetlight.

As soon as she lifted a hand to knock, the door was wrenched open and Salvatore’s face peered out pale and drawn. “Hurry!” he hissed, seizing her arm and yanking her in. She bit back a cry of pain—the injury between her legs was a fresh throb, and she had difficulty walking without limping.

She pushed him away when she was inside. “What is your problem?! It’s seven o’clock at night!”

The inside was not much better, perhaps even worse. It was the home of a bachelor, she could tell, clothing scattered on the floor, a torn-up sofa with cigarette stains, and peeling green wallpaper. He had few furniture, and fewer belongings. The house seemed strangely empty. The floorboards were bare under her feet.

She turned to him. With a white sleeveless shirt on, she could tell how incredibly gaunt Salvatore was—he had nothing of the healthy flush Leonardo had, or softness clinging to his curves. He was just lean muscle and bone.

“They’re watching,” he said, more to himself. “They…they’re coming. Fuck. That son of a bitch Borghese…I bet he told them…”

“Who’s watching? What are you talking about?”

He was peering through the curtains, eyes wide and red, and only then did she notice that he had a gun pointed at the ground.

“Salvatore. Put the gun down.”

“They can’t know,” he rasped. “None of my men…none of them. They can’t know!”

He whipped around and pointed it at the wall. The wall exploded in a shower of plaster. Patience was screaming before the bang faded from her hears. “Put the god damn gun down, Salvatore! Put it down before you hurt someone!”

She gripped his wrist and drew him toward her. With one hand she gripped his other wrist, which was shaking and pulsing, and slowly pulled it down until the gun dangled from his fingers. “Salvatore. Ssh. Calm down. No one’s coming. Nothing’s happening. It’s just you and me in here.”

Salvatore’s heart was thudding far faster than a human’s should, enough so that she could feel the vibrations coming from across his chest, which was only an inch away from hers.

His eyes were wide and rimmed with red, the pupils the size of dimes. His breaths came in hissing gasps.

Patience gently pulled the gun out of his fingers and led him over to the sofa. She pushed him down and draped a ragged blanket she had found underfoot over top him. “I’m getting water. Stay here.”

As she entered the kitchen, she noticed a flat book sitting on the cluttered table. Several cards were sitting to the side, their edges encrusted with something. Bloody tissues lay crumpled in a wad on the floor.

As she filled the glass, she inspected it closer. There appeared to be a sort of white dust covering the surface of the book, all but invisible in the brightness of the overhead light. She wiped a bit of it with her finger and brought it to her nose. It smelled very pungent and dark, like gasoline. When she tasted it, it was bitter.

She slowly made her way back to the living room, where Salvatore was sitting up, still shaking and muttering.

“You feel better?” she said, sitting beside him. He began to drink the water with a muffled gurgle. With one hand she ruffled his dark hair. “You didn’t tell me you were addicted to cocaine.”

He spluttered, and water sprayed her. “That’s against the law, you know,” she continued.

He met her gaze with his sharp one. “Do you really think I don’t know that? Do you really think I fuckin’ care?

“No,” she said. “I mean, it’s against your law.”

The house fell into a period of silence for a moment. The only sounds were Salvatore’s heavy breaths against the rim of the glass.

“That’s why you wanted me here,” she continued. “Because if you invited any of your cronies here they would know that you’re a cokehead. And that’s just stain on your all-precious honor, isn’t it? It’s breaking their code—omerta, is it called?”

His eyes drifted. "They know,” he repeated like a mantra. “He told them. Borghese told them all, and they’re going to come here, and they’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill us both.”

“If he hasn’t told them already, he’s unlikely to do it now,” she said. “Lie down already. Get your head together.”

As he lay down once again, she paced the room, gnawing her nails. Things were coming together in her head. The veiled threats and blackmail from Leonardo. The tone of disgust that Al and Tommy Bianconi had when they were talking about that strange illicit drug-runner in Garland City.

“If you tell anybody—

“We’re allies, remember? I don’t have any reason to tell anyone." I still need you to get the vote for Nizzola. After that, all bets are off. “Anyway, I have to go. I have a flight tomorrow morning.”

“Where you goin’?”

Seventh Heaven. “Visiting relatives,” she said.

He sat up, panic setting in on his face. “Don’t leave.”

“It’s just the coke talking, Salvatore. Everything’s fine, no one’s coming to get you. Get some sleep.”

He inhaled, a vein throbbing in his neck. He was still tense and shaking, like a scared rabbit.

Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Patience cupped his face and put her thumbs over his eyes. “Close your eyes.” She rubbed her cool fingers over his face in comforting motions. When he finally fell asleep it was past twelve.

***

As soon as she left the departure gate, she was hit by a wave of heat.

Sunglasses crooked on her face, scarf wrapped around her head and tied at her chin, and feet encased in brown high heels, Patience looked any other tourist. Except that her suitcase was filled with disguises and guns instead of swimsuits and sunhats.

Sunny Florida was so different from dreary New York, and the loud clamor and brightly colored billboards just added to the feeling.

She rented a beaten-up blue Buick from the nearest car dealer agency, and got a room at a beachside resort called the Bilmar. Rows of yellow apartments stretched across the white sands, the stories rising high above the frolicking swimmers. The name of the resort was written in curvy blue letters on the top of the building, a daring squiggle surrounded by tall swaying palm trees.

Patience changed into a white swimsuit, the window of the balcony open and the curtains blowing in.

Outside she could hear the calls of seagulls and the laughter and screams of children. The sound of their laughter calmed her for some reason. Her palms were sweaty and there was a lump in her throat that wouldn’t go away.

In the mirror, her light brown hair was combed straight and hung to her waist. The white swimsuit clung to her curves tightly, accentuating the gap between her thighs, her small waist and the swell of her apple-sized breasts. Her leaf-green eyes were wide and worried, eyebrows drawn in a worried frown and pink lips downturned. She noted in distress how lank her hair seemed and how much weight she had lost—even if her swimsuit was a tad too tight. She was was a woman’s 4, wasn’t she?

Outside, Florida went on and on. There was a café by the beachside where Patience could go sip a drink and watch the waves crash against the beach.

The pool was crystal-blue. Shapely women suntanned on the side. Patience thought she would go sunbathe when she had more time, and get that ghostly pallor off her skin. She would feel awfully self-conscious around all the beautiful women, though.

On the red, neatly tucked duvet was spread all the objects she would need for the next day. Recording device clipped to the collar of her shirt. Gun tucked into a thigh holster. Of course, the important thing was self-confidence, and unfortunately Patience had run out of that halfway through the flight.

She took another deep breath and smoothed the sides of her hair against her head. Her plan was thus: Wait for Al to enter Seventh Heaven. Get a waitress uniform and follow him. In possession of the files, when a spare moment came, she would steal them.

Patience lay down on the bed and tried to calm her fraying nerves. If all went well, she could come out with the biggest chunk of evidence possible for her to hold. If it didn’t, well…

At least she had tried.

***

St. Petersburg had a certain seduction to it. Cradled in the arms of the Florida peninsula and the continental U.S., it was the home of museums, stone cathedrals, and vast beaches that stretched beyond her farthest imagination.

The beachside had a comforting row of shops that she wiled her time away in. Tie dyed sundresses and stained glass chimes caught her interest, and the wooden boardwalk was hard yet smooth under her feet.

The sea breeze and warm air warmed her heart. She stood by the dock, restaurants and ice cream shops and gift stores all bustling behind her. The brightness of the sun beat down on her tawny hair.

Behind her was Seventh Heaven Nightclub and Bar, a tall wooden beachside structure billing itself to partying teenagers and beachgoers. It only opened around four, and its neon blue lighting saw drunken young men and women until the wee hours of the night. The day was getting older, and she hung around the wooden boardwalk of the dock, arms resting against the rail. The people bustled around her, all inside their little worlds, which probably did not involve spying and crime. 

A sudden flash of black coat caught her interest, and she saw the expected Al enter Seventh Heaven’s purple doors, a dark briefcase clutched in his hand and his bald head gleaming in the waning sunlight.

She followed him in, through the back door she had staked out. As she entered, she saw it was a narrow hallway with staircases off to the side. She could hear chattering coming from upstairs, and so stepped into an unoccupied room to look for a uniform. It was an unused kitchen, with stainless steel cutlery hung on hooks on the walls.

Patience almost didn’t notice the footsteps behind her until she felt a tap on her shoulder. “Excuse me, you’re not supposed to be—“

Acting instinctively, she snagged a crockpot from the stovetop and brought it down over the person’s head. A small blond waitress crumpled down to the ground, knocked out cold.

Patience tied her up with her apron strings and stuffed her in a closet. Then she feverishly dressed in her uniform and climbed the stairs to the upper floor.

The halls were bustling with waiters and waitresses. The walls were lined with mounted, taxidermied fish. Two older waitresses stood by the corner, chatting and having a smoke. Patience read the note she had stolen from the waitress. Gin and tonic, table eleven, seared tilapia, table fourteen…

“They cut my hours again,” said one waitress bitterly. “Jerk-offs. I need the money, too.”

“What did you expect? Business has really dropped lately. Ever since, you know…”

Their voices dropped. Curious, Patience edged nearer, pretending to study her note.

“As soon as they stopped selling drugs all the kids just left,” said the other waitress under her breath.

Patience's eyes widened.

“That’s the only reason people wanted in,” muttered the other waitress. “’Cause of the coke. Then Varetti has the bad luck to go off and disappear…”

“Ssh, Harriet. What if someone hears?”

The raised voice made Patience start to walk again, but her heart was thumping. This mystery was becoming more and more convoluted, but in her mind, things were slowly starting to make sense. Salvatore being a cokehead? Drugs in Seventh Heaven? Pieces of the puzzle were fitting together. 

The inside of the kitchen was bustling. Numerous white-hatted chefs and green-uniformed waitresses ferried orders away. Stainless steel ovens and counters lined the white floor. Countless beef, spinach, lemon and salmon fried away on the oven’s countertops, attended to by harried chefs.

As Patience entered the main kitchen, the smell of roasting fish entered her nostrils.

Among all the other smells of the kitchen, the pungent, sour scent sunk into her lungs. It made sudden nausea well up inside her, her jaw numbing as half-digested scrambled eggs rose to her throat.

She pressed her hand to her face and ran toward the nearest waste bin, trying desperately to keep her food down. Tears started in her eyes as she retched over the trash can.

“Hey, you alright?” asked another waitress.

Patience wasn’t paying attention to her. She was watching her trembling hand, stained with vomit over the trash bin. Her breaths rose shallowly in her heaving chest.

Her mind was blank save for one question.

When was the last time I had my period?

 

 

Chapter Text

“Hey! You, there! Boiled scallops, table sixteen!”

Patience snapped out of her thoughts. She walked over on shaking legs and took the plate that was thrust into her hands.

As soon as she was in the hall, she asked the nearest waitress where the man with the black briefcase was. She didn’t know. The second waiter did. He was on the topmost floor, in a private room. She ditched the plate of scallops and seized a few cold tequilas.

The top floor was quiet; barely used. Some businessmen conversed quietly in wide sunlit rooms. She spotted the two personages she needed immediately. They were in a warmly decorated private room flooded with cigar smoke. They stopped talking as soon as she entered the room. Al looked displeased—or was that just the natural state of his face? Tommy Bianconi smiled widely at her, his potato nose as big as she had remembered it.

Patience unloaded her tequilas, her legs feeling like they were made of water. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Al’s briefcase was right by his leather armchair.

“I didn’t order a tequila.” This was Al’s sharp voice. His snake eyes were following every movement she made.

“I-I-I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I-I just got hired…”

Tommy guffawed. “Let it be, Albert. Tequilas are beach drinks, and where are we? Save the whiskeys for New York.”

Patience kept her face turned away, hoping that he wouldn’t look too closely. She tilted her head to let her bangs fall over her face.

She finished unloading and smiled brightly. Her eyes were fixed on the briefcase. As she turned toward the door, Tommy’s voice sounded once again. “Have we met before?”

Ice water crept down her neck as she turned back to him. His beetly brows were furrowed in something almost reaching recognition.

The moment of silence between them seemed enormous, like an empty hall echoing between them. It lasted for just a moment, but seemed an eternity to her.

She forced a fake smile on her face. “No sir, I don’t believe we have.”

To her enormous relief, Tommy turned back to Albert. They began talking again, and Patience made her way to the door.

She snagged the briefcase halfway.

Patience had been hoping Albert wouldn’t notice, but she had underestimated his attentiveness. His head whipped around. “What do you think you’re—“

Her hand had already closed over the polished black handle. She crashed through the door, shouts echoing behind her.

Waiters were already milling the stairwell, attracted by the shouts. Patience turned away from the crowd and began to run down the opposite hallway, suitcase clutched in her hand. Out, she thought. I have everything I need. Now I need to escape.

Patience reached the end of the hall, and there was no staircase. She stopped in shock. The dull wall loomed in front of her. She was trapped, without escape.

The shouting and commotion sounded behind her, staff flooding into the halls. She ducked into the nearest room. It was empty, thankfully.

Commotion behind her. Patience flattened her back against the door, hand instinctively, protectively finding her belly. Why? said a faraway part of her mind.

The click of the iron lock was loud in her ears as she backed away.

It was soon that she heard fists banging on the door. The sides of the door shuddered as fists hammered on it. Patience stared at it as it shook, her fists in balls and tears starting in her eyes. She turned.

The cool surface of the glass window shone in the darkening sun, sunset gleaming in to bathe the pale rugs with red. There was no exit.

This isn’t the end. It can’t be. I won’t let it. The grip of the briefcase handle was tight in her hand. The lock shuddered. She squeezed her eyes shut. 

She unholstered her gun and fired at the window. It shattered. Patience threw her briefcase at the window, and it bounced onto the street, scattering papers everywhere.

The young woman balanced her heels in the jagged window, the small slivers of glass embedding themselves in her soles. The door broke in behind her.

Then she jumped.

Her back hit the ground first, then she rolled. Her shoulder screamed with pain as she scrambled up. She was on her feet within a moment, gathering the papers with no regard to the agony in her shoulder and feet.

Screams and laughs from the nightclub. It was hard to separate the partygoers from the hunters. Patience could feel pain sinking tendrils into her leg muscles, her legs nearly giving out as she stood up.

The Florida sunset was beginning to streak the sky, rich oranges and reds she had never seen replicated.

The far side of the sky was darkening behind her, like a shadow falling across her mind. The neon lights of Seventh Heaven were bright in the rapidly darkening evening.

She looked behind her once, at the crowd of partying teenagers. At the commotion from the upper floors, where curtains blew through an open window.

Then she ran.

***

The waves crashed against the shore.

Dusk had fallen upon the sky, dark red washing out blue. Now the far side of the horizon was turning black, numerous stars twinkling in the sky. The remnants of the dusk settled on the far horizon, light orange deepening to dark red. The orange light reflected off the surface of the ocean like a mirror.

The only other person in the café was an old Cuban man, his withered face staring out at the fading sun as he sipped his coffee.

The mojito was sweet and fresh, with only a slight tone of bitterness underneath the lime. She thought she might have had one with her mother if she were still alive, celebrating marriage or graduation. Just a mother and daughter, vacationing together without a care in the world.

Hidden in the closet, Patience watched.

It was a boy, the little girl thought. Not a man, like the men who surrounded Mommy and Daddy. An older boy. Like the ones who smoked cigarettes and hung out at the soda fountain by her school. But except he was tall and elegant, like the boys who went to Harvard, his worn and torn clothing doing nothing to disguise his natural grace.

He moved with a certain poise, a quickness and authority made Patience think he was the leader. When he stepped in the room, the men parted.

He looked down at Daddy.

“It really didn’t have to come to this,” he said, and he sounded apologetic. He had an accent, a soft foreign accent that sounded kind of nice to Patience’s ears.

He was so pretty. Like an angel. Like the pictures of cherubs in her room, delicately painted with soft oranges and creams. Their features as delicate as could be, tousled curls falling over their shoulders and their faces peaceful and kind.

How could someone so pretty be aiming a gun at Daddy?

“I won’t testify,” sobbed Daddy, his voice shaking in a way she had never heard before. “I promise. I won’t, Borghese. Just don’t harm my wife. Please—“

“You made your decision. You threw our money in our faces. Called us guineas, dirty criminals. We’re forgiving men, Mr. Winslow—but even you must admit that we have given you one too many chances.”

She saw the cold glint of a gun in the lamplight, shining dull orange off the metal.

Mommy’s voice was a high, wavering shriek, a tremor of something beneath her voice that Patience had only heard once before—when the river current had swept her off from the riverbank during a family outing, and Mommy had given a shrill, terrible scream as she fought the current—

“Please no, not my husband!”

A blast deafened Patience’s ears.

Daddy slumped forward, a fountain of blood pouring from his forehead.

In the distance, in her ringing ears, Patience heard Mommy's voice increase in a swoop of despair—

And the scream was abruptly cut off. Mommy collapsed to her side, on top of Daddy, and she made a movement, a twitch, and Patience wondered if she was going to try to rip the gun out of the boy’s hand, but she stilled, and there was nothing but the silence, and the smell of smoke floating somewhere overhead.

The boy polished the tip of the gun and returned it to his coat pocket. His blue, blue eyes were just as peaceful as when he had entered the room, strangely calm, like a lake, not even a ripple making itself at home on those blank irises.

He turned and spoke a few words to one of the men in a different language. They conversed for a moment, ignoring the slowly-spreading pool of blood that threatened to reach the soles of their shoes.

Then the men began to leave.

The boy was the last one out—and he swept his gaze once again over the scene of horror. Patience’s hollow gaze followed his, and his eyes met hers briefly as they passed over the closet. Deep blue. Like the evening sky, but so dark, so dark she couldn’t see the bottom of them. There was something there that made her breath short out.

Then he turned and left, just as quietly as he arrived.

It was silent again.

The girl walked out, her soft bare feet padding softly on the wood. The pool of blood reached her toes first, and soon her small feet were soaked with red as she watched their bodies with dark, disbelieving eyes. It was like a scene from a storybook. Not something real.

She went upstairs and climbed in her bed

Little Patience slept deeply, hands balled up beneath her chin. The edge of the sun had just began to peep over the horizon when she woke. She sleepily walked down the stairs, hands balled in her tiny nightgown, anticipating seeing her mother at the stove, making scrambled eggs, her favorite breakfast.

Instead she saw flies crawling over stiff, bloodied bodies, hair caked with brain matter, limp bodies in a grotesque display.

Standing in the doorway, her horrified eyes rested on the corpses of her parents.

Her scream echoed around the house.

The Cuban man stared out at the dark ocean. The waves washed over and over again, lapping against the shore like a heartbeat.

She stared out at the streaks of blood and honey, the sky washed over with color. The fading light shone off of her swimsuit. The white fabric glinted ripe red in the dimming sunset.

Tears were beginning to drip down her cheeks. Her small hand rested over the barely noticeable bump in her swimsuit.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The whitewashed cupboard wavered in front of her eyes. The peeling labels on the tubs of chemicals spelled out their names in spidery black lettering. Bleach. Lye. Lux Detergent.

Every breath she took sounded obscenely loud in her ears. Every sound was amplified, from the fizzling of the lightbulb dangling from its wire, to the dripping of the faucet into the tub, to the distant thuds and footsteps of Flora downstairs.

“Are you coming down for dinner, Patience?”

“No thank you, Flora,” she heard herself say. “I’m not hungry tonight.”

It has to be done, she thought, it has to be done. She repeated it like a mantra. Her pale claw of a hand gripped the tub of lye and pulled it out of the cabinet.

Patience had seen women arrested, jailed over such things. In the police office, young housewives with mascara running down their cheeks, hardened hookers from the Seventh District with blood caking their short silk dresses. If no one finds out, she thought, it will be so easy.

But God will know, said some small, childish part of her, some part raised and bred in a whitewashed Lutheran church. To kill an unborn child is a sin. It is an innocent soul. How could you do this? How could I do this?

Her belly seemed twice as big, now that she knew she was pregnant. It poked out from her nightgown in a gentle curve. She hated touching it, because whenever she did, she felt a pang of tenderness. She couldn’t stop imagining the little baby inside her, curled up without a care in the world. Mommies are supposed to protect babies. That’s what my mother did for me. And now I’m killing mine.

Patience swallowed thickly and unscrewed the bottle. The thick, pungent scent of lye assaulted her nostrils. Before she could change her mind, she tipped it over her mouth.

By the first swallow her throat began to burn. By the second she began to retch.

She found herself bent over the bathtub, gagging and puking. Her throat and the inside of her mouth burned. Her head swam with the bitter fumes. Soon the white bottom of the bathtub was covered with a thick film of green slime and half-digested food and thick, viscous blood.

Chunks of skin—was that the sausage she’d had for breakfast, or was that pieces of her throat flesh? They glistened wetly in the light from the flickering bulb.

“Patience, are you okay up there?”

Her eyes stung. “I’m f-fine,” she called hoarsely. The scratchy material of her nightgown was stretched tight over her belly, stained with vomit, and she felt her hand resting on the taut skin. She pressed her forehead on the cool porcelain and let her emotions well up in her burning, aching throat until she almost screamed.

***

The night was cold. Melting snow formed runny rivers that dripped into the sewers. Linda’s scuffed boots nudged a pothole.

Little Linda Silverstein was getting hungry, and tired, and her joints were starting to ache, but anything was better than going back to screams and shouts and the door slamming and Ma crying.

The moon was high, and there had been a moaning old man a street over who tried to grab her. Linda had dodged him and ran a block. Her heart was still thumping with terror. The darker it got the scarier it became. The storefronts were cracked out pubs and closed grocery stores with dark legs of meat hanging in the window.

Linda hugged her knees and pressed her face into them. Snowflakes were melting in her dirty blonde hair.

A dark car had parked on the opposite side of the street. A business lady got out, her high heels clicking on the concrete sidewalk. Linda wondered what she was doing here; there were no office buildings open this late.

The lady looked over and smiled, and began to walk towards her. “You’re out late, honey,” she called softly. Her voice was a little hoarse, like she smoked too many cigarettes.

Linda stiffened. The lady was professional-looking, with a straight skirt and black suit jacket buttoned to her neck. She was very short, with long, wavy brown hair and pretty green eyes.

To Linda’s surprise, she plopped down beside her on the streetside. “Cold night, huh?”

Linda shivered and looked away. Soon she felt a jacket being draped over her. The wool was warm with the woman’s body heat.

“Do your parents know where you are?” said the lady.

Linda shook her head. She pulled the jacket tighter over her.

“I bet they’re real worried about you.”

Linda studied her. The lady had her elbows leaning on her knees, and she was looking out across the street. Now that she was close, Linda could see under the streetlight how gaunt she was. There were dark shadows under her eyes.

“Who are you?”

“Patience,” said the lady, extending a hand. “Like the virtue.”

***

“Why don’t you want to go home?” said the lady.

Linda didn’t like her too much. She talked a lot, and Linda could tell she was forcing herself to be nice.

“Ma and Pa argue,” Linda said bluntly.

“So you’re going to live on the street? Is that what you’re going to do?”

“Yeah. I’ll be an—an urchin. I’ll sell newspapers.”

“An urchin? You do know what happens to urchins, don’t you? The street sweeper comes every day and sweeps them into his big dustpan and carries them off.”

“Shut up. I’m too old to believe in fairy tales.”

At Linda’s snap, Patience-Like-The-Virtue went silent for a while. The street light flickered, moths bouncing off it.

“You know, my Mom and Dad used to fight a lot, too,” she said finally. “He was a policeman. The constable of Greenhaven. Have you been there?”

“My aunt lives there,” mumbled Linda.

“He was away a lot of the time. Arresting criminals. Doing police work. Once he missed my birthday. Boy, did they have a big fight about that.” Patience smiled, but it was a sad smile. “Now I’d do anything to have them alive and arguing again.”

Linda swallowed, but didn’t say anything. Linda’s dad was a laborer. He came home late a lot, and her Ma liked to accuse him of seeing other women. She wondered what it would be like if he simply didn’t come home at all.

“Linda,” said Patience, and Linda started. How did she know her name? “You only have one set of parents, you know. I’d do anything to have just one parent. And you have two. Two whole parents. You’re one lucky girl.”

“What happened to them?” ventured Linda. “Your—your parents.”

“I was a girl your age,” said Patience. “And I stayed out too late. And the street sweeper came and swept them away. Do you want to swap, Linda? I can have your parents, and you can be an orphan.”

“No,” said Linda suddenly, and now her tales about the street sweeper seemed all too real, with the dark streets and the shadows moving in the darkness. “I want to go home.”

Patience stood up and smiled down at her. “Let’s go home together, then.”

Patience’s hand was warm. When they were halfway to the car, one of the shadows moved abruptly, and called out, “Patty girl!” in a guttural tone.

Linda froze as a tall, spidery figure, hands in his pockets, made its way over to them. It was a man—a very tall man, with sleek black hair and a loose jacket slung over his shoulder. He had very sharp features, kind of rough, but he was smiling, although the smile didn’t do much for his face. “You’ve been avoiding me for weeks! Why the hell weren’t you answering my calls?”

Patience stiffened beside her. “Salvatore,” she said coolly. “I’m busy.”

“Well, it isn’t my damn fault you won’t answer the door. That old whor—“ he caught sight of Linda and looked guilty—“—woman just told me to go away. Why the hel—heck you been avoiding me? Got some sort of tropical disease in Florida?”

“No.” Patience looked down at Linda, and her sallow face looked frightened. “I’ve got to get Linda Silverstein home. I’ll talk you later.”

“I haven’t got a ride back. Mind giving me one?” Salvatore smiled, but his smile had a hint of steel beneath it.

Patience looked like she wanted to argue, but relented. “Fine. Get in.”

When they were driving away, Sal twisted to look back at her. “Hey, kid, did you get lost?”

“I ran away,” mumbled Linda, plucking a frayed yarn of her sweater, the one her grandmother had knitted for her seventh birthday.

“Ahh,” said Salvatore. “I used to run away a lot too, when I was a kid. Always told myself I would stay away for good, but the next morning I would be back at the breakfast table, dirty and hungry. Then my Mamma would give me a few bats with a wooden spoon and send me off to school.” He smiled easily. “It’s good to run away sometimes. It clears your head.”

Linda laughed. He had a warm manner about him, despite his roughshod appearance. Patience muttered something under her breath and squeezed his bicep, her long fingernails sinking into the fabric of the sleeve. He turned back to the front.

“What’s wrong, Patty?” he said softly, but Linda could hear all the same. “You’re out of sorts. I can tell. Did something happen to you in Florida? Did a man... do anything to you?”

“You’re one to talk,” she scoffed, but the scoff was empty and bitter. Then she paused. Linda could tell she wanted to say something. In the dim light, she could see Patience’s face turned, eyes studying him. There was something in her knitted eyes. Dark and frustrated and stressed and maybe a little sad. “Sal,” she said suddenly, and there was a hint of a quaver underneath her voice.

“What? What’s wrong?”

Patience went silent. Then: “Get out.”

“Huh? But we’re—“

“Get out,” she said, her voice hard. “I’ll see you at the first debate speech on Monday. Until then, don’t contact me. Out!”

He slammed the door shut behind him, hissing. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Porca puttana…crazy broad!”

Patience zoomed off with a screech. Linda felt familiar fear start to seize her limbs as she ran the first red light, and then the next. Patience’s fingers were white, tightly gripping the leather steering wheel. “We’re going too fast,” said Linda, who was well-acquainted with speeding drivers—in fact, two years later, her mother would crash into a pole while drunk and kill both of them. “Stop! Please! I’m scared!”

At that, Patience finally slowed down, and pulled into a dark alley. Then she put her head down on the steering wheel and began to shake. Linda didn’t know if she was crying, but Linda was. “Please, just take me home. I want to go home. Please!”

Patience was silent, still shaking, and Linda felt less scared after a moment, and more sorry for her. “Are you okay?”

“Linda,” she said, “Can I tell you a secret?”

There was no sound but the distant rumble of cars.

“I’m pregnant,” said Patience.

Linda blinked. “You’re—having a baby?”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I’m having a baby.”

Linda looked out. The windows lining the alley were dark and empty.

“Was that guy your husband?” said Linda.

“Salvatore? God, no.” she laughed. “Thank the lord.”

“Was he your boyfriend?”

“He’s not the daddy, if that’s what you’re asking. Linda, how old are you?”

“Eleven,” said Linda proudly. She was big enough to listen to this lady’s problems. “Tell me everything.”

“Ha. Your parents would probably sue me if I told you everything.” She laughed bitterly. “Linda?”

“Yeah?” Linda patted her shoulder from the back seat.

“I don’t want it. I don’t want the baby. I don’t like the idea of it inside me. I don’t like knowing it’s getting bigger and bigger every day. Sometimes I want to get rid of it.”

“Why?” Linda was horrified. “It’s a baby. Babies are innocent. You can’t kill it!”

“I know,” she admitted, her voice downtrodden. “I know it’s just a baby. But its father was very cruel to me. And I don’t like the idea that a little…a little…a little part of him is inside me.”

“Don’t kill it,” said Linda. “It’s just a baby!” She was scared and stressed, and didn’t like the idea of the tiny red-faced thing in Patience’s body dying. Her mother had been pregnant once, but lost it, and she had cried for months afterward. Her brother Andrew had been so small, sitting in his little coffin.

Linda reached forward and put her hand on Patience’s belly. It was warm and a little big, like she was hiding a basketball under it. “Please just take me home. Please, Patience? I’m hungry. I’ll never run away again, I promise. Just take me home and have your baby. If you want to visit me, you can.”

At those last words, Patience seemed to jolt. “Oh. I’m sorry, Linda. I’ll take you home right now.”

When Linda arrived at her blessed crumbling brick and wood shanty, squeezed between two bigger houses, she never recalled being so happy.

She got out and began to run, then realized and turned back. “Do you want your coat back?” Patience was counting the bills Ma and Pa had given her, peeling one sheaf of paper away from the other.

Patience smiled forcedly, her green eyes dull. There were far too many lines at the edges of her eyes. “No. You keep it, Linda. Spring is coming anyway.”

***

The grayness and starkness of the city was melting into spring. She leaned against the wall of the nearest department building, hand covering her face as she heaved. It seemed as if every scent of food sent her breakfast rising up her throat.

It had been bad, the first night in the airport. Patience had spent the first day and a half crying, but when she arrived back in Garland City she was dry-eyed. As she waited for Flora to pick her up, sudden attacks of nausea had hit her one after another—she didn’t know suddenly why now, now that she was aware of her pregnancy, but people had looked at her all askance and contemptuous all the same as she emptied her stomach into the trashcan.

What was worse was riding back with Flora, trying to answer her questions lightly and smiling, giving her a souvenir conch and accepting her hugs while a dark slime settled in the back of her skull, pulsing like a heartbeat. What was worse than that was explaining away the lye burns on her lips as she sat down to dinner with her, an empty smile on her face and a shadow in her womb.

Patience had never given thought to having children. She was a single child, and never had to deal with having a younger sibling. For a moment she thought back to the first night, beginning her walk of shame across the city while Leonardo’s seed dripped down her legs, and sitting in the shower, washing away the filth from inside her body. She had agonized that it had taken root, that it was growing a little him inside her.

But now that it had happened, she felt strangely empty.

The debate was being held on a sunny Saturday, freeing people to watch it from their television sets. The crowd was thousands strong, waving banners, holding up hand-painted signs.

BORGHESE FOR MAYOR.

VOTE NIZZOLA.

HIS FATHER GAVE US PEACE, WHY WON’T HE?

BORGHESE KNOWS WHAT WE WANT.

BORGHESE=ALLY OF THE WORKING MAN.

The sun beat down brightly for once, the cold chill of winter swept away by the promise of spring.

A hand closed over her shoulder. “Miss Winslow? Are you feeling all right?”

She looked up and smiled at Benjamin Nizzola. The older man was sweating in the sun, a handkerchief tucked into his pocket. His entire family was there, his severe wife with her hair teased, his plump blond son, and a little boisterous daughter. His face was scrunched into a frown underneath his glasses. “You’ve been out of sorts lately.”

“I’m fine, Ben. You should be getting ready for your speech.”

“Patty! There you are!” A tall, dark-haired figure came out from the crowd, holding a young girl by hand. “You finished your time of the month or whatever? What the hell was that the other night?”

Patience didn’t feel like dealing with Salvatore, now of all times, when she would be meeting Leonardo soon. “Sorry. Rough night.”

Gina tugged at her uncle’s hand, looking at Benjamin’s daughter. “Can I go play?”

“Knock yourself out.” Salvatore let her hand go. “Patience. I’ve got my people out in force today.” He nodded to a few burly black-suited men at the sides of the crowd. “And of course, crowd control. We’ve got this locked down.”

“Good.” Patience felt slightly less sick. “The mayoral debate is starting in a few minutes.”

“Lemme take a quick look, make sure everything’s going okay.” He tipped his hat towards her and sauntered off.

Patience watched him walk off, wondering if she should have told him. She had been so close. She had looked into his deep dark eyes and the words had burst into her throat. Salvatore, I’m pregnant.

Another voice made her back stiffen and her legs turn to water. “Mister Nizzola! Welcome. I hope you and your family have found the accommodations acceptable?”

Leonardo Borghese’s voice was so light and polite she found herself sick again. She pressed a hand to her mouth and turned to face him.

Benjamin Nizzola was emitting an aura of pure fear, shaking and hesitantly holding out a hand to shake. “Y-Yes, we have, Mr. Borghese. B-Buongiorn.”

“Buongiorno,” corrected Leonardo with an easy smile. He was wearing a light coat over a green sweater vest, hands in his pockets. He looked casual, approachable, unlike Benjamin’s stiff black suit and sweating manner. “And—Miss Winslow, was it? You look lovely. Your dress, especially. The color suits you.”

It was the same dress she had worn to the night at the opera—the one that had soaked blood and semen, and that had taken hours to fully scrub the stains out. The red one Flora had given her. She wore a blazer over it, but it wasn’t enough to conceal it from Leonardo's sharp gaze.

Nothing would wipe away the stains on her body. For a moment, Patience wished the thing inside her was running down her thighs.

The wind ruffled his blond hair. Every word was silent in Patience’s throat. She couldn’t stop picking out features—golden hair, curly hair, blue eyes, arched nose. The little thing in her belly had some of those features. Maybe it would have brown hair and blue eyes, or green eyes and a fine long nose. Maybe whenever she looked at it she would feel a sickening lurch, as the reminder of what its father had done to her flooded her brain.

Benjamin and Leonardo were talking, although Leonardo kept flicking his gaze back to her. When was it? Patience thought. When was it conceived? Was it when he took me on the floor with wine spreading across the carpet? Was it one of those stormy nights when he shared my bed, our warm bodies entwined with each other? Or was it when he dressed me as his mother and fucked me in that chair? Is that when this little parasite was embedded inside my body?

“Well,” said Leonardo. “Good luck with your debate, Mr. Nizzola. Pleased to meet you, Miss Winslow.” He tipped his hat to her. In the view of hundreds of people, he treated her chivalrously, but that just made her more bitter.

***

“The Garland City Post Office partially collapsed two days previously,” Benjamin started out strongly. “This is due to private contractors building it with the cheapest materials, behind federal regulations.”

Leonardo smiled easily. “Most of these people are poor immigrants looking for a job to support their family. They look for jobs and we provide them.”

“They are behind federal regulations,” repeated Benjamin steadfastly. “The building was completed far under the deadline and with inferior building materials. The stone was weak granite, and the concrete not mixed properly. You outsourced infrastructure to private contractors instead of the federal government. You are corrupt, Leonardo Borghese.” Benjamin’s voice was quivering, almost afraid to face him. Patience covered her face in her hands. Why couldn’t he be more charismatic?

“We are quite within regulations. If you read the Garland City Code, you might notice that building materials are strictly outlined. The unstable condition of the ground is the fault of the collapse—and of course, it’s us who get the blame.” His sardonic tone roused the crowd. The tide had turned already, and Patience had a feeling it wouldn’t change.

***

Patience was violently sick into the grime-encrusted women’s toilet.

Why was he such a fucking failure? Why couldn’t Benjamin have come up with something more stirring? Why did he have to be so formal and unapproachable all the time? Fuck you, Benjamin Nizzola. Your father wouldn’t have stood to let this happen. They were going to lose, she knew it. And she couldn’t lose to Leonardo Borghese.

She left the office building. The streets were scattered with sparse crowds. Most of them had left after the debate was done. She needed to catch a taxi and make it home before dinner. She had a hell of a lot of casework piling up. The police had enlisted her help in solving the murder of some mafia goon—she had mentioned it to Salvatore and he had told her he “knew him well”, which was doublespeak for “get the hell off that case right now”. Other than that, it was cheating husbands all the way down.

“Excuse me,” said a deep voice. A hand gripped her shoulder.

She started and turned around. A tall black man stood on the street, wearing a long coat buttoned up to his ears. A fedora was tipped over his face. He had lined, leathery skin and short-cropped hair, but what got her attention was his eyes—like a hawk, they stared at her intensely, never moving.

“Can I help you?” she said, a little intimidated. His amber eyes narrowed. “My name is Agent Turner. F.B.I.” he took a badge from his pocket. “I’d like to have a couple words with you.”

At those words her body flew into fight-or-flight mode. Oh god. They’re going to arrest me.

As if he sensed it, Agent Turner reached out and put a hand on her shoulder again. His hand held her tightly, not letting her move an inch. “Perhaps we could grab a cup of coffee. There’s a diner just a few streets over.”

***

Patience stirred cream into her coffee, watching the white bloom into the dark liquid. She could hear the clinking of spoon against porcelain as Turner ladled sugar into his coffee.

The plastic laminated menus glinted dully in the light from outside. The red leather booths stuck to her sweaty thighs.

The sky was clear and beautiful through the window, clouds like paint streaking the far horizon. The glittering windows of a thousand skyscrapers shone like silver coins in the sunlight. Across the street was a small playground where children played on the swingset and slid down the slide. Suburban mothers gossiped to each other on the benches, all with neatly teased hair and red lipstick. She watched it all through the reflection on the window.

“America, America,” Agent Turner said. “God shed his grace on thee. Where are you from, Miss Winslow? You don’t sound like a Garlander to me.”

“I’m from Greenhaven,” she said. “Massachusetts.”

“Massachusetts. I’m from Mississippi. Came up to New York four years ago. It was quite an adjustment.” The words sounded like they should have been accompanied by a smile, but they weren't.

“Garland City is pretty hectic,” Patience said. The door jingled as a customer came in, and it made her jump. “I was kind of scared when I moved here, too. It was so big and bustling.”

“The police office had all these ideas of what to do. They weren’t very susceptible to F.B.I. influence. Your father was a police officer, wasn’t he?”

At her wordless silence, he turned his hard eyes back to hers. “We’ve been watching you for a while, Patience Winslow.”

She gnawed at the inside of her cheek. “I—I don’t know what you want—“

“You’re quite well-acquainted with several persons of interest,” he continued. “One Salvatore Mallozzi and Leonardo Borghese.”

The hair on the back of her neck prickled. “Yes. We know each other.”

“I just have to say this,” he said. “If you would like to give us any confidential information, there would be…a substantial reward.” He slid a card over the tabletop. “Contact me at this number. You would be doing something very noble, I would have to say. Think about it.” He stood up. “Good day, Miss Winslow.”

As she watched him walk through the double doors, her mind was whirring. Allying with the FBI was the exactly the sort of thing she needed. She would gain the manpower she always wanted, as well as the resources. But…

Throwing her lot in with the F.B.I. would neutralize all the careful plans she had constructed over four years, the planning and tracking and gathering of information. She had a spiderweb set out for Leonardo Borghese, one that she had single-mindedly nurtured and encouraged with sweat and blood. It was too late to stop now.

Patience waited until he left the diner, and tossed the card into the nearest trashcan.

When she was block away, a strange fit of regret seized her. She turned.

Ruffling through the trashcan, she eventually came upon the food-stained, ink-lettered card. She tucked it into her pocket while never knowing why. Maybe it will come in handy later. When she arrived home, she tossed it into a drawer and forgot about it.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Patience looked at the files spread out over her desk, at the tapes she had replayed over and over again, at the crumpled papers and faded signatures. Her radio was blaring, so if Flora yelled at her, she could pretend to not be listening.

What does it all mean? She felt as if she were on the brink of a big discovery. She needed go know how it fit together; the drugs, Carlo Varetti, Florida, Salvatore Mallozzi and Leonardo Borghese and the other mafia bosses. She knew it was big. Big enough to tear apart the fabric of the mafia.

The jovial lyrics of some jazz band wafted through the room as she paced and gnawed her nails. She was so close—she could practically taste it. Snippets of memory drifted through her head—hiding underneath the table in Bianconi’s house, walking behind the two waitresses at Seventh Heaven. Why had Carlo been killed when Candace Kingley said everyone knew he was in the mob? What did it have to do with Seventh Heaven? And the drugs? Who was supplying the drugs?

Patience Winslow thought back to every conversation, looked over every scrap of paper and photograph until her eyes hurt. And when the soft voice of Leonardo echoed through the opera compartment, it clicked. "There’s no evidence to connect me to anything in Florida. I’ve made sure of that. But, Madonna, is there a lot to connect you."

And she realized.

“You sons of bitches,” she said quietly. “You—you two-timing bastards. Dealing drugs is illegal in—in omerta, isn’t it? Your law? But both of you are doing it. Both of you. And I bet old man Bianconi and Alberto wouldn’t be very fond of it if they knew about it! In fact, if they found out, I would expect you would be removed from your positions as bosses…if not killed outright…”

Her hands were a whirlwind, arranging her papers in order. The files she had stolen from Seventh Heaven, transferring ownership from Leonardo Borghese to Tommy Bianconi and Alberto Cardinale—Cardinale, now the last piece of the puzzle of the four mafia bosses. The paper trail of arrests and disappearances, Carlo Varetti’s mugshots—convicted of drug dealing.

Seventh Heaven is opened as a nightclub in a trendy district of St. Petersburg under the ownership of one Leonardo Borghese. It is managed by a man called Carlo Varetti. Soon the nightclub becomes popular for other reasons—it’s the hottest place to get a kick in Tampa Bay. Cocaine, heroin, marijuana—you name it, they had it. The drugs are sold from New England, specifically Garland City—from Salvatore Mallozzi, who has a deal going on with Leonardo Borghese. He supplies drugs, Seventh Heaven sells them, and it’s all hush-hush.

Until Carlo gets a bit too big for his britches. Or maybe the reputation Seventh Heaven has as a drug hotspot starts circling a bit too far for Leonardo’s liking. In any case, he needs to tie up loose ends. He invents a pretext to kill Carlo. Says Carlo violated omerta and told his girlfriend he was in the mafia. Then he sells the business off, after making sure it was clean. Salvatore’s still connected to it; he supplied the drugs, and so Leonardo has his blackmail. The clean joint goes to the other two bosses of Garland City, Tommy Bianconi and Alberto Cardinale.

And no one is any the wiser.

Patience felt a small smile start to spread across her face. I have you figured out, fucker. She could go to the F.B.I. And she could go to the other two mafia bosses with the evidence. She had an edge on that bastard.

And it had never felt so good.

***

Patience tracked down Leonardo. He was at a farmer’s market in Little Italy when she found him, with a small boy at his side.

The market was crowded that day, with the first month’s harvest hitting the streetside vendors. A thousand dialects mixed and clashed, and fruit and vegetables were held and squeezed and judged if they were worthy of purchase or not.

Patience hid behind a tomato stand, watching him. Leonardo treated the child gently, holding his hand in his, leaning down to listen to him. He’s so attentive, she thought suddenly. The little boy had brown curly hair and a broad, freckly face. If she looked close, he almost looked like her son. A little curly-haired boy with his blue eyes and her chestnut hair. But no, his hair is too dark for that. My hair is nice and light. My father said it was like the hide of a bay horse.

She followed them, lingering behind fruit stands and carts, but it was only a matter of time before he spotted her. He had a keen gaze, he did.

When Leonardo spotted her, he smiled broadly. He extended a pale hand. “Vieni qui! Dolcezza!”

Patience gave up all attempts at hiding and joined him in the market. It was a gray spring day. The tall apartment buildings were splotched blanks, with the windows of black looming over her.

“What brings you here?” he asked amicably.

Leonardo Borghese’s dark coat brushed his ankles. The chill of winter had not yet melted into spring, and for a moment Patience missed Florida’s warmth.

“Just shopping for… tomatoes.”

“Bugiarda. You don’t use tomatoes. You’re too terrible of a cook.”

Patience admitted as such. She was in good spirits. “Okay, you’re right. I was following you.”

“Following me?” he laughed. “My, my. Couldn’t resist my beautiful face, could you? All you have to do is ask, darling, and I’ll take you in my arms.” He squeezed her arm.

She ignored his last words. “Who’s the kid? Is he yours?” He seems the sort to have a few brats running around his house.

“Gracious, no. I haven’t been blessed with children yet. This is Leo.”

“Named after you?”

“Of course. He’s my godson, Tom Bianconi’s grandchild. He’s Little Leo—“ he tapped his chest—“And I’m Big Leo. Say ciao to my sweetheart, Leo.”

“Ciao,” said the boy. He was looking all over the market with the boredom of a six-year-old. She bent down to his level.

“Ciao, Little Leo,” she said with a smile. “Don’t you have the prettiest curls.” They’re not as pretty as Leonardo’s, though. His hair is in nice tight curls, they frame his face so beautifully. I bet after a few years in prison they would look as lank as mine.

“You’re in a good mood today,” Leonardo commented. He stopped at a fruit stand to browse the oranges. Patience noticed that wherever he seemed to go, the crowd opened in front of him in swathes. Men tipped their hats to him, women blushed, and children waved. They know him. They respect him. It seemed so alien to her, that they admired a man so toxic and corrupt. They must know he is a mafioso. Yet they love him. He is a hero to them. Why?

“Ah, Leo, you look well today!” commented the seller of the oranges. A portly woman with a wicker basket stopped to pinch Little Leo’s cheeks. “Bel’ bambino! Leonardo, your godson is a little angel!”

“Signore Borghese, if I might have a word with you… it’s very urgent, my son…” Leonardo nodded to a man, quick and quiet, and Patience wondered what had happened beneath her nose.

“I’m in the best mood I’ve been in for months,” she said as she strolled with him through the market.

“That’s good. I like to see you smile.” He matched her grin with his own, sunny-bright. “You’re always scowling, Patience. Scowling does a woman’s face no favors. Soon your face will look sixty when you’re thirty.”

He had her arm in his. She could feel the tight dark leather on her skin. “Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m so happy?”

“I figured you would just tell me. Like you’re doing now.” He was peeling an orange with his sharp fingernail, the juice running down his fingers.

She huffed, banishing her thoughts. “Well, fine then. I’m in a wonderful mood. I just got back from vacation.”

“How lovely. Where did you go? Italy? New Orleans? You should really take a trip to Italy, my dear. The beaches in summer…my God, there’s none better. Come with me some day.”

I’m sure. And I would probably never return.

As she walked with him, her belly seemed to pulse. It’s too early for it to move. Why does it feel so big? Maybe it wants to meet its father. She was so afraid his hawklike eyes would seek her belly and figure out her condition. She self-consciously pulled her coat around herself.

“I went to Florida, actually. St. Petersburg.”

Patience nearly crowed with bliss at his brief silence. The blessed moment of quiet filled her heart so completely she felt like bursting.

A chill wind billowed his black coat around his ankles.

I’ve got you, she thought giddily, and you know it.

“I went to a nice place on the beach called Seventh Heaven,” she continued. “It was so lovely. Have you been there?”

He didn’t answer. The silence stretched on, his arm wound around hers loosely, until her triumph began to turn into fear.

Little Leo turned to an ice cream vendor and chattered to Leonardo in Italian. With the grace of a saint, he endured the child’s whining and bought him one. With the exception of a few soft words in Italian, he said nothing.

When he turned his eyes on her, they were twinkling and bright. “I believe I have. It’s delightful. Especially at sunset.”

They walked on. Patience had a swing in her step. She squeezed his arm. “I have to go soon.”

“Whyever? Why don’t you let me take you out to dinner? I know a lovely place on Frederick Avenue.” His voice was gentle, and he wasn’t letting go of her.

“No,” she said. “Someone’s already taking me out.”

“Ah? Who is the lucky man?”

Smiling, Patience leaned up and planted a kiss on his soft cheek. She smelled his cologne, but it didn’t sicken her anymore.

“You know him well,” she whispered. “Salvatore. I call him Sal.”

***

“Break’s in five minutes, Flor. You coming?”

Flora looked up where she was adjusting a silk dress on a mannequin. “I’ll come in a minute, Betsy.”

The department store was not crowded that day. It was ten o’clock on a work day, why would it be?
Flora worked in a high-rise clothing store situated near the top of a skyscraper. It was airy and clean, with carefully poised mannequins modeling the latest fashions. Her hours were terrible, and her boss was a toad, but she was a good worker and the wages were fair. Her colleagues were all younger women who looked up to her.

The door jingled and her boss stuck his head through. He was panting heavily and his forehead was slick with sweat. “Haywood, you’d better be on your game today. We have a customer here, and he’s very important. Be on your best behavior.”

“What does he want?” she was shocked at someone coming so late on a Wednesday.

“He needs a suit tailored. He’s running for mayor. If you fuck up, Haywood, you’re out of a job—and by God, I’ll make sure you never get another one!” With that hissed threat, her boss’s face disappeared from the door. Flora stuck her needle into a pincushion and followed him out, self-consciously straightening her clothes and her hair.

A slim man in a dark suit was waiting in the lobby. He smiled at her and stood up. “Mrs. Haywood?”

The moment she recognized him, her legs turned to water and her smile suddenly felt like the painted grin of a doll’s.

What was that awful man doing here?

He nodded to her. “Shall we, then? I warn you, I’m a tailor myself. I’ll know if you get a measurement wrong.” He laughed, but it echoed dully in her ears.

Flora nodded and forced herself to lead him into the fitting room. “It’s an honor, sir. Mr. Borghese.”

“Oh, please. Don’t call me sir. I grew up in the tenements. I know what it’s like to worry for your next meal.”

Flora kept her head down as she began to measure him. “33 by 30, are you?” She could feel her heartbeat in her chest as she knelt down, and her sweat stuck to the back of her thighs.

Borghese lifted his arms so she could get the measuring tape around his chest. Under the thin fabric, she could feel his hard ribcage, swathed with muscle. “You’re a little off. 34 by 38. Be careful, men who look slender can be surprisingly muscular. Not to brag, of course.”

Her teeth ground against each other. Flora had always tried to suppress that. Her mother, a Baptist born and bred in a Kentucky hollow, had whipped her whenever she did that. Do you want me to pay the dentist for your little fractured teeth? You know how hard it is now, with your father dead! Why do you do this, Flora? You have six brothers and sisters! Why are you being so selfish? Eat your dinner like a normal girl!

The memory made her miss the next words he said, but she looked up and smiled all the same. “Burgundy brown or coal black?”

“Neither. Something more colorful, perhaps, Flora?”

Does he know me? “Have we met before, sir?”

“I believe I knew your daughter. Caroline, was it? I knew her well.”

Her throat seized and she forcibly lowered her gaze. His voice was soft, but she knew the mocking intent behind it. How dare you say her name. How dare you.

To stave away the prickle on her neck, Flora turned to her rack of coats. She picked out a cobalt coat and brown pants. “Are you fond of dark blue? Dark brown?”

“I am very fond of dark blue,” he said. “Cobalt, sapphire, navy.”

“Black is the usual color men who come in choose,” she said, trying to keep conversational. She watched her trembling hands neatly picking out needles and fabric, and imagined what it would be like to wrap her hands around his throat. He took my Caroline from me.

“Black is the standard color,” he said. “Everyone wears black. However, a deviation from the standard—any deviation—is enough to catch people’s attention. But it has to be a good color—not red, never red. Blue is a soothing color. It’s eye-catching. Yet, the coolness of its tone gains people’s trust. Isn’t it odd how that is?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” she said, pinning the needles in, tape in her mouth. When she looked, she saw him looking down at her, a small smile playing in the corner of his mouth.

“Flora Haywood. Do you know a person called Patience Winslow?”

The question was so direct she nearly took her hands off him, but with an astronomical effort, she forced her hands to remain. “I’m afraid not,” she managed, scribbling down some notes in her yellow notebook. Her throat felt dry. “Who is she?”

“My fianceé. But she had second thoughts and ran away…” he sighed, perfectly troubled, and he did sound worried, so worried that for a moment Flora was second-guessing herself.

Flora was trying to keep her gaze off his face. When she stood up and held the cloth up to his chest, he was tall enough so she could manage to avoid his eyes.

“Gosh, that’s a shame. I hope she changes her mind,” she said.

Flora could smell sweet cologne—not Old Spice, something fancier, imported from Europe. Flora remembered the many times Patience had woke screaming, wailing about the smell, the smell. Flora got a whiff of it when he suddenly gripped her shoulders and shoved her into the wall.

“I know you know who she is,” Borghese said, not losing his congenial tone. His breath washed over her face. “I’ve seen her records—an amount of ninety dollars, paid from the client Flora Haywood to Patience Winslow to find her missing daughter. But you’re not quite willing to tell me what you know, are you?”

Flora was immobile, pressed against the hard wall and his hard body. Her voice was frozen. He could kill me and hide the body. He could, he could.

“If you know where she is…” he said lowly, his scent overwhelming her, so sweet, and his voice, so tender. “And you aren’t telling me…”

Flora’s body was stiff and straight and her mind was whirring with fear, but her old Kentucky upbringing was with her even then. “All right,” she squeaked. “I—I know her. I know I hired her once. She went to find my daughter. She said she found her, and went to the court to sue, but when Patience came back, she said there wasn’t a case. Nothing that we could do. Then she left. I never saw her after that.”

Borghese was silent for a moment. His dark eyes were scanning her, stripping her of every article of clothing and scrap of flesh. His mouth was still etched in a smile, as if it were painted on a doll.

“You won’t hurt her, will you? She was so sweet,” Flora finished, her voice quavering—whether of her choice or not, she couldn’t say.

After a minute, his grip relaxed around her shoulders. He stepped away. “Pardon me if I seemed forward,” he said. “It’s just been hard lately. I miss her so very much. She’s the light of my life. My little butterfly.”

Flora forced herself to nod as he donned his hat and smiled at her. At the door, he paused. “Oh! Mrs. Haywood!” his eyes widened, as if he remembered something he had forgotten.

“Yes?” Please let him leave! Please, dear god!

“I believe your daughter mentioned you to me. Yes. She spoke about you often. She would complain a lot, talking about her old—pardon my language—bitch of a mother, and how she was always nagging and pestering her and interfering with her life, and how she couldn’t wait for her to die so she could get the house…”

His soft voice trailed off in a tsk tsk. Flora’s legs were frozen. She couldn’t look away from his full red lips, as they spat venom with every word.

“Little Caroline even asked me to ‘speed things up’ several times. But I’m an honorable man. I don’t hurt innocents.” Borghese tipped his hat to her. “Good day, Mrs. Haywood,” he said. “I expect my suit to be ready the next week.”

Long after the door had closed and the jingling of bells had heralded his exit from the store, Flora Haywood stood there, watching the whorls and grains of the closed door, so closely she could almost see faces in the wood. One face emerged, a black stain of wood her eye. It was Caroline, and her sweet face transformed into an evil sneering caricature. Did you really think I ever loved you, Mama?

Not Caroline, thought Flora. Not my sweet girl. He’s lying. He has to be. Not Caroline. She would have never said that, never said, never—

Her knees collapsed.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The tip of Salvatore’s cigarette smoldered as he took a drag on it.

“Fuck,” he said. “You really can’t be serious?”

“Third and Eleventh,” she said. “All the way from Mulroony Square to French Heights. I thought you said those were your districts, Salvatore.”

He twirled his cigarette between his fingers, his hard black eyes watching the frolicking children. Koehn Park was crowded that day with kids and their parents, all eager to taste spring sunshine after a hard winter. Gina Mallozzi and Nizzola’s daughter Paula were playing ring-around-the-rosie with some other little girls. As they all fell down, their hysteric laughter drifted through the air.

“They are,” he said finally. “Patty girl, I can only do so much.” He turned to her, the tips of his fingers held together in a cupping motion. “Public appearance matters, Patty. Have you felt Nizzola’s handshake? It’s like a limp fish. If your man isn’t charismatic, then the people will make their own decisions, and there isn’t a damn thing any of us can do about it. “

“It’s not that he isn’t charismatic. Borghese is just too damn likeable.” Patience kneaded her forehead. If only they knew who he really was. They were seduced by his cherubic curls and deep, rousing voice. All they knew was the surface and his empty promises.

“Leo Angelino is likeable, I’ll give you that. But Nizzola? That man couldn’t hold a crowd if you put a gun to his head.”

“Then,” she said coolly, “You and I might be forced to part ways.”

“Patty—“

Patience met his gaze, her own eyes like flat stones. “I allied with you because I thought you would do your job, Salvatore. And that means stealing the election for Nizzola and I. If that’s too hard for you, we might just have to go back on our deal.”

Salvatore gnawed on a colorless lip. “I’ll… take care of it. There was a miscount, let’s say. Some of those lawmakers might… disappear.” His pink tongue emerged to flick across his lips. He stubbed his cigarette on the metal arm of the bench.

Patience felt a chill come across her body as she heard his words.

“Good,” she said. “Get it done. I want Leonardo Borghese out of this race and back into being a mindless socialite. Do that for me.” She pulled her double-buttoned coat around her. It seemed only yesterday that she was sitting in the same coat, trading jabs with Charles Sawyer. She had been so hopeful then, with Mike on her side and her whole investigation steaming ahead. It was less than a year, and yet it seemed like a lifetime.

Gina stumbled up to her, her face bright with laughter. “Paula won’t give me the ribbon! I won the game, it’s mine! Uncle Sal, please, tell her to give it back…”

Salvatore laughed. “You should learn to get your rewards yourself, Gina. Go on, fight that girl. You’re a Mallozzi. Duel her for your treasure.”

As the two little girls in dirty dresses challenged each other to a match with stick swords, Patience smiled. “Do you like children, Salvatore?”

“I love kids. Why do you think I’d do all this with my niece if I didn’t like kids? I saw that girl grow up from a baby. She’s my own blood.” He watched Gina affectionately, his mouth curled in an uncharacteristic smile. “Might be the daughter of that useless Irishwoman my brother married, but she’s more like my side of the family than hers. Doesn’t she have my eyebrows, my chin? Gina’s my darling.” He looked over at her. “What about you? Do you like children?”

Patience watched the squealing children carouse and stumble. “Not really. They’re all right, I suppose. Kind of messy.”

“Ah, you’ll change your mind when you pop out some little ones. All women do. ‘Oh, I can’t stand crying babies, I’ll never have them,’ and then they’re cooing over a bundle like they didn’t just scream and vomit and shove it out an hour earlier while cursing their husbands.”

“Oh, disgusting!”

“If you think they’re so disgusting, why are you minding Nizzola’s little girl?”

Patience winced. “It was a show of goodwill. Benjamin was a little down in the dumps when he heard that he had lost both districts. He also got a finger in the mail last week.”

“That last one wasn’t my doing. I’ll try and get those districts back, I promise. We’re going to win this election, believe you me, and Leo Angelino will get exactly what’s coming to him.”

The girl couldn’t help but smile. “That’s the spirit.” 

Patience stood up. “Paula! Come on, time to go!”

“Leaving already?” said Salvatore. “But you just sat down. Hey, how about you go out on a date with me this week? You can choose the place.”

Patience sighed. “Let’s go to dinner,” said men, as a flimsy pretext for “Let me take you somewhere dark and secluded so I can fuck your brains out.” “No thanks. I’ll be busy.”

“I didn’t even tell you the day, honey. Come on with me, any day but Friday.”

Why Friday? She thought, before she realized. Oh. The boss meeting. It’s at the end of every month. The Commission.

Then she thought, Mike’s bug is still there, but his recording machine is gone.

“Actually, that’s the only day I have free.”

“Oh, you can’t be serious, Patty.”

“Can’t you just take me out for an hour before you do…whatever you need to do? We can go see a movie. You pick. And then you can…like, go to your night service in church or whatever.”

Salvatore ran a hand through his slicked-back hair, looking irritated as he clearly weighed the pros and cons of taking her out on a date just before the most important meeting of the month. Evidently his dick won out, because he looked up and gave her a sharp nod. “I’ll pick you up at five.”

***

The movie was a romance. Lots of women swooning, deep kisses, and impassioned speeches. It bored her to tears.

It didn’t help that Salvatore kept sliding his hand under her skirt at every opportunity.

“Why did you take me to see this?” she burst out after the third time she shoved his hand away. “This is stultifying. None of the characters do anything. I told you we should have gone to see Psycho.”

"What, I thought you women liked this sort of shit?"

"I'm a private detective. I have to deal with melodrama like this every day." She shifted inside Salvatore’s car, trying to keep away from his searching hands. He was good with his fingers, it was true, but she wasn’t in the mood. The drive-through theatre was packed, and she wasn’t enthused by a crowd of teenagers watching her get it on. “Stop it. There are people here.”

“And half of them are screwing each other already. We could go to my home, if you don’t want to do it here.”

The giant canvas screen was lit up with an image of a couple kissing passionately. The cars around her were silent and dark, the light of the images glinting dully off the hubcaps.

“I don’t want to go to your house. It’s a shithole. You’re a mafia boss, couldn’t you afford something better?”

“Big, fancy houses attract attention. Look at Leo Angelino. He’s got so many mansions he’s losing half of them up his ass. It’ll attract attention, I guarantee, especially now that he’s running for mayor.”

She scoffed and rolled her eyes. He let his head thump back onto the headrest, and let out a sigh. “Patty, you think I have more money than I actually have. I grew up dirt poor, and I never fucking forget it. If I had half the money I had then as I have now… hell, I coulda gone to West Point.”

Patience couldn’t help but laugh. "West Point? You? Gunnery Sergeant Salvatore Scumbag Mallozzi. Yeah, I can sure see it."

His hissed retort was hidden under her laughter. Patience lounged against the car door, back of her head pressed against the window as she laughed her heart out. It was only when his hard fingers pressed between her legs that she protested. “Oh, enough!”

“You’re all wet,” he said smugly. “I know you’re enjoying this.”

It was true. His talented fingertips had coaxed dampness out of her. She was halfway comfortable, halfway terrified. His blunt fingernails were teasing her clit, encouraging moans to burst from her throat. Her nails sunk into the fabric of his coat, which was draped over the back of her seat.

Leo knew how to use his mouth, Patience thought, and Salvatore knows how to use his fingers. The thought of both men, both she had had, both who had been within her, made a shivery feeling erupt across her body.

Salvatore kissed her deeply, lips sealing possessively on her own. He was so aggressive, so forward. She found herself spreading her legs, her back against the car door.

Patience tried to push him off one more time, but his fingers kept coming, and so did his mouth.

The first time I felt his mouth on me, he was raping me. But rape had lost all meaning to her. Every time she’d had sex, it had been rape. Even if her man gave her his mouth, pleasured her, it was rape, pinning her down underneath him and taking what he wanted regardless of how she screamed and fought and kicked. Why not make this easier on herself?

Salvatore had taken off his shirt. He was bare, with sweat soaking his muscles as he fought off his shirt. Her legs were spread, her nipples hard and tender as he began to caress her breasts. His cock rubbed against her slit through his dress pants, making a shaky sort pleasure take hold of her.

“No,” she said as Salvatore made to take her shirt off. “No, don’t.” Patience wanted to keep her blouse on. She didn’t want him to find her pregnant belly. She tucked her shirt behind her waist as he took his position between her legs.

When he pulled her thin underwear aside and entered her, her cry erupted impulsively. His thick length began to drag back and forth, scorching her insides with pleasure.

Salvatore was so forceful. Not like Leonardo. His thrusts had been more measured. Leonardo had looked at her with calculating blue eyes, unlike Salvatore, whose black eyes were closed, long eyelashes fluttering as sweat dripped down his shoulders.

“Fuck,” he said. “Patty...”

He lurched forward, and his hips sealed themselves to hers, thrusting relentlessly. He was slow at first, his thrusts languid, but he heated up soon. His gasps sounded in her ears. The metal of his belt buckle dug into her thigh.

“You’ll ruin him,” Patience said, her voice a heavy gasp. “Leonardo.” She wrapped her legs around his waist, urging him to ejaculation—because it didn’t really matter anymore, did it? It wasn’t as if she could get any more pregnant. “You’ll take him down and crush him. You will, won’t you?”

“I’ll fucking kill him,” Salvatore said between clenched teeth. Each thrust made her head spin.

Leonardo’s face wavered before her, bloodied and tortured, disfigured with a thousand wounds.

“Yes,” she sobbed. “Please, kill him, destroy him, please, please—“

“Will you stop talking about him while I’m fucking you?” he grunted as he rhythmically moved back and forth. His cock was swollen and hot, lovingly rubbing her insides. He had uncovered a breast, and his hot mouth caressed her tender nipple, conquering the red bud with his wet tongue. A gasp leapt up her throat—her pregnancy had led to overly sensitive nipples.

Salvatore slammed his lower body forward, so hard it made something inside her tear and the back of her head knock against the window glass. His hips wouldn’t stop moving. Her belly felt so big and intrusive. The small brunette curled her knees up to conceal it. The rough wool of his draped coat scraped her bare shoulder.

He pulled out, then pushed in. His sweaty hands grasped her thin hip, his silver ring biting into her skin. In, then out. His cock shone red and wet in the dull light. Her gaze was whirling, the dark ceiling of the car melting into a slurry of black and gray. The white scar on his throat shone livid in the dim light.

In the reflection of the windscreen, Patience saw the actress dramatically slap her lover and flee the room, weeping. A rose petal drifted across the screen.

She gradually became aware that he had stopped moving, and was panting heavily. She felt a familiar full warmth begin to trickle down her leg.

Salvatore draped himself across her and rested his head on her breast. The cold metal of his crucifix stung her skin unpleasantly. His chest was heaving with soft gasps, his hard muscles pressed against hers.

Patience freed a leg and let it drape across his broad back. His dark hair was soft when she nestled her cheek against it. “Hey Salvatore, where did you get that scar?”

“The one on my finger? I got it chopping meat at my dad’s butcher shop.”

“No, the one on your neck.”

“Oh, that one?” he laughed. “Some mick gave it to me in Hell’s Kitchen. I was in Manhattan on business, and a little scrawny redhead comes up to me thinking to start some shit. Asks me what I’m doing in ‘his’ neighborhood. Me and my men don’t stand for that, so we take him into a back alley and beat his face until it looks like orange pulp. Well, what I didn’t know was the fucking bogtrotter had friends with connections, so one day as I was coming home from a card game they ganged up on me, broke my knees with billy clubs and slit my throat before leaving me to die in the gutter.”

“That’s unbelievable.” She shifted, so the wetness on her thighs wouldn’t soak into the car seat. How old would he had to have been? Sixteen? Seventeen? “But you survived?”

“Well, what the hell do you think? Else you just got rogered by a dead man.” He kissed her cheek.

Patience tilted her head back and listened to the distant booming of the theatre dialogue. “Salvatore?”

”Just call me Sal. What?”

“That Irishman you beat up…can you remember his name?”

“It’s been ten years, Patty, I can’t even remember my first teacher’s name.”

“Was his name Sheehan?” she had a shred of curiosity in her heart. It was useless, really, but…

He was silent for a moment. “May have been. I really can’t recall. Christ almighty, they all have the same names anyway, O’Malley and fucking Mulligan and Sheehan. I can’t tell them apart. And then my useless brother goes and marries one...”

“Why do you hate the Irish so much?” he was beginning to irritate her. “I’ve known one. He was the most decent person I’ve ever met.”

“You don’t know what it was like, being an Italian kid growing up in Brooklyn. The fear that stayed with you…those big Irishmen sitting on every stoop, every bar, watching you, beating up your father, calling you names as you walked by on your way to school. Those mick kids would beat you to a pulp if you came onto their turf, and sometimes even if you looked at them funny. Called us dagos, said we weren’t white. And the cops, they were all micks too, so they wouldn’t bother if they saw one of us getting the shit kicked out of us. Irish cops would shake you down if you came back from the grocery. Fuck all of them.” He sounded bitter.

The movie was winding to an end. Patience had to admit, it felt nice lying like she was on the seats, with his warmth above her. She had worn a knee-length poodle skirt and a short-sleeved blouse, the skirt which was pulled to the waist and the blouse which was unbuttoned on her heaving chest. For a moment she felt sinfully like a teenager, letting her boyfriend cajole her into sex in a car.

“When is that meeting of yours?” she murmured into his hair. He started and cursed. “Damn. What time is it?”

“It’s almost eight.”

“Shit.” He sat up and ran his fingers through his hair, smoothing the black strands against his head. “Better put your shirt on. I’m already late.”

Patience buttoned her shirt over her hickey-bruised chest and pulled the seatbelt over her breasts as he reversed. Her insides throbbed with pain, but it was a good pain. It was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. If all she had needed to do was submit to men when they wanted her, why hadn’t she tried it before now? She laughed without quite knowing why.

***

He dropped her off at home, and stepped out of the car to kiss her. “I didn’t give a damn about the movie, but you’re the best thing that’s happened to me all month.”

She smiled shyly as he pressed his lips against hers. “Good luck, Sal. “

“Thanks. I’m going to need it,” he muttered into her ear. Patience watched him drive off, a smile playing on the edge of her lips. While they had watched the movie, she had inserted a wire into the coat that had been draped over the back of her chair.

When he disappeared from sight, she wiped her mouth and went inside. If this is the price I have to pay for his loyalty, then so be it.

She took off her polished black pumps. “Hey, Flora! My date went boss! Flora?”

“That’s nice, dear,” came the cracked voice from the kitchen. Flora hadn’t seemed well lately. Her affectionate nosiness had faded, and it took her a long time to respond to her. Not that Patience was complaining.

The picture of Caroline Haywood had disappeared from the shelf in the kitchen. It was odd, all the pictures of Caroline seemed to be disappearing lately. “I’m hitting the hay, okay?”

Once in her room, Patience plugged in her recording machine, eagerly waiting for the sound to come through.

It did, wavering and crackling. English with Italian spliced in, and the distant sound of a table scraping, and the clink of glasses.

“Can’t believe it—“

“Dov’ é Salvatore? Quel ragazzo…”

“I just can’t believe it. Him?”

“Calm down,” said a voice Patience knew all too well. “The Bull is coming up the stairs.”

The door rasped open and a chair creaked. “Ciao, Sal!” “Ciao.” “Dov’eri?”

“Che avevo un appuntamento,” said Sal, sounding smugly self-assured. “What’s on the agenda?”

The room was silent for a moment, then she heard a slide of playing cards. “The whole election’s getting everyone up in arms. The whole city’s in an uproar, I tell you. Jay says to me that people are rioting in the Seventh District.”

“And the drugs," said someone else. "I lost two of my men to coke this month. I found them dealing and had to execute them. This has to stop.”

“That hillbilly we hired for the Wellesley job went and snitched. Chicago’s going nuts. The public prosecutors will have a field day with this.”

“I thought that he was trustworthy… shit, I’m sorry Al.” Salvatore sounded stunned. “This election is a real fraud on all sides.”

“Especially,” said Tommy Bianconi, “Since you’re supporting Nizzola.”

It was as if Patience was Salvatore in that moment. She could taste the dryness on the back of her tongue.

“Why are you supporting him?” said Al softly. “Especially after all the fuss you kicked up about his father?”

“You want me to answer that with the Angel Don sitting right here?” Salvatore scoffed. “Leonardo’s going to be ratted out at some point, and our community will take a beating in the public eye. Nizzola’s son is clean, and he’s one of us. He’s the best candidate to support.”

Tommy sounded unconvinced. “Why the hell? Nizzola’s son is a traitor, he rails against us and wants to make it harder for us to live. He wants to bring the F.B.I in. Is that the sort of fucking leader you want? He’s just like his father. A wonder bread wop. He’s part of the establishment.”

“If you want the definition of a wonder bread wop,” said Salvatore dryly, “Look no further than to your left.”

“How amusing,” said Leonardo blithely, unoffended by his jape. “Salvatore, you’ve been a very bad boy, haven’t you?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Salvatore was getting riled up. “You’re keeping something from me, haven’t you? We’re not supposed to keep secrets from each other. Tell me, goddammit!”

“This drug runner we’ve been so concerned about,” said Leonardo, “He’s been a problem, hasn’t he? Selling drugs to us, causing overdoses, ruining our youth. Truly, there is a lack of traditional values in this city of ours, with this mysterious man corrupting us…”

There was a period of silence. “You two-faced cocksucker,” growled Salvatore.

“Leonardo told us everything,” said Alberto. “You’re the one selling drugs in Garland City.”

“Selling drugs to our Florida nightclub, too,” Tommy was angrier. “How could you, Salvatore? I've known you since you were a boy.”

“It’s a lie,” said Salvatore, and there was a high scrape of a chair being pushed backward. “Him, Leo Angelino, he was with me every step of the way. I can prove it to you. Just—“

“Leonardo showed us the documents,” said Tommy bitterly, and there was a hint of betrayal under his tone. “Everything, every order you made under his nose. You’re the missing link. You’ve been two-timing us. Running your little drug racket under our noses. There is no greater a sin than violating omerta.”

“And you thought you could get away with it, didn’t you?” said Leonardo.

A sudden sharp sound pierced her ears. A chair overturned and crashed onto the ground. Gunshots. She heard rapidly shouted words in Italian. It was a shootout. Patience was on her feet, hands gripping the table as her heart thudded fast

“Bringing a gun into a Commission meeting?” shouted Leonardo. “Yet another violation of omerta. How many other rules have you broken? Salvatore!”

The muffled shots and the crackled audio echoed through the speaker. Soon she heard moans of pain. Salvatore’s? She couldn’t tell. The gunshots were becoming distant, so she didn’t think so.

As she sat, her arms draped limply over the recording machine, she realized, I should have never told Leonardo.

I should have kept my mouth shut.

***

Patience called him twice that night and four times that morning. Then she fell into a fitful sleep. When a call rang, her brain went into overdrive. No matter how tired she was, or even if she were sleeping or not, she would scramble to answer the curly-wired telephone.

Would you like to lower your insurance rate?

Hey Flora, can you take two more hours tonight? We’re short staffed. Oh, who is this?

Patience woke up in the middle of the day, her mind roiling with unpleasant outcomes. The phone hadn’t rung, but she was still stressed that she had been sleeping and missed it.

She started calling his number every hour. Most of the time, it went to dial.

He called her on a warm spring day.

“Patty? Are you there?”

“Oh, thank Christ. Sal, it’s me,” Patience said, almost sobbing with relief. “Tell me what’s going on. I don’t know what’s happening.” Her thin pale hand curled around her belly. “Where are you? Are you okay?”

The sounds of cars and buses were in the background. “I’m not fucking okay. They found me out. They realized… they realized I’m the one supplying drugs to Garland City.” He paused. “I can’t stay here for long. This is a public telephone. Goodbye, Patty. Take care of yourself.”

“No,” she said, her voice wavering. “Please, no, we can’t just stop now. Please, we’ve shared so much. One meeting. I plead you, let me see you one more time.” She gripped the receiver with a shaky hand, her nails digging into the plastic.

A car ran through the background in a wail of horns.

After a while, he said, “Fine. Fourth Station in the Metro. The darkest corner, the hall in the left, the one under construction. Be there. Or we won’t see each other again.”

***

Patience took a set of cracked concrete stairs down below the city. The metro was dark and empty. The sound of the rails and the automated doors were the only noises that echoed through the gray concrete chamber.

Stressful sweat made her hands stick to the cracked leather seats as she seated herself on the subway. She put her purse on her knees and waited. There were only two other people in the subway with her—one looked to be homeless, and was shivering and muttering to himself. The other one was a dormant businessman, his hair crumpled and his hat lopsided as he frequently nodded off.

The stagnant air made her lipstick smear. Or was that more of her sweat?

I was too confident. What’s that saying? The taller you are, the harder you fall. All I wanted was to look him in the eyes, and let him know I was better than him. And it had been a good feeling. Almost like having an orgasm. Except he couldn’t force it on her. She had taken it of her free will, taken her pleasure of him like he had of her.

Like I was the one fucking him, she thought, then laughed.

“Garland City Metro, Fourth Station, Cummings Street and St. John Boulevard,” chimed the automated voice.

The girl could see why he wanted to meet her there. It was an absolute dump that no one in their right mind would want to loiter. Small dark shadows of rats scurried along the damp walls, their silhouettes lit up by the headlights of the subway. One nudged her high heeled shoe, and she nearly careened into the tracks trying to shake it off.

The neon lights overhead were flickering. Her heels clacked on the linoleum floor, echoing down the dark hall.

Patience spotted a shadow in the depression beneath a staircase, wearing a long coat and a broad-brimmed hat tipped over his face. “Salvatore! Salvatore!”

He looked up as she ran to him, and for a moment she thought it wasn’t Salvatore, but some ghoul she had mistaken for him. His handsome face was a mass of unrecognizable bruises, one eye drooping lower than the other, his top lip swollen and discolored. His ear was bandaged. “Patty?”

She nearly hugged him. “What happened? Where have you been? What happened to the rest of your men, why haven’t you called me, what about Nizzola’s campaign—“

He spat. “I’m more beaten up than a redneck’s dog, and all you can talk about is your fucking campaign? What a joke. I wonder why I bothered coming here to meet you.”

Patience gripped his arm tightly. “I did worry about you. I worried so much. I thought you were dead. I just… want to know what’s going to happen from now on.”

He looked away, his mutilated face curving in something that resembled a scowl. “I’m on the lam. Half my men are gone, either dead—“ The ones that were part of the drug trafficking, I’m sure— “Or joined another family. I can’t show my face anywhere. I’ll need to leave the state. Hell, I might need to flee the country, go to Mexico or Sicily. Only reason I’m sticking around is to say goodbye to you.” He looked at her quick, then turned away before she could read the look in his eyes. “Think of this as our farewell.”

No, no, without him, Gerald Nizzola’s mayoral bid might as well be useless. He was the lynchpin of their victory; only with his clout and influence and iron grip on the populace of Garland City could he net them the win.

“You’re not going to stay and fight?” she said. “You’re just going to run with your tail between your legs.”

“I’m not a coward!” He hissed. “I’m fractured, half my men are gone, I’m the most wanted man in the Garland City underworld. I’m fleeing for my fucking life.”

“And you’ll just leave, with some of your men still loyal to you? With this war half won?” Her hands clenched into fists. “You are a coward, through and through, Salvatore.”

“Fine. If I’m a coward, I’m a smart one. I don’t want to die bleeding out my guts in some alley, or with a drill in my brain in the basement of one of Leonardo’s mansions.” He was turning away. “You can’t convince me to stay here. My time here is done.”

A subway flashed past them, ruffling her hair. It’s all running through my fingers, she thought. The campaign. The revenge.

Salvatore will leave, and Leonardo will find me now that this cat-and-mouse game is over. And he’ll turn me into a puppet or a brood mare and make sure I’m hammered down every second of my life.

Everything's turning to ashes in my hands.

“Not even,” she said, “If I told you I was having your child?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The echo of the subway disappeared down the hallway.

“You’re what?” he said softly.

Patience clutched her coat to herself, her long fingernails digging into her swollen belly. “Please don’t leave me, don’t leave this. We can do this together. We can take him down.”

He stepped forward, and seemed imposing as a shadow. His hand spidered across her belly, reaching through her crooked arms and baggy coat.

“Dio santo,” he said, his voice shaking so hard she thought he was going to cry. Then: “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I just found out,” she said, and it was sort of true. She stepped forward and caught his sleeve. “If you leave Garland City, you’re leaving me alone. You’re leaving your unborn child alone. Please. Don’t do this.” Her voice was shaking, but of her own accord. Indeed, it did sound like frantic mother whose light of her life was about to fall away from her.

Not a girl whose only hope at fulfilling her revenge is being stripped away.

His face was blank as a piece of paper. For a sickening moment, she wondered whether her confession was the right decision to make.

Salvatore looked backward, then back at her. His forehead was crumpled with a slowly creeping sense of despair. “Why did you do this to me?” he muttered.

“Why did you do this to me?” she shouted, her voice bouncing off the huge, empty station. “You’re a rapist, Salvatore! You put this thing in me, no matter how much I didn’t want it! Was I squealing and kissing you when we fucked with your precious niece and nephew in the next room? Was I moaning and wrapping my legs around you when you took me in your car, outside of the Opera House? No!” Her body was shaking, fingernails digging into her palms.

Sal turned away. His shoulders were hunched, and they began to tremble. Was he crying? The violent movement of his shoulders seemed to say so. A cold pit of terror forming in her belly, Patience moved away from the subway tracks, just in case he snapped and tried to shove her into them.

Then he lifted his head, and the first hysterical laugh of several burst out.

Her breath was cut short when he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her toward him. His body against hers was shaking with loud, euphoric laughs. His hand slid beneath her gray coat and white blouse, until it curled on her bare belly. It was tender, more tender than anything she expected from him. He breathed against her hair. “You’re having a baby. Patty, you’re… having my baby.”

Patience wiggled, tears still welling in her eyes. “Get off me. Have you even listened to a word of what I said?”

Salvatore only held her tighter, one hand clamped around her shoulders, the other still caressing the small bulge on her belly. He nosed her face, his breath washing over her face. She smelled gunpowder. “Diventerò padre. Diventerò padre. Oh, Madonna. I’m going to be a daddy.”

Patience shoved him. “Everything’s about to fall apart! Nizzola is going to lose the mayoral race, and Leonardo will have free reign over Garland City! And do you know what he’s going to do then? Especially if he finds out I’m having your child?”

He’ll find out eventually, you know, whispered a voice within her. Especially if it comes out with a little patch of blond curls. And God help you then.

“Calm yourself. I’m not leaving you,” he said, and his voice was so set it made her quiet down. “Can you walk?”

Patience wiped her eyes. Her legs were a little weak. “Yes, but—”

“Then come on.” Salvatore caught her arm and began to run. She stumbled at first, then caught his pace. “What are you-- where are we going?”

Up the flight of stairs they went, and onto a cement sidewalk. Weeds were worming in between the cracks. The moon shone bright overhead, dwarfed by the many livid lights of the buildings around them.

“We’re going to a church,” he said. “I know one on the corner of my old tenement. It’ll do for a quick ceremony until we can get a better arrangement.”

“Quick ceremony?” she dug her heels into the sidewalk. “What are you talking about? We have to consolidate our power! There’s not much time! If you call your men—“

“We’re getting married,” Salvatore said tonelessly. He gave her a hard yank. “I’m taking responsibility for you and our child. You are part of my family now.”

The confident way he said it—you are part of my family—family—made something long dormant rise up in her. Something that hadn’t heard that word for sixteen years. Ever since she saw the corpses of her parents, sitting in the morgue with the police behind her. Is this your family?

“No,” she said strongly, too strongly. I can’t marry him. Not Salvatore. I can’t—not him— she thought of the wet thud his baseball bat had made as it hit the head of that poor wretch. The thought of being his wife terrified her to the point that she tore her arm out of his grip.

“We can’t do this.” Patience stepped backwards. “We can’t marry. Not right now. Not with all this chaos and danger. Do you want me to be a target, Salvatore? Do you?“

That thought gave him pause. She could see his gaze slide from her face to her belly.

“Let’s wait until things calm down a bit,” she said, “And we’re in no danger.” Which will never happen. If you stay here, you’re going to die eventually. But not before helping me get what I want. “Let’s keep our pregnancy a secret. Just for now. I don’t want to lose our baby, not when I’m so close to—to having him in my arms.”

Patience could barely believe the words leaving her mouth. They all seemed bare and full of cobwebs, lies upon lies.

But she might as well have kissed the Blarney Stone to him, because by the dawning expression on his face he believed every word she uttered. “I…all right. All right. Patience, we’ll hold off for now.”

His grip on her hands turned rigid. “But I will not have any child of mine be born a bastard, do you understand me?” his voice took on a harsh growl.

Heart in her throat, she nodded, looking into his dark, thunderous gaze.

His grip loosened. “Let’s go home, then,” he said.

***

“Home” turned out to be his bare house, and he sat her on the threadbare sofa while he began making calls. The cigarette smoke was thick in the air as he talked rapidly in Italian, puffing one after another of the tobacco sticks. His chain-smoking was the only tip-off as to how stressed he was, with how calmly every one of his phone calls seemed to go.

Patience huddled on the sofa, covered by a ragged quilt as he barked orders and took breaks between the calls to snort white dust from his tabletop.

With every snort and gasp from the next room, she wrapped the cover over herself. He’s a junkie, she thought spitefully. A useless addict. Then she thought, Whatever’s going to happen is clearly serious, now that he’s snorting all his stash. And smoking all his cigarettes.

He’s scared.

An hour later, with his pacing and her sullen silence, the doorbell rang. A tall skinny man—not that that was saying much, next to Salvatore—walked in and exchanged a kiss with Sal. He cast her a suspicious glance as she sat on the sofa, shivering.

“Chi è questa ragazza?” he muttered, his beady eyes on her.

“Una donna,” said Salvatore softly, and that was that.

But as he left the room, Salvatore pulled her arm up to face him. “What’s going to happen right now might not be something you’ll want to witness. I want you to go to my room. It’s safer there.”

“What? I thought these were your men?

“My men won’t take kindly to a woman here—especially a non-Italian.” He propelled her into his bedroom. Before he closed the door he kissed her forehead. “It’s for your own good. Just lie down and stay silent.” His lips were cold, his eyes were red-rimmed, and his hands were trembling. Cocaine had put him on edge.

Patience went to sit on the bed. There was only a tattered wool blanket and sheets crumpled at the foot of its bed. From the light of the streetlamps coming in the window, she could see cigarette burns dotting the mattress.

The front door creaked open, and she heard low, murmured greetings.

The cold metal of a gun nudged her wrist. There were objects strewn on the bedsheets. A few discarded cigarettes, a pack of matches, and a half-loaded gun with a cleaning rag draped over it. A lamp was lying on the wooden floor, the lightbulb busted. The shards of glass cracked under her high heels.

Low spoken words in dialect drifted under the door. Patience lit a match to better see the room. The unnerving mixture of bareness and untidiness was in full display. The floors were blank boards, his closet filled with polished shoes and suits. A few crumpled coats were draped over a rocking chair in the corner.

A couple framed pictures on the peeling wall showed his brother’s family, in soft black and white tones. Gabriele, Gina, little Junior, and a tall, curvy blonde she assumed must have been the much groused-about “shanty Irish”.

Another picture was much older; discolored at the edges. It was of a slender, smiling dark-haired woman with thick eyebrows. She was sitting on a loveseat and holding two small black-haired babies in her arms. One child sat patient and smiling on its mother’s leg, while its brother was scowling and looked ready to cry. No prizes as to who they were.

A sharp inflection pierced the air. “Sal, you’ve been doing coke! What the fuck?”

There were a few crumpled books on his bookshelf. A tabloid rag, and an erotic novel with a woman in overalls posing lasciviously. Patience thumbed through the erotic novel, and lo and behold, halfway through a stack of photos spilled out.

Most of them were wearing and curled at the edges. One was of Gina at her first communion, radiant and smiling in her white dress. Another was of his brother and him, Sal’s arm slung around Gabriele’s shoulders. They looked about teenagers; in crew cuts and in front of a convertible, laughing together. They could have been twins. Sal’s face had not taken on its characteristic gaunt, hard features, and he looked, dare she say it… happy? Carefree?

The next picture was of a man with his head split from forehead to chin.

The photo made her breath short out. The blacks and whites of the photo made the blood appear much more vivid, the raw brain and black blood streaks exposed to the air. He had been shot point blank in the face.

The man was slumped against a building wall. The photo was of strangely high quality, almost professional, from the lighting and the staging.

On the back was written,

Sal,

stare fuori dal mio territorio.

The words had the distinct flowery, calligraphic handwriting particular to Leonardo. She stared at it for a long while, listening to the distant echoes of talking and arguing. If the handwriting could be traced back to him…

Then for the first time, Patience might be holding physical, solid evidence of his complicity in a crime.

She tucked the photo into her breast pocket, her heart thumping.

The voices outside the door were becoming more animated. Patience crept over and looked through the keyhole.

Several black-suited figures were standing, facing Salvatore. The rest were seated on sofas and armchairs, their bodies tense.

“Omerta is everything to us,” said the man standing directly in front of him, an older man with gray stubble on his chin. “How could we betray it? It’s our code, our honor.”

“What kind of honor permits murder, but disallows drug dealing?” growled Salvatore. “We must follow our traditional values. But rules like not being allowed to grow a mustache? Not being able to deal drugs? What sense do they make? If we start dealing drugs, we’re going to be the richest family in Garland City. If we bring some structure to the streetside dealers, we’ll be making more than the Colombians in Miami.”

“We must keep our family structure,” protested the man. “Dealing drugs will ruin us. We have to have some standards... children will disobey their parents. Fathers will become junkies. I can’t, Sal, I’m so sorry.”

He made to leave. As soon as he turned around, one of the black-suited men swung at him. Patience’s heart leapt. His fist hit his face with a crack, and he stumbled backwards, clutching his nose.

“I’m with Salvatore all the way,” snarled the other man. One of his front teeth had been knocked out, and he had a sunken face. “Get the fuck out of here. This man has been with us every step of the way, from the gutters of Brooklyn, to when the old Di Scarpetta head died. When Bats Malone died, who took the reins and steadied us when were in danger of Gerald Nizzola wiping us out? Sal doesn’t put on airs like the Angel Don, or spout about traditional values while cheating on his wife, like Sharky. He’s one of us and he’s fucking honest. And I, for one, don’t give a shit about omerta as long as I have The Bull with me.”

Murmurs of agreement spread across the room, Salvatore put his hand on his shoulder. “Thanks, Jack. I owe you one.”

Salvatore looked around. “Anyone else wants to leave, they can. I’m not stopping them. But if they do, then give the other families a message. We are the new Di Scarpetta family. We make our own rules.” His words were met with a ragged cheer.

There’s going to be a war, she realized miserably. She felt a headache coming on.

***

When Salvatore came for her, it was late at night, and the house was empty again. She was sitting in the rocking chair, half asleep from the stress of the last day. He approached her and gently laid a hand on her belly. “Patty? Are you awake?”

She lurched out of her doze and pushed him away. “Are you all done? Drive me home. I’ve spent long enough waiting on you.”

“Don’t you want to sleep here, with me?” His hand slid down, cupping between her legs. “We could celebrate together, tonight.” The pad of his finger rubbed against her through her crumpled panties. She shoved him away.

“No. Take me home. And for God’s sake, get your hands off me.”

“You’ll have to get used to this,” he warned her as she stood up. “We’re getting married and having a child. We’ll be living with each other and raising a kid and sending him off to school. And God willing, maybe even have more! We can’t yell and argue and push each other around like this anymore—”

You won’t live that long and you know it. “You want a good life for our child? Get off coke. You think our kid having a junkie for a father is going to help him in anyway? You know it fucking isn’t. Do you really want to live with me? Get a bigger house. I don’t want to live here, even if it your men think it makes you “one of them” that you’re living in a shack that’s falling apart. And do you want to know what most important thing is?”

Patience stepped close to him and pressed her face to his, so close she could smell his tobacco-scented breath. “It’s Leonardo. Do you think he’ll stand for letting us marry and have a baby?”

He would know the child is his, whispered her conscience. “He won’t. That’s why we need this election. If he becomes mayor, he’ll be the most powerful man in Garland City. Maybe even the whole of New York State. I want the election. I want evidence. Those polls? Do something about them.”

“We’re not even married and already you’re nagging me.”

“Oh, I’ll get scarier. I’ve just about had enough of you, Salvatore Mallozzi. Leonardo is too close to winning. Get started this week. God knows you’ve been useless enough so far.” She was tired and angry and was letting him have it. “Now are you going to drive me home, or do I have to take a taxi?”

He caught her arm as she turned. “I don’t like being told what to do, Patty.” His voice had taken on a soft, but noticeable flatness. “You appear to be uninformed as to a wife’s role in the house. Wives are for cooking and cleaning and birthing children. Husbands are to be listened to and obeyed.”

His low, authoritative tone was noticeably lacking in warmth, as were his coal-black eyes. His fingers tightened on her arm, twisting it until her bones sang with pain.

Fear crept down her spine as she looked into his cold eyes. For all the banter we share, he’s still the same man he always was.

She trained her voice into a subtly teary tone. “I’m sorry. It’s just—I’m worried about the baby.” She used her free hand to wipe her eyes.

With those magic words—I’m worried about the baby—Salvatore dropped his hand immediately. He looked like he was going to argue, but relented. “I—No, you’re right. We’ll get a bigger house. I’ll try and quit. I promise, okay?” his voice had become softer.

He really was so easy to manipulate. Leonardo would have seen through her whimpers immediately. “Can you take me home? Flora is probably wringing her hands in worry right now.”

“You pay far too much attention to that old bag,” he grumbled, fumbling for his keys. “Makes me think I should be worried about her stealing you away, and not Leonardo.”

***

In the end, Patience was too embarrassed to knock on her front door, so she wormed her way in through the window to her room. Sprawled on the rug, she mentally ran over the excuses she would give Flora the next morning. Late at a nightclub? Patience could say she was conducting late-night reconnaissance for a client’s case. Or, she could say she fell asleep over books at the Garland City Public Library while poring over mugshots.

But whatever Patience would tell her, she knew Flora would still look at her in that faintly worried, suspicious way, as if she could see through all her lies. Like a solid wall behind her doe eyes, teetering on the brink of asking her but not quite getting there. Just like a mother worried about her teenage daughter, but trusting her just enough not to interfere.

As if I’m even remotely close to being trustworthy enough to stay in charge of my own life. Patience needed to keep Flora oblivious. It would become a disaster if she learned about Patience and her role in the upcoming mob war. God help her, if she became a target…

The young brunette straightened up and carefully extracted the—slightly crumpled—photograph from her breast pocket. She turned it around and around, memorizing it, until she realized she needed to conserve it for fingerprints. Using the tail end of her jacket, she picked it up and deposited it in a plastic bag.

Lying awake, she thought of the photograph, hidden securely under her mattress like a beating heart. Her mind kept wandering back to it. If this makes it to court…could it be traced to him? Leo was smart enough not to sign his own name. But if the handwriting matches, and God willing, even a fingerprint…just one…

She flung her covers off and hid it again, more securely, under the floorboards.

***

Patience realized she was being followed.

It started innocuously. Noticing a beaten-up station wagon in the corner while she scouted windows for a journalist who wanted a rival watched. Noticing the same station wagon outside the police station when she went to browse through their records.

That evening she had spent hard at work with Gerald Nizzola, drafting a press release with his secretary that disavowed any complicity in the sudden deaths of two pollrunners in the Eight District. The sun was going down, and she was due for her daily collect call to the Di Scarpettas.

Patience made a paid phone call to Jack Salandra, Sal’s deputy (Sal called him his 'underboss'). Salvatore was too busy stabilizing the drug trade and dodging assassination attempts to talk directly to her. Snatched moments in alleyways were what he insisted on, just long enough for him to slide his hand over her belly and reassure her everything was all right.

One of his assassination attempts even made the news—he had been exiting a car dealership when some thugs with tommy guns tried to shoot him down. He had barely escaped by diving behind a car. Two innocent bystanders had been killed. The bullets had clipped him, and the next time she saw him, he kissed her fiercely despite the bandages wound around him. As his teeth grated on hers, all she could think of were those innocent people.

If it weren’t for me, they would be alive today.

“You want me to pass the message to his family?” she said in disbelief, keeping an eye on the figure hanging around the side of the department building. The man—his back turned to her— was smoking a cigarette and seemed innocuous, some random man in a coat, probably relaxing before he went home to his family. But he had been there an awfully long time.

“Be sure to dress innocuously,” said Jack Salandra before hanging up.

Patience sighed and hung up. When she left the phone, the smoking man stubbed out his cigarette and began walking again.

Was he spying on her? He was awfully obvious if he was. She had been followed by the F.B.I and hadn’t even realized it.

I’m being paranoid, she told herself. No one knows about me and Salvatore. Only a few people in his gang. There wouldn’t be any reason for them to start tracking me.

***

She met Salvatore’s family on a warm day, the sun peeking through the cloud cover to make the flowers on the Mallozzi’s hedge start to bloom from their pods.

Patience dressed in a neat gray skirt suit, combed her hair pin-straight and wore her shiniest heels. She rapped smartly on their wooden door.

Gina Mallozzi answered it with a “Hello, can I help—“ before she spotted her. “Patty!” she said, and her face lit up. “Where is Uncle Sal? Have you come here to tell us where he is? Is he all right—“

“Miss Winslow!” Gabriele appeared in the doorway. “Oh, thank the Lord. Come in, quickly!”

He bolted the door behind them and led her into the living room, which was as derelict as she remembered. She could hear clashes and the sound of an older woman’s voice from the kitchen. Salvatore’s mother, maybe?

There was a clatter from the kitchen, and a tall, rosy-cheeked woman with frizzy yellow hair and a child clinging to her dress peeked around the door. “Do we have guests? I’ll ready some tea! Who are you, lovey?” She had a lovely, kind voice, flavored with a faint brogue.

Patience recognized her from the photo in Salvatore’s house. Barbara, her name was? “I’m Patience Winslow. I’d love some tea, Mrs. Mallozzi.”

Junior slid down and scampered over. “Dov’é zio Sal?” he squealed, clutching onto her skirt with pudgy hands.

“Speak English, Jun, we’re in company. Uncle Sal can’t visit us right now. He’s in a spot of trouble.”

“Uncle Sal’s always in trouble,” groused Gina.

“Is he all right?” said Gabriele in a hushed tone. “Have you seen him? Tell me—“

“Ssh. He’s fine.” Patience looked around nervously. “He asked me to give you a message. He can’t talk directly to you—he doesn’t want you in danger. He says you have to pretend you haven’t had any contact with him. If anyone asks, say he just disappeared from your life.”

Gabriele massaged his head. His face was chalk-white. “Oh, cazzo. What have you gotten yourself into this time, Sal…”

Barbara set down a silver platter of tea and cookies on the rough-cut table in the living room. The cookies were immediately stolen by the children, but Patience took a cup of tea anyway. “You have a lovely house, Mrs. Mallozzi.”

“Thank you, honey. Please, call me Barbara. Or Barbara Rose, or Barb, or Barbie, whichever you like. You can even call me Porky Pig, like my brother-in-law does sometimes. I haven’t been quite able to shed that post-birth weight.” She gave her belly a raucous pinch.

“Barbara, we have company!”

“Oh, shush, you nervous wreck. You're scared stiff of how we appear to other people, but you still haven’t cleaned this pigsty of a room.”

Listening to the couple good-naturedly argue, she felt her throat start to tighten. She tried to imagine that Barbara’s curvy blonde figure was replaced with her own, and that Gabriele was thinner and more scarred.

But she still couldn’t see herself sitting on an overstuffed couch with tea and cookies, teasing her husband affectionately as sun streamed onto the chintz rug and her well-dressed children squabbled over cookies.

All she could see were ten screaming brats, the smell of cigarette smoke, a rug damp with mold, and the harsh crack of the back of a man’s hand on her face.

“So, what mischief has Sal gotten himself into these days?” Barbara fixed her twinkling, baby-blue eyes on hers.

Patience looked away. “It’s… important. He wants you to be safe. I’m not sure I should tell you. Hell, you’ll probably be finding out in the newspapers soon enough, anyway.” She forced a laugh. "He just wants you to know he's safe."

A ding sounded from the kitchen. “Oh, get the cookies, will you please, Gabe? And if you would, stick the next batch in. It’s been a hard day and I want to have some girl talk.” She winked coyly at Patience.

When Gabriele and his clamoring children left, the living room descended into a comfortable silence. Patience’s eyes wandered around the room, over the faded scarlet wallpaper, over the withering flowers in a vase.

“Patience?”

“Yes, Mrs.— I mean, Barbara?”

“You’re a pretty girl, you know. But not at all like the girls he brings home. He prefers tall blondes, you know, curvy women with a lot of makeup, and you’re—pardon my expression—scrawny as a chicken.”

Her face flushed. “We aren’t—“

“Oh, darling. I can tell.” Barbara laughed. “You’re his lover, aren’t you? I have to say, I’m surprised that he trusted one of his girls enough to send messages through her.” The woman gave Patience a squinty-eyed grin. “You’re not marrying him, are you? I can’t think of any other reason why he would let you do something like this.”

“Ha,” said Patience automatically. “Geez, no. We’re just, uh, casual acquaintances for the time being."

“Casual acquaintances.” Her smile said everything. “Patience, please, will you answer me something?”

“Sure.”

Barbara shifted, and her voice was suddenly grave. “Tell me, Patience. Woman to woman. Is my family in danger?”

Patience’s mouth went dry.

You are in danger, she wanted to say. You need to run. Innocents are getting murdered. This is nothing like what’s happened before now—not a spat between Salvatore and his men, or a minor disagreement with the other mafia heads.

This is a gang war, dead set on eradicating one faction from existence. There’s no telling how far the other families will go.

Patience grit her teeth so hard they hurt.

“No, not at all! It’s no big deal. Just a little—strain between some groups he is affiliated with. I advise you to lie low for a few months, just continue on as usual. Then things will return to normal.”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” said Barbara, laughing gently. “I get worried, you know. He’s in trouble so often, I worry about us, you know, my children…”

Patience envisioned Gina and Junior—those little bright-faced tykes—lying on the ground, just like her parents, blood spouting from their mouths and noses and eyes glazed and unseeing. Like her parents. She gripped the handle of her teacup so hard she thought it would crack.

I can’t tell them. If his family disappeared so suddenly—and just after she passed a message to them— Salvatore would know it was her. 

It’s their blood on my hands if they die, she thought miserably. But what’s a little more blood matter to me? Stefano had a family. The poll runners, the bystanders at the car dealership, they had too. And she had seen them die without shedding a tear.

“Patience,” said Barbara.

The older woman slid a warm hand over hers. Her wedding ring was cold on her skin, and her palms were calloused and soft with years of childcare and chores. “Sal’s my brother-in-law. I’ve known him for five years. I know how he is. You need to leave him. He’s come here at night with blood in his fists, with a black eye, with a knife in his pocket. He’s come here smiling, and I’ve seen the next day on the news… people… people killed, disappeared...”

“Barbara, we’re not—“

“I’ve seen girl after girl leave him. He’s a brute, a criminal, and a vicious monster. One day he’ll beat you too hard and you’ll jump ship like the rest of them. I don’t want you to be the next to realize too late what he’s capable of.”

I know what he’s capable of, thought Patience. I know perfectly well.

The blonde woman smiled sadly and looked away. “I give each girl this speech. They never listen. Most are with him because he’s a bad man. Are you one of those women?”

Before she could answer, Gabriele bustled back in with a tray of cookies in his hands. The children were chattering, and Barbara squawked in indignation when he lay the hot tray on the wooden coffee table.

Patience stayed quiet the rest of the time. She stared mutely at her reflection in the tea. Without noticing, it had become cold.

***

When Patience turned a corner in her rented car, the station wagon was there, in front of her, idling on a street corner. She blew past it, took a right turn down an empty alley, and then a sharp u-turn on the end of the street. When she came back to the street she was on, the station wagon was gone.

She looked behind her. A beaten-up station wagon appeared in her rearview mirror. Patience slammed the gas and lurched ahead. Whenever her car pressed beyond twenty miles an hour it sounded like an 80-year-old cigarette smoker being strangled, and it gasped and coughed as she urged it forward.

Dodging pedestrians on the crosswalk, she made her way out of the center of the city, towards the suburbs. Now she was far enough away from Flora’s house to feel safe, but too far from familiar surroundings to feel completely at ease.

Soon, small brick-roofed houses and well-groomed lawns replaced the decrepit apartment buildings. Tall black fencing lined the neatly-kept lawns. Hedges and small trees. A few of them had swings out front.

They vaguely reminded her of the house she had grown up in. Her house had been smaller, with a big stone fireplace and a huge yard for playing in. There had been a river out back… she had caught frogs with her friends there during summer. An involuntary memory surfaced, of pulling up a murky, half-formed tadpole from the river, its body halfway between a larva and a frog. She had chased her friends with it, listening to them shriek and slog away in panic. Then she had laughed, let the tadpole go and watched it swim away.

Her hands were sweaty on the steering wheel. She kept checking her rearview for the white car. There was nothing, just a blank concrete road in back of her.

Patience spotted a small white church on the corner and parked in back of it, safely hidden from the road. It was getting dark, and the congregation had left. When she walked in, it was deserted.

Her breath shorted out for a moment. She had not stepped inside a Protestant church for years

The smallness, coziness, the rich lacquer of the pews and the modest stained glass made her mind careen back to those dozy mornings when her parents dragged her to Sunday Service. She had sat on her Mommy’s lap and drowsed while the deep voice of the minister rumbled in the background. The smell of cedarwood, burning candles and her mother’s perfume were indelibly imprinted on her mind.

She took a seat on the front pew, in front of the altar.

I wonder what Mommy and Daddy would have to say about me now. Twenty-two, engaged to a brutal murderer, and pregnant by another. Her parents would be ashamed, of course, just like they were ashamed of the aunt who had a baby out of wedlock.

They had talked about her aunt in hushed tones in the living room, petering out when they spotted her. Patience could imagine them doing the same to her as she entered the room, her belly big under her gown, their staring eyes fixed on it. Our daughter Patience, she decided to move to Tulsa. We don’t know what she’s doing now. We hope she’s all right.

Wait. Twenty-two years old? Then Patience realized she had realized that she had forgotten her birthday in February. She was twenty-three. So she was twenty-three, engaged to a brutal murderer, and pregnant by another.

Twenty-three. She had thought she hit rock bottom years ago, when she exited college without a friend, without a recommendation from a professor, and with only a cramped classified in the newspaper to show for her life’s effort.

Now she would have given anything to go back to those simpler times.

How could I have ruined my life so much in one year? She wondered, watching the altar. The rough-cut wooden legs peeked out from under a white tablecloth. A golden candle holder shone dully in the dimming light.

Patience remembered stumbling after her mother in church, clutching her dress and waiting for her to give her the little piece of cracker that was communion. The cracker had been so dry on her tongue. Just like her mouth was now.

The girl’s hands rested over her swollen belly. The skin was warm under her hands. Burgeoning with the promise of another. A blond, blue-eyed promise of another.

In the window, the sky was the color of night shining through icicles. Like the drips of frozen water that clung to the eaves as she ventured outside of her childhood house during winter. Sometimes she would break off an icicle and suck on it.

Her mother had been inside, making apple pie. Patience ran outside in her woolen hat, gloves, and coat, scooping up the white powdery snow and shaping snowballs to throw at no one. She had made a snowman. It was her Daddy. It had a flat piece of bark for a constable’s cap.

Patience stroked her taut skin with a fingertip. Will my child get to experience that? To run free and happy, sledding, making snowmen and laughing with rosy cheeks and spreading its arms for her?

All she could see was fear and darkness. Cracked teeth. A mother being bent over a desk, biting her lip so hard it bled down her chin. Watching a figure cower in a corner. Her cunt aching, a child crying.

This child has no future.

The thought of Salvatore surviving loomed over her like a shadow. She told herself time and again. He’s in the middle of a mob war, with no chance of surviving. His men are halved, and he has a temper shorter than a candle nub. But he proved to be a remarkably resilient man. As the days ticked on, and as her pregnancy progressed, and as he escaped yet another situation by the skin of his teeth, she was forced to confront the frightening possibility that he would survive long enough to expect marriage.

Then what would she do? She could run, but by doing so she would throw away all her sweat and blood that she had striven for trying to indict Leonardo Borghese. All the mutilation and trauma she had gone through, the teeth-gritting striving, the rape, the torture, all the murder—the murders that happened because of her—everything would be proven useless.

A marble figure of Jesus was set against the massive wooden crucifix on the wall. His face drooped in sculpted agony.

Why did I tell him I was pregnant? I shouldn’t have told him anything. Just another stupid decision she had made. She had let herself get engaged to Salvatore. Let herself get fucked by Leonardo. And now she was paying the price.

God help me if Salvatore’s family dies. If that happened, that was one decision she would never forgive herself for. The family was so innocent, so happy—so unlike whatever awaited her in the future. They were blameless in all of this.

Tears pricking her eyes, she got up and knelt by the altar. She felt childish, like she was a little girl wishing for a million dollars again, but it couldn’t exactly hurt, could it? She prayed for their safety, and Flora’s, and maybe even Michael’s, if he was still out there.

The church was quiet around her. The white curtains were still. The statue of Jesus stared down with blank sculpted eyes on her.

It was after she finished praying and got up she remembered that she forgot to pray for the most important person of all.

Patience thought of the small, soft fetus in the darkness of her body, persevering so long. Waiting for its mother, until it emerged into the cold air, squalling and thrashing.

Did she even want it to be safe? If she held that child in her arms, what would she do with it? This child of rape that she had not even wanted in the first place? Raise it? Ruin her life mothering a hateful product of the worst time in her life?

She felt immediately guilty. Patience couldn’t get rid of it—and even the words get rid of it made her feel uneasy. In the church, even thinking of such was sacrilege. It was a person. A being. A baby. In the eyes of God, the God that had watched over since birth, it was alive, relying on her.

But if children are supposed to be a blessing, why do I feel so much like it’s a curse?

How much time had passed… Patience felt as if it was only a couple minutes, but the dimming sunlight seemed to disprove that. The night was darkening quickly, throwing shadows across the bare floor planks

Patience stood up. It was nearly dark now. She had wasted enough time feeling sorry for herself. Now Flora would be worried, and that poor woman was worried enough lately.

***

Safely home, Patience took off her high heels, the smell of chicken soup wafting through her nostrils. Somehow she wasn’t hungry. The thought of condemning Salvatore’s family to die was enough to put her off dinner.

“Today at the campaign was awful,” she vented. “Benjamin’s secretary is such a palooka. He probably only got the job because his father had connections.”

“Oh? Sounds like a bad day.” Flora’s voice was distant.

“Well, I mean, not all bad. There’s going to be a vote recount in the Third and Eleventh District, because of the fire in the polling offices.” The same fire that resulted in the tragic deaths of two pollrunners. Except when the police investigated the scene, they discovered that the two men had rope burns around their wrists and ankles.

“Patience, you got a call earlier.”

“Who from?”

“I don’t know. He sounded nasally. He hung up when I told him my name.”

Tony Scaramuzzi, probably. That dimwit forgot that I can only talk on payphones and called my house again. “Probably a telemarketer or something. I’m going to bed early. It’s been a rough day. I just finished the Mills job, and–“

“You said you finished the Mills job two days ago,” said Flora.

Her mind jolted as she realized her mistake. “Oh, really? I’m sorry, the job wasn’t quite over, I mean, Mrs. Mills asked me to—“

“Patience,” said Flora. She was in the doorway, flowered apron and ankle-length blue dress.

“I know you’re in trouble.”

The tone of her voice was hard, but no less maternal. Flora looked down at her from hard brown eyes, face set in a sculpted sternness.

“You tell me what’s going on. Tell me right now. I’ve heard too many excuses from you.”

For a moment Patience felt like a small child, cowering as her mother stood severe and disappointed. She was a little girl again. I was just out skipping stones with my friends!

“It’s nothing. It’s just my new job at the campaign, it’s taking up so much time—“

”I’ve seen you coming home too late,” said Flora. “Coming home bruised and bleeding. And too many unanswered phone calls! I’m a mother, I notice these things! You can’t hide it from me forever!”

Patience looked away. Her body erupted in cold sweat.

“It’s that man,” Flora said darkly. “That Italian. I want you to stop meeting him, right now!”

Patience rose to her feet and put her hands on Flora’s shoulders. She squeezed hard, but Flora’s shoulders were stiff. “Look. I’m not getting into trouble, I promise. I know some people, I do, but it’s just on behalf of Benjamin. I’m a campaign aide, that’s all I am. I swear.”

“Quit your job. You can live here. Rent-free. You can work with me at—at the department store, or you can be a switchboard operator, or become a stewardess. I don’t care. Just stop what you’re doing, please!”

Patience felt exhausted, with the lingering guilt and the terror of what lied ahead sinking into her brain like black ink. She could barely sleep. Her pregnancy was becoming more obvious by the day, and less likely that she could hide it from Flora and the public. All she wanted to do was bury her face in Flora’s shoulder and start to wail.

But she needed to keep up the charade.

“Flora, nothing is happening. You’re seeing things that aren’t there. I haven’t met Salvatore in months. I have a new job, and that just means I stay out later than usual. I promise you from the bottom of my heart, I’m not doing anything dangerous.”

Flora’s shoulders slumped, and the lines in her relaxed. “I—okay. I’m… I’m sorry. It’s just, sometimes you’re late. And sometimes you don’t come home until next morning. I worry one day that you won't come home at all. My Caroline…” her voice slackened, and she rubbed her eyes.

At the mention of her daughter, Patience felt insidious guilt creep into her conscience. Flora's seeing the same thing happen to me as what happened to Caroline. She loves me like a daughter. She latched on after Caroline died and now I’m her replacement—the replacement of the child she couldn’t protect. And now she’s got a second chance to watch her grow up into a healthy young woman.

“Hey Flora, do you want to come with me to my job tomorrow? I’d love for you to meet Benjamin. He’s a great boss. You can see what I do all day and meet my coworkers. Hey, maybe if you like it, I can get you a job there!”

Patience forced herself to smile, but the smile became genuine when Flora’s face brightened. “Oh, Patience, you don’t have to!”

“No way. You’ve got to come with me. And afterwards we can catch a movie. Maybe Psycho, I heard it was good!”

***

That night, she was awoken by several harsh crashes on the front door. She leapt out, her legs stumbling, as Flora flicked the hallway lights on.

“Who is this?” Patience called warily. She unhooked the latch and opened the door, reprehensive but worried.

A chunky, muscular man in a drab suit was standing on their doorstep. “Winslow!” he hissed as she opened the door. “Come quickly! It’s an emergency!”

“Who’s at the door?” Flora called sleepily from the hallway.

Patience’s heart leapt to her throat. “What? What’s wrong?”

“It’s Salvatore,” said the man. “He’s in trouble. A lot of trouble. We need to leave now!”

“I thought you said you weren’t seeing him!” cried Flora from behind her, her voice suddenly alert. The older woman clutched her arm. “Come back inside, right now! You, sir, leave right now before I call the police!”

“I’m sorry,” Patience said hurriedly, untangling her grip from her arm. The girl followed the man down the steps. “Patience!” screamed Flora. “Patience!”

She got into the front of a beaten-up white station wagon and slammed the door shut. It yanked out of the driveway with a screech.

Patience looked behind her. Flora’s figure, in her bathrobe, was standing still on the street, watching them leave. She couldn’t see, but could feel the betrayal in her form.

Patience closed her eyes tight and turned away, trying to ignore the yawing guilt that erupted inside her. “Which of Salvatore’s men are you? What happened to him? Is he alive?”

“I’ll explain everything when we get there.” His voice was low and curt. They took a harsh right, toward the highway.

Her heart was hammering. Sweat was starting on her forehead. She checked her watch. 1:00. What had he been doing so late at night? Did they catch him in his home? Is this all over now? Her mind was whirring with a thousand possibilities.

“Did the police find Salvatore?” she asked. “Or did Borghese?” The man was silent as they drove on, toward the edge of the city.

The car was dark. Streetlamps flashed by, illuminating his jowly features. She couldn’t remember having seen him before.

The silence stretched on. The leather seatbelt was rough against her skin, the edge sliding into the flesh of her bare shoulder. It rubbed persistently with every bump and jolt.

Tall tops of pine trees spiked the horizon. The road was becoming gradually more rural as they neared the outskirts of Garland City. The streetlamps were few and far between, and soon the buildings were too.

Wait. Didn’t Salvatore live in the center of the city? And their headquarters… that butcher shop. Isn’t it in another direction?

The low, ragged hum of the engine echoed in her ears.

“Where,” she said quietly, “are we going?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

An empty road stretched before them.

The other cars had vanished. The road ahead was just a blank gray stripe disappearing into darkness. They were deep into New York State.

Patience felt her own breaths rise and fall steadily. Her thighs and belly were tight and coiled, her gaze blurring steadily with every bump and jolt.

The yellow stripe on the road flickered with every foot they gained, on and off, like a golden streak of paint whose artist had stopped to dab more. It stretched on forever, and she felt as if this moment would last for eternity, the moment she realized I’m in danger.

The man beside her would not answer. The silence lay on her like a wool blanket. His hand rested tightly on the steering wheel. The ring on his finger shone dully as his fingers clenched the leather.

Her mind was churning as her body was paralyzed. I can’t make a move. I can’t tip him off.

He was driving her to a rural area, somewhere with no witnesses. All the better to kill her and dispose of her body. She knew if she let him take her where he wanted, he would murder her. Rape and torture weren’t out of the question, either. The footage of crime scenes her professor had shown her in class, the lectures on psychology, had instilled a fear in her. The grainy black-and-white film of rotting pieces of women being removed from shallow graves stuck in her mind.

A bump in the road made her jump.

In that split second, she made a decision.

Patience lunged forward and grabbed the steering wheel. She twisted it as hard as she could. Her elbows jarred as she yanked it towards her, using every bit of muscle in her arms until they screamed with pain.

The road wavered in front of her, before a tire slammed into a gully beside the road and made the car jolt sideways.

The screech of tires sounded in her ears, and his elbow smashed into her skull, just above her forehead. Her brain split with pain, ears erupting with white noise as the car spun out of control. She heard the scream of tires on stone, and suddenly they were upside down, and her head knocked the roof of the car, and then she was upright again, and upside down once more, and her head was spinning and there were screams and smashes and silence.

***

When Patience came to, she was curled in an uncomfortable fetal position on the ceiling of the car. Airbags were cushioning her back, but her head throbbed with pain. Something warm was dripping down her face.

Patience wriggled, and grits and shards of glass crunched into her palms as she snaked out through the window. The cool grass felt good under her hands. She rose shakily to her legs and took a quivering step forward.

When she heard the cough behind her, she began to run.

They were miles away from civilization. For a moment she thought of Phil, that young man she had seen murdered in front of her eyes, buried in an unmarked grave. The ground underneath her was coated with dry, dead leaves that crackled under her bare feet.

The first shot cracked so loudly her mind began to swim. Blood ran into her eyes, making salty tears track down her cheeks. She dodged a moldy log, her foot thrusting into a murky puddle. Her heel squelched into the deep mud before she struggled to yank it out.

A bullet buried itself in the trunk above her head.

He was right behind her now. She scrambled a few steps forward on her hands and knees, cold wetness deepening through the knees of her nightgown. He grabbed her ankle, and she twisted backward to throw a dirt mixture of soil and crumpled leaves into his eyes.

Another bullet zinging past her ear made her hearing mute. She felt the searing heat as it passed an inch from her face.

“—fucking kill you, bitch!”

She stumbled onto her feet, took a slog forward, and fell onto her knees once again from the suction of the mud. For one fraction of a second, she knew she would die, and the shiny revolver clutched in the man’s hand would end her right there and then, and her life would be over forever, such as it was, and she would have died before doing anything, making any impact on the world, dying facedown in the mud on a lonely interstate road—

And when the gunshot sounded her ears, she knew. The brief moment between life and death, the realization and sorrow and fear, fit between the half second when she heard the gunshot and realized it’s over.

When she finally came to, her forehead was pressed to her forearms. Her legs were sinking into the cold mud of the hill, and her breasts flattened against a dead branch, her hair tangled and matted with mud.

She looked back. A short fat man was holding a revolver far behind her, huffing and stumbling towards her as he tripped over twigs and wet undergrowth. The man who had been stalking her was on the ground. He was moaning and clutching his midriff, bleeding out from a gunshot wound that looked like cranberry jam. “Winslow! Winslow! Are you all right?” said the fat man. He sounded as if he were miles away. His wedding ring bit into his chubby finger as he helped her stand up.

Patience let herself be pulled up by him. “Tony. Oh, Christ God—Tony, how did you find me?” Her voice came out in a flood of gratefulness, numb shock, and tears.

“Salvatore told me to keep a close eye on you,” Tony huffed. “Let’s get him into the car while he’s out of commission.”

As they hauled the heavily bleeding assassin into the trunk, he hissed something under his breath that made Tony’s face scrunch. “You can have all the opportunity you’ll like to insult me when we take you to Salvatore.”

***

Salvatore had been woken up early. He wore his white sleeveless shirt, muscled arms tense as he withdrew them from his pockets to wrap them around her body.

Patience’s nerves were shattered, adrenaline pumping through her veins. The sudden, warm sensation of his arms around her calmed her down. For the first time, she felt safe wrapped in his arms as she inhaled the smell of cigarette smoke. “Are you bleeding? You just had a car crash. Fucking hell, you’re covered in mud—you need to sit down—the baby, is the baby—”

“I’m okay,” she said as he barraged her with questions. “The baby’s fine. That man ran after us—and that’s how I got the mud on my nightgown, it’s okay, it was just me running, calm down—“

“Calm down?” hissed Salvatore through his nostrils, and his fingertips were white as they dug into her shoulders. “He tried to kill you. I can’t forgive that. He tried to—my child—“ his voice trailed off. He clutched her so tight she thought her breath would be squeezed out of her.

“If you hold me any tighter you’ll make me lose him,” she swore, and he reluctantly loosed his grip on her. “I’m just a bit shaken up. My head’s cut up, but that’s it.”

Patience looked behind her shoulder where the stocky man was being wrestled out of the car and into the back of the butcher shop. “Somebody hired him. I know it. How else would they know to target me?”

“Leo Angelino,” he spat under his breath. “I know it was him. He’s the only one who knows about us.” Only because you were stupid enough in your masculine triumph that you told him, she thought spitefully, failing to realize her own complicity in lording it over him at the fruit market.

Patience shook her head. “No. Not him. Leonardo—I mean, Borghese wouldn’t want me to be in danger. I know Leo. This man fired bullets. He was looking to kill, not wound. Borghese… he doesn’t want to see me hurt. I know him.”

“Whoever it is, we’ll find out soon enough,” he said darkly. He traced the cut on her forehead with the tip of his finger.

***

The haze of smoke made her eyes water, and she muffled her nose with the sleeve of her oversized jacket. Tony had lent her his coat to wear on the ride back, and it was chilly enough inside the butcher shop that she kept it on.

The man had his head tilted down, purposefully not meeting the gaze of the tall, lean man who paced in front of him.

Salvatore was smoking like a burning house, and he flicked away the lit butt to fully face him. “Let’s get this started,” he said. “I’ll introduce myself. Salvatore Bruno Mallozzi. I’m sure you’ve heard of me before. Ain’t a man in Garland City who hasn’t. I am a little shocked that you’ve heard of my girlfriend, though.” He nodded toward her. “Far as I know, it’s only me and her knows we’re engaged. How did you find out? Was it through one of my men?”

The man stared down at the ground. He said nothing. He had been a little roughed-up as they got him inside, and was sporting a rapidly-swelling black eye.

Salvatore paced in front of a table that was set against the corner of the wall. On top of it was an open toolbox and a small, leather bag. Patience had a feeling she knew what he planned to do with them.

He took out a scalpel and twirled it between his fingers

“Do you know how to gut a pig?” he said. He was surprisingly keeping his temper. In fact, he didn’t seem bothered at all. He seemed lighthearted. “In Sicily, my family—we were pig farmers. When I was a kid, I’d help my grandfather drive the hogs in after the day ended and choose which ones to slaughter. I got so good at butchering them, my grandfather used to say, ‘Sei il migliore, Toto!’ He never said that to any other member of the family but me. I was eight years old, and I already knew where to start when gutting the pig—at the neck, slitting downwards. Pulling out the intestines and laying them in a pile on the sty floor. But first we’d have to slit their throats. Do you know how it sounds, when a pig’s getting slaughtered? Suuuu-weeee. Suuuu-weeee."

Salvatore gripped the scalpel in his hand and began to slowly drag it down the wall. A horrendous screeching sound filled the air, high and piercing and oh lord it really did sound like a pig getting slaughtered. Patience crushed her hands over her ears.

The man tied to the chair wasn’t moving, but his eyes were clenched shut and his mouth was trembling.

“Slaughtering a man’s a lot different from slaughtering a pig,” Salvatore continued. “Pigs don’t piss themselves. Pigs don’t cry and plead for their family. Pigs don’t offer to do anything, anything to get you to stop, whether it be putting their kids into prostitution for the money they owe you, or selling their house and living on the street, or even sucking your cock, or cutting off their own hand. Pigs don’t bother with any of that shit. Pigs just squeal and die.”

His leather shoes squeaked on the floor as Sal bent down until he was eye level with him. “What’s your name, my friend? Is it Joe? You look like a Joe to me.”

The man cried out suddenly, and Patience sat up. Salvatore was standing directly in front of him, dragging the scalpel down over his cheek. Blood poured down his face to soak his collar, and his shouts intensified. “Tell me what your name is. Come on.”

The man was still silent. Salvatore sighed. “Guess it’s the next cheek, then, Joe.”

“It’s Herman,” he gasped, tears streaming down his cheeks to make trails down the sheen of red. “My name’s Herman Walsh.”

“Excellent. Now we’re getting places. Who hired you, Herman?”

Patience closed her eyes as he pressed the scalpel to the other side of his face. The man screamed, the man moaned, the man even let out a few ragged sobs, but he did not speak. Salvatore snarled, his temper bursting. “Who fucking sent you?”

Walsh stared up at him with dark, feral eyes. Two flaps had been torn off both sides of his face, revealing the clenched jawbone and white dots of teeth underneath. Salvatore pulled back his fist and slammed it into his face with the momentum of a professional boxer, and Walsh’s face crumpled.

It crumpled. The fist had been swung with such fury, she heard the shatter of many small bones in his face. Patience’s heart leapt to her throat as the movement squeezed more blood out of his face to patter on the concrete underneath.

“Do you know who that woman is?” Salvatore barked, pointing back to her.

Walsh looked over at her. His lips tightened. “Some broad.”

That just incensed him even more. “That woman is the mother of my child!” he screamed. “That woman is going to be my wife!”

He gripped him by the lapels and drove his fist into his face, again and again, and when he backed off, sweat was just beginning to soak his collar. He gripped a crowbar and pulled it out of the toolbox. “Sorry, Herman, but you’ve brought this on yourself.”

Patience’s gut churned with disgust and horror. Her nails dug into the sweaty palms of her hand. But she couldn’t look away. Her eyes were glued on the scene in front of her, like a trainwreck that was occurring right in front of her eyes.

Salvatore yanked his mouth open and put the claw of the crowbar behind his front tooth. With a hideous dull snapping sound, the tooth began to crack free.

The dull, muffled screaming nearly drowned out her cry. “Sal!”

Blood was beginning to drip down his wrists. “This man just tried to fucking murder you, Patience.”

Patience shook her head and left the room, pulling her coat around her. She slammed the door after her, but that didn’t do too much for the cries of pain.

The girl was in a blank storage room, with a few crates to the left and only one window set near the top of the ceiling. Patience sat down heavily, the coat pooling around her body. She let her head fall forward in exhaustion. A thousand aches were making themselves known to her as the adrenaline wore off.

Her forehead stung. She put a hand up and discovered coagulating blood. It was a shallow cut, but an obvious one. It would be hell to explain to Flora…

Oh hell. Flora.

The distant yells and shrill sobs were becoming louder. That’s the man I’m marrying, she thought. In the next room, torturing someone to death.

She crushed her hands over her ears. It wasn’t enough to block the noise out, and the muffled moans still made their way into her brain. Her legs hurt. There was a spot on her back that ached where the driving shift had slammed into her when the car turned over.

Salvatore’s shouts joined the cacophony, brutal as a bull’s. If she listened closely, she could heard cracks and thuds.

Last night rushed back to her brain in a sickening, dizzying sob. The adrenaline, Flora’s face, the running, the gunshots, knowing she was going to die.

The girl put her face into her knees, and soon warm tears were soaking through to her legs. When will this end? She thought miserably. One of my leg’s in the earth, the other’s in a grave. Whenever I think life’s looking up, it pulls me back down.

Please, God, deliver me from this. I just want things to get better. Just a little.

“—cking tell me! You piece of shit cocksucker! I’ll kill your fucking children! WHO SENT YOU?”

This crack she could hear. By how loud it was, it had to have been his skull. He was having his head smashed apart with a crowbar.

Try as she might, she couldn’t block it out. Please, please, I don’t want to hear any more. She cried quietly, her fingers digging into the sides of her scalp.

When Patience was a child, her mother used to sing to her at bedtime. Lullabies and folk songs, ones she had learned from her mother before her. Most of those songs had faded away into memory, but she could remember the chorus of one. Hard times, hard times, come again no more.

Things couldn’t stay bad forever. Sooner or later, her luck would look up—as it had with a woman named Flora who protected her ferociously, or an indignant candidate for mayor dedicated to stamping out corruption named Nizzola.

Sooner or later, her hard times would end.

She closed her eyes tight. Things will look up. They always do. Whatever happens… one day, everything's going to get better.

The moans were becoming more distant.

Hard times hard times, come again no more, Patience repeated in her head. She shut her eyes tight and focused on the distant memory of her mother’s voice. 

Before Patience quite noticed, the screams and moans had faded. She lifted her head just as the door swung inward.

“Whoever they were, they hired a good one,” Salvatore said tersely. His arms were soaked with blood up to the elbows.

She saw through his excuses immediately. “You killed him before you could get more information out of him, didn’t you?”

Salvatore’s face darkened, and for a moment she was afraid he would strike her. “He’s fucking gone. That’s all there is to say.”

Walking through the torture room was… illuminating. His body was limp, tied against a chair. His head resembled a cracked marble. Just like the man she had seen in Bianconi’s house. A shattered nub. If she looked closely, she could see the broken stubs of teeth. His shirt was undone, and his belly had been slit from throat to pelvis. Fistfuls of glistening intestine had been pulled out to lay limply against his belly.

Patience tried not to look at it.

“What did he say?”

“Fucking nothing. Either he really didn’t know anything, or he knew too much. Cazzo!” he kicked the wall.

“Herman Walsh… I’ll do some digging. Maybe I can call in favors. The police are sure to have some records.”

“Good luck with that. He gave me two more names while you were shivering in that room. John Hanley, and Ernest Gompers. Hard to tell which is his real name, if any were at all.”

“Was he carrying identifying documents?”

“Nothing. Everything was clean. Empty car, empty pockets. Like he dropped out of thin air.” He lit another cigarette, obviously irritated. “I’ll post more guards. I’ve already got Tony watching your house 24/7, that fat sonofabitch must have dozed off…”

Ah, yes. He had posted guards without informing her. She would have to talk with him about that. But priority number one was getting home and making sure Flora was safe.

“Sal, I really have to be getting home.”

“I’ll drive you,” he said immediately. He put a hand out and rested it on her belly. She noticed with some revulsion that it was wet with blood. “Are you bleeding? Nothing? Do you need to see a doctor?”

“No, I’m fine. Got some bumps and bruises but that’s about it. The baby’s safe and sound.”

“It’s got to be a tough little sucker to survive a car crash and a chase in the woods.” A proud smile crept over his face. “Well, he has to be, with me as his father.”

She shoved his arm off, but the motion was toothless, and he didn’t seem displeased. “Hey, Patty.”

“What?” she adjusted the strap of her nightgown, which had fallen to reveal the top of one breast.

His hand went to her breast immediately, cupping the small mound in his sweaty palm. Dampness—sweat or blood, she couldn’t tell—soaked into the flimsy silk. “We haven’t done it in a while, you know. It might calm you down.”

Patience could hardly believe his presumption. “Pardon me, but I’m not feeling it tonight. I just watched you beat a man to death with a crowbar. That tends to take away some of the mood.”

He didn’t remove his hand, and his other went to her waist, traveling down to cup her ass. “Just put it out of your mind, cara mia. I’ll light some candles. There’s a bed in the back.” His voice had become deeper, more guttural. As close to him as she was, she could feel the telltale lump of his erection press into her belly. He was aroused. How was he aroused? After what he just did?

Repulsed, she tried to shove him off, but he just pulled her closer, until she could see sweatdrops clinging to the tips of his long eyelashes, and smell the thick, wet blood that surrounded him.

“It’s been weeks, Patty. Weeks. I’m a man with needs, and I’m used to relieving them quickly. I’ve stayed faithful to you since we engaged—there are a lot of men who wouldn’t have done the same. Old man Bianconi, he would be off cavorting while you gave birth.” His grip tightened on her waist. “But not me.”

No matter her weak struggles, he kept his hands clamped on her. It was becoming clear that he wasn’t going to accept her refusal, like last time.

The room seemed twice as dark. With the paleness of his features, the blackness of his eyes looked like pits in his face.

“I just crawled out from a wrecked car,” she pleaded weakly. “I’m with child. I’m stressed. I want the baby to be okay. Please don’t make me do something I don’t want to do. What if I miscarry? What then?”

“You could just submit.” His other hand was kneading her breast rhythmically, the ball of his thumb rubbing against her ripe red nipple. The silk dragged against her hypersensitized flesh, making tremors spread to her legs.

She forced the tears to come. They came easily. “I’m so scared, Sal. He was shooting at me. I was so afraid, when I was running. I was scared that I would lose our baby. I was scared that I would feel the wetness run down my legs, and this thing we made together would be lost. I don’t want to risk it.”

His hands stopped immediately. Maybe it was the tone of her voice, or the trembling of her body. The corner of his mouth twitched. She could feel his cock straining against her, pressing into the soft flesh of her belly. Finally, he stepped away. “When the baby’s born, you’ll wish you had just let me fuck you now,” he said lowly. “You won’t be getting out of bed for a month when I’m done with you.”

Patience heaved a sigh of relief and stepped away, but his hand tightened, holding her where she was.

He gripped her by the wrist and guided it to the lump in his pants. “You’re still going to have to do something for me, though.”

She twisted her arm, but his fingers dug into the flesh of her wrist, hard as iron. How could he be erect just after doing… that to a man? Utterly disgusted, she nonetheless forced herself to cup him through his pants. Patience undid his belt buckle and slid her hand beneath his cock. It was erect and throbbing, the tip leaking liquid that wet her palm. As soon as her cold hand touched him, he stiffened and spat a curse in Italian.

Salvatore suddenly braced her against the wall, hard, with his arms on two sides of her. Her backbone ached as it slammed into the concrete. With how close he was, she could smell the wet blood that dripped down his wrist and spattered his face. She slowly rubbed him up his length, trying to keep her nausea at bay. His abdomen muscles were beginning to tense—his cock swelled as she sped up, and his breaths came fast and harsh.

He cupped her face in his hand, rubbing a thumb over her cheek. She shook him off with a shake of her head, and his finger left a smear of blood on her face. “You’re so lovely, Patience. Even when you’re unhappy, or crying, you have this… this quality about you. Like you’re the Virgin Mary. So sorrowful, but so beautiful at the same time. I would have never looked twice at you, before now, before that day when I saw you in that green dress sitting alone at the bar, but I’m so happy I did. I’m so happy that we’re going to be spending the rest of our life together, I really am. Patience, I—”

Patience knew what he was going to say. She hurriedly sped her pace, so that the cockhead, resting in her palm, stiffened with blood. His words were breathless and honest, and some remote, lonely part of her appreciated them, but at the same time they awakened a sick desperate feeling inside her. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear him say it.

Patience squeezed lightly, the veins pulsing against her fingers, and gave one more hard pull. He erupted, warm liquid staining her fingernails, and his body shuddered. He let his forehead knock into the concrete wall behind her shoulder. His body was pressed tightly against her, and his heat and perspiration rose in dizzying waves to soak through her thin nightgown.

“Oh,” he sighed, while she silently screamed at him to get off of her. “You’re the best, Patience. You really are. Fucking hell. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off that quickly before.”

A few minutes later, they were sitting outside of the butcher shop. Salvatore had lit another cigarette, and the smoke drifted through the warm spring night. He looked sated and soothed, like a cat being stroked, with half-lidded eyes. The cords of muscles at his shoulders and arms were relaxed.

“Come to think of it, I believe I have gotten off that quickly before,” he commented. “Some hooker in Chicago—you know the type, fifty and she’s done everything. I just got back from shaking down a pool repair business and was feeling a little antsy. So I pulled over and hailed some streetwalker who looked like she’d fucked her way through World Wars I and II. And it took—twelve seconds, tops. I was stunned. I—“

“This doesn’t strike me as an appropriate conversation to have with your fiancé,” she commented tiredly, pulling the oversized coat tighter around her. The girl just wanted to hide under it like a blanket and just forget the past few hours existed, but duty demanded she sit with Salvatore in his good mood and listen to his post-climax spiel.

Salvatore looked sideways at her, grinning. “What does it matter? You know everything about me—more than any of my previous girlfriends. Hell, I should be telling you all this now that we’re getting married. Husbands and wives can’t keep secrets from each other. I don’t have to hide anything from you, and you shouldn’t have to hide anything from me.”

He hooked an arm over her shoulders and pulled her to him, and she squeezed her eyes shut as he pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth. She couldn’t stop thinking about that man in there. His head…she hadn’t even thought it possible for someone’s head to be ruined like that. Every time his cold lips touched hers, she thought about the shards of skull glistening in the bare light of the bulb.

“You’re going to have to come with me next Tuesday,” he mentioned, taking another drag of his cigarette. Patience coughed at the thick smoke. “Why?”

“I have a meeting with Leo Angelino. It might be the start of a ceasefire. Fucking frocio, he starts all of this shit by exposing me and laying all the blame at my feet. Now he thinks he’s being so merciful by extending a hand as a peace offering…”

”Why do I have to be there?” she pressed, dragging him back from his muttered complaints.

“He won’t meet with me unless you’re there. He wants to know you’re safe. Well, you’d be a hell of a lot safer if Leo Angelino hadn’t tossed the match into the gasoline can like he did.”

“How thoughtful of him.” She wondered if he had sent the man to kidnap her. It probably wasn’t him, but—she could bring it up. Either way, she would learn something.

“It’s getting late,” he said. “Best to take you home.”

“I’ll drive.”

“You’re shaking like a leaf. I’ll drive.” It was true. He was easy and relaxed, while she was shuddering. How could be so calm after what he just did? How could he, how could he, how could he… Patience was forced to confront the reality that human life simply did not have same the meaning to him as it did to her. This was just a day of his life. Wake up, make breakfast, go to work, torture, murder and sell drugs, come home, make dinner, fall asleep. To him, human life was expendable. It had no more meaning to him than a cigarette butt.

“Just drive me home, then. I’m tired.”

***

It was almost sunrise when she got out of her car. The street, lined with neat cookie-cutter houses, was deserted, the dark asphalt slick with dew. There was a sullen porch light still on at Flora’s house. As Patience exited the car, Salvatore slammed his door behind him. The harsh sound seemed too loud in the sleepiness of suburbia.

When she knocked, a pale red-haired woman with bags under her eyes answered immediately. Flora pulled Patience inside immediately. As Patience stumbled into the doorway, the woman stepped forward and slapped Salvatore hard across the face. The sharp noise echoed across the empty street.

“I don’t want to see you again!” Flora screamed. “You stay away from Patience! Stay away from us! If I see you near here again, I’ll call the police!”

Salvatore was clutching his reddening cheek. His eyes were hard and blank.

When he struck Flora, he knocked her to the ground. Patience could hear the crunch from where she was, hear her cheek bones shattering.

“Cunt,” he hissed as the woman rolled over, bleeding onto the concrete. “You mind your own business, zoccola. You think you can order me around? You arrogant bitch.”

“Get away from her!” shrieked Patience, stumbling forward and shoving him back by the lapels. Flora was quivering and limp on the ground. The punch had knocked her out of this world.

Patience gripped his shoulders and thrust him towards the car. “Don’t you ever do something like that again,” she hissed. Pure fury colored her gaze, and adrenaline shot to her fingers as she dug them into his shirt.

The sight of Flora—the one woman who had sheltered her without asking for anything in return, who had listened to her tears and nightmares without looking down or shaming her, who had just watched her with dark, understanding eyes and held her hand—lying on the ground was too much to bear. Her eyes stung with indignant fury.

“If you touch Flora again,” Patience hissed, fisting the front of his shirt, “you’ll fucking suffer. Believe you me. Don’t lay a hand on her!” that last word she screamed into his face.

Salvatore's face was slack, nonplussed, barely seeming to notice Patience. He looked past her shoulder at the shivering, prone figure on the sidewalk. His eyes were blazing coals.

“Bitch needs to be taught a lesson. That old whore has come between us every step of the way. Needs to learn her place.” The raw hatred of his voice made Patience shudder. “She took one look at me and hated me, just by my name.”

“No,” said Patience severely, but Salvatore wasn’t listening. “I’ll see you on Tuesday. Until then, get that bitch under control. Or I will.” He yanked his car door open.

As the car zoomed out of sight, Patience was left there, on the streetside, fists clenched in fury. The air seemed twice as cold for a warm spring night. Flora was stirring behind her.

“Flora,” said Patience hurriedly as she helped her up, “Are you all right? Should I call a doctor? Should I—“

Flora’s eyes were blank and dark. She shoved Patience away from her. Her dress hem caked with mud, she went into the house. The porch light went out a moment later.

Patience stepped in after her, in the dark. She locked the door behind her. Then the girl mutely followed the hallway to her room, where she lay there for hours, her pale green eyes staring at the ceiling.

There won’t be enough “I’m sorries” to make this better.

***

Patience was afraid.

“He’s coming,” she said, her raw sobs coming out between the words. “He’ll kill you. He’ll—he’ll—if he finds out you’ve sheltered me—“

“Don’t.” A hand draped across her forehead. The warmth, the gentleness of her voice, they all soothed her in a strange way. “I’m right here with you. I’ll protect you. He’s not going to take you with me here.”

The ceiling was pale blue. Patience writhed, kicking out at the sheets, although her wounded ankle made waves of pain hit her consciousness. Snot and tears ran down her face.

A cool hand gripped her ankle, and the chill made some of the pain fade. “Don’t kick. It will be easier if you just go to sleep.”

“I—I can’t,” she cried, and suddenly twenty hot hands were gripping her arms and legs, pinning her to the bed. Only Flora’s cool fingers saved her from screaming.

“I’m not there, are I?” Patience could imagine the clean ceiling being replaced by the top of his canopied bed. “Tell me. Tell me. Please tell me I’m safe.”

And Patience was waiting or Leonardo to lean over her—loose golden curls and gentle smile and eyes as blue as they were black—and whisper that she was still in hell.

But instead was the soft, determined, motherly voice, squeezing her wrists. “It’s okay, sweetheart. You're safe. I'm here for you, Patience, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”

***

Flora wasn’t talking to her.

The kitchen was silent. The white-and-black checked floor looked bare, like a shadow had fallen across it.

Flora’s face was wan as she pressed a pie shell into the dish. “I’m going to meet a friend,” Patience called despondently.

The older woman didn’t answer. They both knew who she was going to meet. Patience detected a tic on the edge of her mouth; whether anger or sorrow, she couldn’t tell. Her fingers left hard grooves in the pliable crust.

Salvatore had told her to come “in disguise”, and Patience had sullenly dressed in whatever myriad pieces of clothing she could scrounge from her closet. Usually Flora would have looked over and made a comment on the state of her clothing—either gushing about how beautiful it made her look, or panicked flapping when a color of an article of clothing didn’t match the outfit.

But now the older woman seemed to block her out. It was as if Patience didn’t exist. For the last week, dishes had been cleaned, her room was neat, but there wasn’t any conversation about rent. No talking about her new job. It was as if Patience were boarding with a stranger.

Flora’s hair was limp—surely her boss at the department store would give her hell for that—and her face was sallow. From the day that Patience had seen her, in front of the café with her brown doe eyes full of desperate hope, she had fallen so hard. The lines on her face had deepened. Her eyes were tired holes.

“Bye,” Patience said finally.

Flora didn’t answer. Her face seemed so many decades older than she was. The woman just kept kneading the pie shell.

Patience turned away and walked to the hallway. Her heels clicked after her, absurdly loud in the silence of the kitchen. They sounded like knife taps on the linoleum.

The day outside was bright and sunny compared to the cold repression inside the house. The sunshine was warm on her face. The twittering and arguments of birds drifted through the air, and a boy on bicycle zoomed past.

I should go back, Patience realized suddenly, as the front door creaked half-shut behind her. She wanted so desperately to run back inside and throw herself into Flora’s arms and scream that she was sorry. She wanted to so badly she wanted to scream

Fuck Leonardo. Fuck Salvatore. I need to go back. I should go back and hug her. I should take her in my arms and press my face into her silk nightgown and tell her I won’t leave her. I need her. She needs me.

Her fingernails dug into the chipped paint of the doorframe.

Behind her was a woman who needed everything.

But she did nothing.

Instead, she shook her head weakly and slowly began walking down the steps. In the distance, the humming of morning traffic was beginning to sound. The tarmac was cracked and crumbling under her high heels.

When the door snapped shut behind her, it was with a strange note of finality.

 

 

Chapter Text

Salvatore was waiting at butcher shop when she met him. He’d told her to come “in disguise”, and she wondered if she had taken it too far. Patience wore a huge pair of shades, and had swathed her hair in a scarf that tied under her chin. White gloves covered her arms up to her elbows. On top she had a red, short-sleeved blouse. Underneath was a long, stiff denim skirt that brushed her ankles. She looked like any female tourist who had come to Garland City to take pictures and chatter and crowd the streets. Unfortunately, it meant that she was bumped and jostled and complained at by native Garlanders as she elbowed her way through the crowds of Little Italy.

Salvatore was parked in front of the butcher shop in his black, scratched-up Ford, smoke billowing out as his arm hung out the window. His hair was slicked back, and his shirt was unbuttoned over his chest. A pair of sunglasses were tilted over his eyes. She almost didn’t recognize him—he looked like any other teenager hanging around in his Ford Camaro, cruising for pussy. Wait. Teenager? How old was he, really? He looked ten years younger now—now that he wasn’t baring his teeth, or staying up all night, or snorting coke. She thought back to the picture on his wall of his brother and him in the convertible. It hadn’t really looked as if it had been taken a long time ago.

He started when she rapped the car door. “Patty?”

Patience climbed in beside him and slammed the door. “Shall we go?” she asked tersely.

The crowds flooded the streets, and the traffic was packed bumper-to-bumper. They inched along, foot by foot.

As he weaved through the traffic, she sat sullen and quiet. He rested his elbow on the steering wheel and took his sunglasses off to look sideways at her. The bruises on his face had mostly faded, leaving his eyes faintly ringed with shiners. “What’s your problem today, Patty?”

Patience wanted to stay silent and punish him, but her anger came bubbling up. “How dare you treat Flora that way. She’s my best friend, and my landlady.”

“If you’re worried about her kicking you out—“

“I’m not worried about that at all. You assaulted her. You called her foul names. You have no idea how to treat the people near and dear to me—“

“The only person who should be near and dear to you is me. You’re putting some used-up old skank over me, and you’ve done this since the time we met. It’s never about me, it’s never about us, it’s always, ‘Oh, but Flora, my landlady will worry, I need to get back by midnight.’ If that bitch decides to go to the police—“ his voice trailed off.

“Hey,” Patience said sharply. “I don’t want you speaking to her again. I don’t want to see you anywhere near her. If she decides to go to the police, I’ll talk to her about it. Don’t touch her again. Okay?”

She could tell her words were coming in one ear and out the other, as he stared at the upcoming traffic. There was an unpleasant look in his faraway eyes that made a shiver travel down her spine.

Brushing it off, she fixed her gaze ahead. “The crowds are choking today. There’s some pinko protest next street on Harlan Square. Why couldn’t you have chosen another place to pick me up?”

“Those are the unions, Patty.”

“Kindly tell them to knock it off. If they put half the effort they did into working as they did into waving signs around, our GDP would triple.” As a red-blooded small town girl, Patience had a healthy hatred of unions. In her opinion they were little more than a scheme by the dirty reds to infiltrate and ruin American society. In her area of Massachusetts, corrupt unions often worked in tandem with organized crime. Her father, as a constable, had feuded heavily with them. 

Salvatore took the cigarette out of his mouth for a second. “Hey, now. I like unions. They stick up for the little guy, you know. Without them, all those companies would treat us like animals. We need someone to stand up for the working man.”

“What are you, a communist or something? I would have thought your people would have learned something after Sacco and Vanzetti.” She took perverse pleasure at the way his hands tightened bloodlessly on the steering wheel. “I’m not a fucking communist—“

The car jerked as the truck in front of them jarred to a halt. Salvatore bent his head out the window to scream an insult at the driver in front of him. When he sat back down, his pallor had turned to a bloodshot red. “You’re just trying to make me have a heart attack today, aren’t you? You women, if you’re not bitching to me you’re insulting me! Is it the pregnancy hormones? Is that it?”

They both lapsed into a sullen silence, broken up occasionally by Salvatore’s curses whenever a car cut in front of him.

Eventually he said, “Anyway, they’re Leo’s men. They’re angry that there’s been a vote recount. I guess it’s just our luck they chose today to make their opinions known.”

“Leonardo,” she muttered angrily. “Even when he’s not here, he’s making my life hell.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” He yanked his wheel to avoid a banner-waving man in a long coat. “Leo Angelino. He thinks he’s hot shit, like he’s this fucking inspirational rags to riches story. ‘Ally of the working man’ my ass. Everything he got, he got from his daddy. Fucking polentone… his father sent him to Yale while I never finished high school.”

“His father? Silvio Borghese?” Patience remembered him, the dark-haired man with the sharp nose she had seen on Leo’s wall. The previous mob boss of the Borghese Family. From the few anecdotes she had heard, he wasn’t a man you wanted to meet on a dark street corner. “I heard he was quite cruel to him,” she said. “But then, I guess he had to be in order to be the kind of person to run a mafia family.”

“Oh, old man Borghese was creepy as hell. I met him once as a boy. He scared the shit out of me. Those fucking eyes. You ever meet someone and you know, just by looking at them, that you would do anything to keep away from their bad side? That was him. I heard once some neighbor boy of his kept throwing his ball into his yard. So he went over the street, grabbed the boy’s puppy, and wrung its throat in front of him. The boy’s family moved away soon after.”

“What a lunatic.” Patience watched a stop sign pass them. “He died, though, didn’t he? And they never solved it.”

“Never did. They just found him one day. Face down on the carpet. Brutally tortured and murdered. His eyes were hanging out of the back of his head. Leonardo was the one to find him. Must have fucked with his brain, is all I can say. More so than having him as a father.”

A car’s horn wailed as it sailed past them.

“ASSHOLE!” roared Salvatore. “STAY IN YOUR OWN GODDAMN LANE!"

And they never found the killer, she thought.

“Where are we going? I thought we were just having dinner with Leonardo. We’re all the way downtown now.”

“Fucking blond bastard wanted to meet at the Garland City Ritz. Does he not know that will attract attention? And how the hell am I going to get a parking space? Fucking cocksucker, he wants to make everything as difficult as possible! Pezzo di merda!”

Patience rested her head against the car seat. Her head was throbbing and aching. Salvatore’s shouts weren’t making it any better. She had not slept a wink last night and knew she wouldn’t get any slumber for a long time.

When he found a parking space in the middle of the city, she jerked awake, with his hand on her shoulder. As Patience sleepily grabbed for the door handle, he pulled her back. “Patty. Wait for a minute.”

She blearily watched him extract a magazine cutout from his pocket. “What’s this now?”

He showed her a paper cover of a two-story house. It was chateau style, clearly in some costly district of Garland City. The hardwood was polished to perfection, the shutters closed, the driveway swept clean. Very expensive. Something she could only drive by and marvel at on her way back to her cheap, third-floor apartment.

“I put a down payment on it.”

The words echoed in her brain for a moment before they took on meaning.

“It has a big cellar. Two bathrooms. Six bedrooms. For the ragazzi, you know.”

Who?

“At least now you’ll be able to move out of that old broad’s house, you know? You’ll be safer, with me. I think… I think… I think it’s a good beginning.” Salvatore’s voice was hesitant, like she had never heard before. It was shy. Eager. A little anxious, like a father planning his son’s birthday party.

Patience stared at the page until her eyes hurt. “Not now, Salvatore. Just… not now. Let's go. Let’s get this over with.”

She got out and slammed the door behind her. He was delusional. Down payment? A house? What was next? Mortgages? Babysitting fees? University deposits for the ragazzi, as he put it?

But oh, the house had a huge basement, presumably so he could torture his enemies while she packed lunches and sent their children off to school. So he could crack fingernails and teeth while their babies nursed and toddled.

What was wrong with him? Every movement Salvatore made towards redemption was hindered by a thousand pulling hands. She saw right through his soft, paternal exterior, to the hard, cruel inside of him. Couldn’t he see what the main problem was? Couldn’t he see that the more time he spent in the mob, that toxic organization, the worse it would get?

It didn’t matter, anyway. He would be dead long before that.

At least, she thought with a creeping feeling of uncertainty, I hope.

***

The elevator dinged loudly as it began its slow journey up from the ground floor.

The Garland City Epoch was the highest skyscraper in the city. It towered above the glittering masts of the Garland City downtown district, a tusk of iron and silver. First floor was reception, floors 2-16 were offices, floors 20-30 were apartments, 30-34 were hotels, restaurants ballrooms and such, and number 35 was their destination—the Garland City Ritz.

It was quiet inside the elevator. Salvatore’s eyes were on her as the elevator slowly climbed floors. Patience’s mind was occupied. She was wondering where she had put Roughing It. She had spent about an hour last night looking for it. The last she had seen was Mickey sleeping on top of it by the window seat. Had it dropped behind the seat? But she had already looked there twice… she could ask Flora, but…

“Patience.”

The use of her full name startled her. “What?”

“Be on your guard.” His voice was serious. “I don’t know if Leonardo has something planned or not.”

Knowing him… “Don’t worry. I’ll be cautious. I know what kind of person he is.”

“Stick near me, too. I don’t want a repeat to happen of… last time.” His voice dropped as the elevator doors dinged. She swallowed dryly.

Her heels clicked on the clear marble floor as she stepped out of the elevator. The reception area was blindingly white, spotless, made out of pure, gleaming marble and lined with long, polished ebony tables. Two twin staircases entwined behind a broad reception desk, staffed by an elegant mustachioed man in a black suit.

“Frank Marchesi and Lorena D’Emilio,” Salvatore introduced themselves flawlessly, “I believe we have a reservation with one Leonardo Borghese.”

The receptionist looked at them askance for their sloppy clothing—Patience fidgeting with her sweaty scarf, Salvatore smelling of cigarette smoke with his shirt half-buttoned—but after checking his records, directed them up the left staircase.

A wave of warm air hit Patience when she pushed through the door. Her gaze seemed to go fuzzy—but that, she realized, was the dim lighting. Palm trees draped across her sight, the fronds rimmed with pink, flushed light. Small, dimly burning candle flames on tables were the only illumination the room had to offer.

White tables lined the eye as far as she could see. Black-suited waiters moved effortlessly along the rows, bending down to serve. She could see the glint of silverware, hear the low buzz of chatter, and feel the softness of her heels sinking into the rug.

“Ahh, Pazienza, Salvatore!”

The low voice was enough to make her freeze.

A hand gripped her upper arm, just above the hem of the glove. Warm flesh pressed against warm flesh. She was spun around. She saw white cloth.

He was wearing a white, two-piece suit and panama hat, looking like a South American oil baron. His hair was combed back, and he wore a red handkerchief tucked into his front pocket. The cloth was smooth as silk on her damp skin. Before she quite knew what was going on, a pair of warm lips pressed against her cheek, and she inhaled the familiar smell of cologne.

Leonardo broke off from her and embraced Salvatore, kissing him as well. Why did these mafiosi kiss each other so often? She could tell they despised one another. There was no tenderness there, even when Leonardo’s mouth teasingly caressed Sal’s earlobe. 

They had a window seat at the corner of the restaurant. Glittering lights pinpointed beyond the dark glass. Patience took her seat as far away from Leonardo as she could. The table was made to seat four, so she wasn’t very successful. At least the leather felt good against her bare thighs.

Patience sat with her sunglasses drooping, her scarf covering her sweaty hair and her knees pressed close together. She could barely breathe under the tightly knotted fabric. She was so embarrassed, her face was burning—all the other women wore cocktail dresses, made of silk and nylon, with powder and eyeshadow and perfectly lined and gleaming lips.

“Winslow! What a surprise!”

She looked up at the conniving voice. Indeed, the silver-haired lawyer was seated across from her, a slimy smile on his face as he kept his hands steepled under his bow tie. An unpleasant surprise, indeed.

“It’s not Winslow,” corrected Salvatore. “It’s Lorena D’Emilio.”

“Ah, I forgot. The beautiful Lorena and her—were you her husband or brother?”

“Cousin,” corrected Salvatore.

“You certainly look related,” said Sawyer dryly. Patience was short, tending to plump with her pregnancy, with light brown, unruly hair and pale eyes. Salvatore was tall and lanky, with sharp cheekbones, dark eyes and pitch-black hair. The man and woman were as different as could be.

“Oh, leave them be, Charlie,” said Leo good-naturedly. “This is a happy night. We might bring a ceasefire and end all the turmoil infecting the lovely Garland City.”

“Speak for yourself, Leo. My firm has about twice as much traffic coming in from of all the assaults and disappearances.”

“Is this a fucking joke to you?” Salvatore hissed, his hands curling into fists on the tablecloth. “Two of my best men died yesterday. Donnie and Luca. I grew up with those men. I knew their families.”

Luca? Patience knew Luca. She looked at Salvatore, suddenly worried.

Something knocked into her knee. The slow deliberateness of it suggested Leonardo. “Calm down, Salvatore. Don’t make a scene. Lorena looks stressed enough as it is. Dolcezza, it’s very rude to leave your sunglasses on in a restaurant. Please, if you would?”

Her glasses were already sliding down her nose from the sweat. She took them off, folded them up, and put them in her pocket. The lights seemed so much more vibrant. The lamp burning on their white tablecloth was twice as bright, casting pink light on the soft white fabric of Leonardo’s suit and Sawyer’s gold cufflinks.

“And your scarf,” said Leonardo. His voice was soft. Patience wanted to argue. She liked arguing with him. But she knew now that submitting was better than making a scene.

Patience tugged her knot, and her voluminous hair cascaded past her collarbone. It was refreshing to let her head loose in this way. She was not used to being covered up.

Even if she did not like the way Leonardo stared at her.

“Let’s get down to business.”

“Please. We just sat down. Order a drink.”

A waiter was already approaching. Sawyer ordered a gin and tonic, Salvatore a whiskey. Leonardo requested a dark rich merlot. Patience asked for a coke. The girl didn’t care that the men stared at her in mixed horror and amusement. She needed to stay off alcohol for the baby. God help her if it was born deformed, just another blow to her life that she didn’t need.

Patience focused on the dull buzz of the conversation in the background. When Leonardo reached across the table to touch her arm, she started. “Did you not hear my question?”

The girl looked into his eyes. “I wasn’t listening.”

He was smiling in an odd, patient way. “Where did you get that cut on your face?”

Face burning, her hand went up to the line of neat stitching holding her scalp together. Leonardo mirrored her, lifting his hand to trace the faint scar by his hairline. “Now we match, see?”

She swallowed and looked away. “I fell and hit my head on my desk.”

“Oh, come on. You’re not that clumsy, Lorena. Tell me where you got it.”

Patience stared into his dark eyes. The flame was dancing off them, illuminating the blue, but it seemed to disappear when it reached his pupils. 

“Did you send him?” she asked.

His long lashes swept down. She couldn’t tell whether he was confused or not. His expression never changed. “Who?”

She stared at him for a long time. His face was as blank as a piece of paper. “What man?”

The girl had a sudden compulsion to reach forward and smooth the golden curls out of his face. He had been growing his hair out. It was long enough to brush the curve of his jaw. She could reach across so easily and do it.

“You don’t know?”

“Tell me right now. What man?”

He repeated the words, softer still. His dark, oppressive gaze was weighing on her. She was getting antsy. Could she excuse herself to the bathroom, maybe?

“Right, I think I’ll have the seared salmon,” Sawyer broke in, staring over the menu at them. “Leonardo, you should really try it, they give it a beautiful glaze before they serve it. You could learn a thing or two from them, really, you always seem to burn the scales off.”

Patience sipped on her coke, eying the painted vase filled with white roses. They weren’t like the cheap plastic flowers in diners and faux-fancy restaurants. These were the real deal, with feathery petals and a subtle, flowery scent.

“This thing of yours is destroying us,” said Leonardo. “Just stop dealing, and Alberto and Tommaso are willing you accept you back into the fold. I’ve talked to them.”

“Just like that? After killing half my men? Are you having one on me? What’s the fucking catch?”

“Well, you would be demoted, of course… possibly sent to federal prison for a couple years. Just to make sure you’re remorseful.”

“So what you’re saying is, you want me demoted to soldier, and thrown into the clink for the rest of my life?”

“I never said it would be easy. At least you would be able to keep your life.”

”I think it’s a good idea,” Patience broke in. “Your family would still be able to visit you, and your men would still be intact. Parole—“

“Shut the fuck up. Did I ask you anything? Keep your whore mouth shut when it comes to things you don’t understand.” His violent hissed voice made her recoil.

“Now, that’s no way to talk to a woman." Leonardo's voice was sharp.

“Fuck you. I found you in the opera house with your hand halfway up her cunt. Is that the right way to treat a woman?”

“Stop, don’t talk about that!” said Patience, sudden humiliation coloring her tone. The sole male at the table who hadn’t known about that occurrence looked shocked. Patience looked behind her to ensure nobody else had heard. Sweat blew across her face, and her free hand nestled in her crotch. For a moment, phantom pain lanced through her body.

“Now, now,” said Sawyer sharply. Patience was becoming aware of his purpose in this meeting—he kept their conversation on the right track and dissolved arguments, gently nudging them back to the matter at hand. Something she imagined he was rather good at doing in his professional life as an attorney. “We’re here for a reason. Whatever happened in the past, we need to focus on the here and now.”

“Ahh, what I’m offering you is more than you could expect, Salvatore,” Leonardo shifted, slender hand laid across his panama hat. “I’m sorry, Frank. So many people know murdering you will give them a boost in their organization. I offer you nothing but pure life. Take it, and you will live.”

“But if I don’t,” sneered Salvatore, “and more and more soldiers defect to me; because, let’s face it, half of them are on coke or heroin anyway… and I start becoming more of a threat… what will you do then?”

“Salvatore, we’ve known each other for a long time. You with your southern temper. You will not survive this war. We both know this.”

“You would be surprised,” said Salvatore under his breath. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

“Bats Malone? The transferal of power… you came out on top, but just barely. Have you forgotten that? Salvatore.” Leonardo’s voice was condescending. “If you barely survived that…”

“I did. I fucking survived. I had to strive—but I came out on top— I always do.”

“Strive? What an amusing way of putting it. You did a lot of things you did to get your place as boss. Malone’s family. What about that? His little babies? They were so sweet. Twins, only six months old.”

“Shut up,” said Salvatore. “I was young. I didn’t—“ He looked sideways at her. She could see sweat starting across his brow. “I didn’t mean to—“

“Make the deal, Salvatore. It’s better for me. It’s better for us. Listen to reason.”

Patience laid a hand across his tense bicep. The scar on his throat glared in the candlelight, and his eyes traveled to her. A sudden roasting smell entered her nasal passages. A waiter was unloading seared salmon onto the table. She lurched to her feet, her stomach heaving.

The raw, cooked scent pierced her throat, making old coca-cola and cheap hot dogs rise to her throat. She staggered a few steps back.

“Pati—Lorena?”

The girl took deep breaths. She was wearing a tight girdle to hold in her swollen belly. It restrained her bump, but shorted out her breaths and made it hard for her to gulp in air.

Patience was suddenly afraid. Leonardo’s eyes were like dark stones, and she could feel them boring into her back. His voice was deceptively gentle. “Are you all right?”

Am I all right? I’ve got your child inside me. She could imagine his slightly furrowed brow, a movement for his mask, and the dancing light deep in his eyes. Did he know? What if he knew?

He can’t know. He can’t know!

“I need to go to the bathroom,” she managed. “Upset stomach. I ate something bad earlier and I—and I—“

She staggered away, elbowing her way through the waiters and upsetting tables in her beeline to the bathroom.

The bathroom was clean. Pure porcelain. She bent over and vomited into a toilet, legs splayed out over the tiles.

Two women came in, chatting, and Patience could hear the conversation stop as they saw her skirt hiked up above her thighs, head hanging in the toilet.

She sat there for a while, juddering, as the woman and her friend gossiped nervously and exited. When the bathroom door swung shut, she lifted her head from the toilet.

Patience looked at herself hard in the mirror. Tangled hair, baggy eyes, undone buttons on her shirt. She looked like a harried office worker. Failing that, a prostitute. She was loathe to go out into the sea of cocktail dresses and tuxedos. Like she was in high school again, being tittered at in her ragged blouse and checked skirt. Or standing on the fringes of a client's party, trying to be unnoticeable but standing out in her ratty skirt suit, aware of all the eyes on her.

Patience buttoned her shirt, smoothed her hair with her fingers, and pushed the door open. She was wobbly on her feet, and her belly was still churning, but she felt well enough to slip down next to Salvatore. Their dinner was on the table, her salad glistening delectably in the candlelight.

But Salvatore was already standing up. Meal untouched, taking out a checkbook. “Patience, let’s blow. This is going nowhere.”

“Are you all right, Lorena?” asked Leonardo. “You had a bit of an episode, there. Do you need to lie down?”

She couldn’t wrest any meaning from his mildly concerned tone. Leonardo was sitting quietly, like a curled-up cat, watching under his eyelashes as Salvatore threw the checkbook down.

“Sal,” Patience hissed. “Have you—did you manage to come to an agreement?“

He gripped her elbow. “No. It was a mistake. All of this.” Something said had stressed him to the point of no return. His eyes were darting all around.

Leonardo stood up as soon as Sawyer did. “Please, let me escort you to down to your car.”

“No. Finish your damn dinner. After all, I paid for it. Let’s go home, Patience.”

So all of this was for nothing? Her teeth ground in anger. “If we can even make our way home,” she muttered testily to Leonardo. “With your fucking union strikers blocking the streets!”

“What can I do? They were angry about the vote recount.” Leonardo took a sip of his merlot. Patience wanted to splash it in his irritatingly placid face. “Which was a shameful crime, by the way. Those pollrunners… I compensated their families, but no one could give them their husbands and fathers back.”

Furious, Patience slammed her hands on the table. “You think you’re going to be mayor? You’ll never be mayor, Borghese. Because I’ll do anything to prevent it. Mark my words. You’ll never get the chance to ruin this city!”

She spat those last words in his face, but he didn’t seem bothered. Her nose was an inch away from his, so close she could see the curve of bone beneath his cheeks, the lightness of his eyelashes, and the flecks of dark floating in his iris.

“Have a safe trip home, dolcezza."

***

In the elevator, Patience rounded on Salvatore. “I thought you said this was going to be an end to the fighting! A ceasefire!”

“He had no intentions of brokering anything resembling a ceasefire. Just laughingly waving my failings in front of me. He did it for you, Patty, you know that? He just did it to make me look like a fool in front of you!” He slammed his fist into the wall.

Patience swallowed. “It—the whole thing went too well. He didn’t try anything. Nor did any of his men. This would have been a perfect opportunity. But he didn’t do anything.”

“If he had, I have a gun in my coat and would have blasted his pretty fuckin’ face to the ozone layer. He just wanted to tease me. Fucking prick. And now I’m out fifty dollars.”

Patience couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d been let off easy. Leonardo’s sedateness during the dinner didn’t sit well with her. It was just too strange that he let them go without a scuffle. He had them right where he wanted them, and did nothing.

Then again, she thought. I have no idea how his mind works. Maybe this was all in the plan. Maybe he just did it for giggles. Maybe he really did just want to know if I was safe. Leonardo… what goes on in your head?

“Sorry, I can’t come,” she said as he unlocked the car door. “I’m going to go poke around the city records and see if I can find that guy, Herman Walsh. I’ll take a taxi.”

He was in a hideous mood, she could tell. He cursed under his breath and slammed the door before leaning out the window. As she turned away, he gripped her chin in his rough fingers. “You've got to stop all this shit when we get married. No more sleuthing. No more being a private investigator. You’re not going to embarrass me by getting into trouble when there are bills to pay and babies to take care of. You’re a woman, Patience. Start acting like one.” He tightened his grip.

Patience jerked her chin out of his hand, face burning. A down payment on a house. Things were moving fast, too fast. She felt a distinct sickness in belly, unrelated to her pregnancy.

***

Nizzola’s office still had a light winking on the top floor, and when she entered, she was surprised to see the man himself, hunched over a typewriter. Paula was scribbling on a paper on the floor, legs splayed out under her pink dress.
His office was disorderly, as it always was (Benjamin’s secretary was more useless than tits on a bull, and could barely use a typewriter, let alone locate the trashcan), with papers scattered all over the desk and crumpled wads of typewriter sheets on the rug. Empty coffee mugs teetered on the edge of the desk.

“Why are you up so late, Ben?”

“I could ask the same of you, Miss Winslow.” He laughed.

Paula looked up. “Hi, Miz Patience. Can you take me to the park again soon? I want to play with Gina.”

“I’ll talk to Salvatore about it,” Patience promised. Nizzola sighed and crumpled up another paper. “I just can’t get this speech right. Nothing I write comes out the way I want it. It sounds so good in my head, but when I write it out it looks like—pardon my French—crap!” He threw the paper toward the trash, and missed it by a foot. “Why am I even bothering? Borghese’s speechwriters are leagues ahead, anyway…”

“It’s not the speechwriters,” said Patience, riffling around for the key inside the desk drawer. “Borghese’s just more likeable than you. Young, handsome, and striving for change. There’s nothing else that can capture ordinary Americans’ hearts like that. To them, you’re dreary and old-fashioned. Sorry, Ben, it’s the truth!” she held up her hands as he scowled at her. “Our only hope is to connect him with some crimes. And believe me, he’s committed plenty of them. Make him seem as corrupt as possible and you should breeze in. No one votes for a criminal, even if he does look like a movie star.”

“You’d be surprised,” muttered Benjamin. “I’ve been on the city council for ten years… the people of Garland City, my god… a bunch of escaped asylum patients would make better voters than them.”

“Hey, Ben, can I check the city records?” She extracted the key. “I want to look up someone. A criminal. He caused me some grief.” One of the best things about working for Benjamin Nizzola was that she had unfettered access to the city council files, while otherwise she would have had to request special permission.

“Oh, go ahead. Is it one of Borghese's men? Good luck getting beef on him, then. There’s nothing connecting him to anything. Zero. Zilch. Nada. You say we have to expose him as corrupt, but the problem is I don’t see any way to do that!” He held his head in his hands. “I looked through the records, nothing. Just some conviction when he was thirteen, for disorderly conduct. People won’t care about that. We all did our fair share of brawling when we were kids.”

“He’s a notorious pimp, and he runs illegal gambling establishments from here to Vegas. He’s so transparent his name might as well be fucking Corleone. How can people not see it?” 

“Look, Patience! I drew an elephant in a suit!"

The city records were in the same building as Nizzola’s office—since he sat on the council, he got an office right inside the building. She unlocked the door and switched on the lightbulb, which flickered before lighting up, illuminating the crowded room full of bookcases and files.

At least they're neater than the police office records, she thought to herself as she took her first armful of files and stacked it on the desk. G, H and W. Gompers, Hanley and Walsh.

No criminal files were available, even after she sifted through the cardboard folders for the better part of an hour. Her neck hurt. As she pored over mugshots, all of the men with similar names were clearly not the perp she was looking for. She found nothing even close to the Ernest Gompers, Herman Walsh, or John Hanley that had tried to kidnap her. Eventually she refiled the papers and snapped the light off, back aching and eyes drooping. Her ankles felt hurt and swollen—they always did lately. The baby was quite obviously making its presence known, and each backache or sharp pain in her belly just told her she was one day closer to delivery. She would need to see a doctor soon.

I don’t want to, her mind whispered silently. If she saw a doctor and made it official, the little secret kept inside her—between her and Salvatore—would be exposed to the world. And soon enough, it would find its way to Leonardo.

God knew what would happen then.

“You were in the city records room for a long time, Miss Winslow,” said Benjamin, trying to wrestle a jacket onto a protesting Paula. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

She sighed. “Nope. Better luck next time, I guess. I’ve had a lot of lucky breaks—guess it’s time I had a few disappointments.”

“If you want to look in the courthouse records, feel free to,” he said offhandedly, fitting Paula’s arm through a sleeve. Her heart leapt. “What?”

“Just tell the clerk I sent you. If there’s anything on this guy, you should be able to find it there.”

The Garland City Courthouse criminal records were kept under close lock and key—one needed to be in the court system, or high-level law enforcement, to access them. Every single arrest record, no matter how minor, was kept there. Patience had never been there before—and now Benjamin Nizzola was offering it to her, free of charge.

It had rained as they were inside the building, and as they emerged into the spring air, warm puddles were pooling on the asphalt. Paula giddily splashed in one as Benjamin riffled through his pockets for his keys. For a moment, he looked tired. “I’ll work on the speech tomorrow. It’s already ten, my wife is going to blow a gasket when I come back. She’ll think I’ve been out partying all night.”

“I’m sure she won’t. You’re not the type to blow tons of money on bars and hookers. Just explain you were here, with me.”

“All alone in an office building with a young, beautiful woman who has mob connections? I’m sure that will assuage her fears.” He laughed. After a moment she laughed too, although it was forced. Is it common knowledge that I’m mobbed up? She worried suddenly. Just how well-known am I? Salvatore said our relationship was under lock and key, but what if he was wrong? What if this comes back to bite me?

“Patience,” said Nizzola suddenly, his voice low and worried. “Did you—those pollsters, did they—you didn’t have anything to do with it, did you?”

His words made her throat short out in a brief thrill of panic. She gave another bark of laughter. “Nothing to do with me. I really don’t know what happened to them. This election’s been fraught since the beginning, Ben. There are a lot of people that want to see you win, and there’s a lot of people that want to see Leonardo win. And there’s not much we can do about it except wait for the killings to end.”

“I don’t like it. I don’t like it that men—people with families, lives—died because of me, even indirectly. My father always used to say, 'Once the sheepdog starts biting the sheep, it's no different from a wolf.' His father was from Naples, and my dad grew up right here, in Garland City. Dad had seen his fair share of murders, corruption, and crime, growing up. On both sides. Sometimes policemen and lawgivers, they’d be so dedicated to bringing the mob down, that in the end they’d bribe, steal, and murder—dispose of bodies, rig elections, silence those who spoke up against them. But if you’d ask them and confront them, they’d say it was all for the greater good. That even though they were as corrupt and evil as the mafia, they were morally superior, because they were against them instead of with them.

“And they would keep on shooting, beating, silencing, like nothing had ever happened. Their minds were clear and their consciences were clean. Even though in the end, if you looked at them and the mafia side by side, you’d see no difference. Like that last scene from Animal Farm. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.” He grinned shyly and scratched his head. “I wrote my master’s thesis on that book. I must have read it a hundred times.”

Patience looked out into the bare road, at the closed antiques shop opposite them on the street. The windows were dark, the faint figures of furniture lurking behind the veil of black. The Closed sign was hanging lopsided on the door. She blinked. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which. Patience wondered how she appeared from the outside. A whore and mafia girlfriend, who fucked a notorious criminal, and ordered the murders of innocent political enemies without a single shred of remorse.

“I’d better get going,” Patience said. “Doesn’t the courthouse close at midnight?”

”That it does. Sorry to keep you.” Benjamin finished buckling his daughter in and turned to her with a smile. “I’ll see you next week, I suppose. Enjoy your weekend, Miss Winslow. Lord knows, I’ll probably spend all of it slaving away over a typewriter.”

Paula Nizzola turned and waved at Patience from the back window, but she barely registered it. After the car disappeared around the corner. She stood there for a long time, the silence ringing in her ears.

I’m different from them, she thought. When Nizzola is elected, he’ll shut this all down. I don’t do this because I like it. It’s a necessity. Things will change when Benjamin is elected. There won’t be any more murders. No more mob wars. He’ll help me prosecute Borghese, and later, the rest of them. Then no more mafia. He wants the same thing I want.

She stepped out to hail a taxi.

***

The courthouse loomed in front of her, a white behemoth in the warm New York night. Stars sparkled behind it, dwarfed by the bright yellow lamplights lining the staircase. It had been so long since she had seen it—the last time, Patience had been a furious, spunky, determined private investigator, shoving her face into Borghese’s and yelling his sins against him.

Now, she could never imagine herself doing the same thing. She stood silently to the side, waiting for the cars to pass, before hesitantly clicking her way across the street, arms clasped close together.

Patience passed the massive stone steps, nodding at visitors. The lawyers and sheriffs barely noticed her. The paralegals she could tell, women like her, in skirt suits, blouses, and padded coats. A long time ago she could have been one of them.

Patience told the clerk who sent her, and was granted entry within minutes. She entered a massive room—so long she couldn’t see the end of the bookcases. The ceiling was gray marble, and so was the floor.

And it was organized perfectly.

The last names were lined up in the polished wooden shelves, completely organized. The tips of the folders all stuck out in a perfectly symmetrical fashion. It took only a few minutes of perusing for her to find the man she was looking for.

No John Hanley, or Ernest Gompers. Instead, it was Herman Walsh.

He had only one file. An arrest for attempted assault in Garland City, New York State. The mugshot, the jowly, scowling features, matched perfectly. What got her mind going was his place of residence: Kissimmee, Florida.

Florida. That narrowed it down. She suspected neither Leonardo nor Salvatore wanted to kill her. But there were numerous men in Florida who wanted her dead.

And that was the last piece of the puzzle. Bianconi, or Cardinale?

Had they found out her identity? The facts matched up. One of them had to have paid the man to kidnap and kill her, either for revenge or to ensure no one got their hands on those files she had stolen. Her stomach queasy, she brought the file over to the brand new copy machine and made photocopies of it.

The court records room was eerily silent, and she could feel her paranoia rising because of it. Each stray footstep down the looming rows of files made her check behind her shoulder. Goosebumps rose on her slender neck and shoulders. Her blouse exposed a fair amount of skin, and she could almost feel Leonardo’s eyes on her exposed breasts.

No matter now. He’s not here.

Patience checked the clock on the wall. Half an hour before closing time. Since she was here, she might as well make the most of her time. She looked up B for Borghese, and found only one slim file on the son. Leonardo had no doubt expunged most of the other critical records on himself. Corrupt motherfucker. And she bet the file clerks had done it without any qualms whatsoever.

She took out and flipped it open. One conviction for disorderly conduct, when he was thirteen. The familiar, adorable mugshot was there, staring at her in black-and white. A little angel, pouty lips and rosy cheeks. Who could convict a little cherub like that? Apparently the judge had, sentencing him to two months. He was released in four weeks for good behavior.

As Patience replaced the papers, her attention was drawn to the dark, musty file beside it. Silvio Borghese, said the typewritten letters on the tab. It looked like it had not been withdrawn for a decade.

Silvio. The originator of everything. The progenitor, the Sicilian father, the one who had ruined and tormented the little Leonardo. The one who had turned the innocent Leonello to the unforgiving Leonardo Borghese. The dark, angry-eyed man with pitch-black hair and blue eyes.

Patience yanked it out in a cloud of dust, and nearly dropped it from its heaviness. As the girl thumbed through the crumbling pages, she was struck by the amount of photographs. There were so many of them, with similarly black-suited men—one she recognized by the roguish smile as being Tommy Bianconi, at a pool table with Silvio.

Another had Charles Sawyer next to Silvio Borghese. Both were grinning. Charles was young and blond, with his hair swept back. Silvio had some silver streaks, but he was still dark-haired, smiling wanly at the camera. She could see the resemblance between him and his son, the proud Roman nose, the musculature and broad shoulders. And his eyes, dark holes, like his son’s.

Three accounts of rape. Two of those accounts of rape had been in Italy. Patience wondered if Leonardo had any brothers or sisters in the old country.

One account of child abuse. That was the only one that was listed. It had no details.

Two accounts of murder. In America.

Six accounts of aggravated assault.

Five of pimping.

Four of fraud.

Ten of racketeering.

She thumbed through Silvio’s portfolio. The man had been ludicrously prolific—as the father and founder of the Borghese family, he had committed numerous crimes and participated in a lot of corruption, many of which were catalogued here. She could barely believe this man had raised a child, in between all the rape, slaughter and jail time. His criminal file was a mile long. But his son’s was incredibly slim.

Patience thumbed to the last page of Silvio’s Borghese’s criminal record. The file was so thick that she put a shoe on the metal shelf and rested it on her knee. It ended there, in 1949, the date of his death. He had just gotten out of a long stint in prison on racketeering charges.

He had been tortured and murdered inside of his own home, just after attaining freedom. Even with all the evil deeds on his record, she felt a little sorry for him. Had to have been a hell of a way to go.

As she moved to slide it back into the shelf, a small cardboard folder slipped out to hit the floor. She picked it up. It had been stuffed into Silvio Borghese’s records—probably a misfile. She took a cursory glance and recognized the mugshot with a jolt.

It was Leonardo, as a young man—around the same age as when he had committed the crime that set her permanently on his trail. Sixteen or seventeen, young and pretty, looking like an altar boy with his delicate curls and sorrowful expression. The sole conviction on the file was for pimping—collecting money from prostitutes of a Maine Street brothel, apparently on behalf of his father. So little Leonardo was in the family business already.

It was fairly minor conviction, but it proved one thing: that he hadn’t come clean after childhood. Even as a young adult, he was complicit in mob affairs, no matter how peripherally.

Patience made copies at the copying machine, her hands shaking. What a stroke of luck this had been. Some absent-minded clerk had forgotten to check the first name and slid the file into the father’s instead of the son’s.

“Courthouse is closing!” shouted someone from the hallway. “Everyone in the records room, please collect your things and leave the building!”

The copies safely in her purse, she left the room just as the lights went out.

***

The taxidriver was playing loud rock and smoking a cheap cigarette, so Patience covered her nose with her sleeve and looked moodily out the window. Her mind drifted back to Flora. She felt sick to her stomach—whether from the smoke, or the prospect of coming back and seeing Flora’s hurt face, she didn’t know. Patience had been gone all day, and it was past midnight. God knew what Flora thought she was doing.

I should have turned back, she thought. I should have told her I was fine, that I wasn’t in danger. I should have just written off this whole night and stayed with her. I should have hugged her and kissed her and told her everything was okay. And God, I should have apologized. Apologized for every shitty lie I told her, every night I vanished, every fake date I was on.

But she hadn’t. Patience had felt like Orpheus—if she looked back once, she was lost forever. She told Flora her lies and walked down the street without a second glance.

The glowing neon lights of a theater flashed by her window, bold black letters spelling out the name of the films they were playing.

When I come back, I’ll tell her I’m sorry over and over. Like a good daughter would. I’ll stop lying to her. I don’t care if Salvatore beats me and yells at me. I’ll let her know everything about what I’m doing, everything that’s happened between the mob and me, the campaign, the meetings, the murders, our plans. Maybe she’ll understand. I sure hope so.

Patience tipped her driver and stepped onto the street. The sight of her house was comforting—the little brick one-story suburban house with the green roof and neatly-swept stairwell. Little rows of tulips lined the walls, fresh and lipstick red after the spring rains. The night was mild. Moths, lured out by the warmth, bounced fruitlessly off the street light.

She climbed the stone steps and knocked on the white door. After waiting for the telltale steps to echo down the hallway, and hearing none, she knocked again. The street was quiet, except for the sound of her knuckles on the wood. Crickets chirped faintly, playing their love songs to their girl crickets.

Patience tried the doorknob, and to her surprise, it was unlocked. Flora always locked her door. 

The hallway light was on. It was quiet inside the house, overly so. She couldn’t hear the sewing machine running, tap-tap-tap-tap, or hear Flora bustling in the kitchen.

A queer feeling came over her. Something’s not right.

“Flora?” she called. “Where are you?”

Patience snapped the light off as she rounded the corner—Flora always turned the lights off when she went to bed. The living room light was on, too. As she looked in to switch it off, her heart jolted—the coffee table was turned over, and the lamp was lying busted on the floor.

On the other side of the room, the sewing machine table was lying on its side, the machine cracked and needles littering the floor.

Shards of vase crushed into the rug as she trod over them with her heels to right the table. “Flora?” she called, her voice trembling.

The house was silent.

The air hitting her face was warm, but her insides were cool as ice. A wave of prickles swept down her body.

Her breaths came in short, shaky gasps, sounding too loud, much too loud in the quiet house. She ran back to the hallway. “Flora!” she cried. "Flora!"

As she stared down the dark hallway, she noticed that one light was on—the one leading to the kitchen.

She groped for the switch. “Flora?”

There was a leg lying half-in, half-out of the kitchen doorway. In the dim light, she could see the edge of a nightgown cling to its kneecap.

Sweat began to pool down her neck, and her legs felt weak and filled with water. Her breath froze in her throat.

The leg was bloody.

 

 

“Flora?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Her body moved before she did.

When Patience was a small girl, her parents would take her to see movies sometimes, for a special treat. When her father came back from a long trip, there they would be, in a theater with a golden bucket of popcorn between them. Little Patience would watch with wide eyes the latest Hollywood feature, starring women with big dark lashes and moon-pale skin. The black-and-white film flickered before her eyes. The scenes there were distant, two-dimensional, a faraway fantasy land removed from her living, breathing reality. Yet, just in front of her, they were so real. Like the villains in the black-and white features would reach their claws through the screen and grab onto her.

It seemed like that now. Her body was running down a hallway, but she was floating above herself like a distant spectator, watching her body sprint and reach the kitchen. Yet she could name every sensation she felt, every fiber of carpet under her shoes, every drop of sweat and warm tear brimming in her eyes.

The blood soaked into her clammy hands with a jolt.

The nightgown was sticking to her body. The woman’s body. Flora’s body. Blood. And something pale that trickled through her fingers.

Flora’s chest expanded under her hands. She was torn open, Patience thought. On the floor.

The woman’s body was ruined and ravaged. Her face was a mass of bloodshot bruises, red hair plastered to her face, legs skewed and bent under her nightgown. The woman’s mouth was gaping and dribbling with white, running down to cake her neck. Her eyes stared ahead, at the ceiling, like the glass eyes of a doll.

The nightgown was split down the middle, revealing breasts caked with red and dented with livid purple bite marks. Wet, sticky red, and something white—something white and runny—stained her nightgown, trickled down her breasts. Blood and—and—

Flora’s eyes fluttered under their shelf of bruises, and blearily focused on Patience. “Payshe,” she mumbled through broken teeth.

“Flora,” said Patience, tripping over her own tongue, stumbling over her words, “I’m calling the police right now, stay where you are, I’ll—they’ll—I’ll get an ambulance—“

“No,” rasped Flora, and her voice was suddenly stronger. Her fingers gripped Patience’s arm, her eyes dancing with a sick flame of humiliation. “Don’t, don’t call anyone, no, no, please don’t—” her voice broke again, and her weight pressed on Patience’s arm as her body gave up.

“Okay,” whispered Patience, holding her close, just wanting her to be okay, to be comforted. “I’m going to—get you clean, okay?”

Patience slid an arm around her back. The woman was heavier than she had known. But she had never carried Flora before. Flora had always carried her.

The bathroom was white. Just like Patience remembered. With two women sharing the same bathroom, it had been disorganized but spotless, with only brief spats about the toothbrushes and the amount of shampoo they used. Patience had spent many a day beside Flora, brushing her teeth, flossing, gossiping as they both prepared to start their day. Like a mother and daughter, squabbling and laughing and living together.

She turned on the faucet. The clear water gushed out of the shining metal spigot, spreading onto the porcelain in a warm pool.

Patience tested the water. Too hot. No, too cold. What kind of temperature did Flora like? She had never bothered to ask.

When the water was brimming, she gently peeled the nightgown off her—crying silently at the way it slid from between her legs—and slowly lowered Flora into the bathwater.

The woman’s body bloomed with bruises, marring the lightness of her areola, edging into her red lips, and staining her thighs. Faint stretch marks scarred the skin of her belly, worming their way like snakes down to the scruff of red hair between her thighs.

Patience slid a rag over her belly, over her legs. The caked red blood washed away. The flakes of white and red dissolved into the bathwater, spreading opaque into the clearness of the tub.

She cupped water and spread it over Flora’s face. The drops dripped down her face, pooling in pinkish puddles on the hollow of her neck. Small, frail freckles were revealed, as well as large purple blotches and massive caked ridges of blood.

The ridges weren’t washing off, the ones swelling in bumps on her cheek and her nose. As the black blood flakes disappeared, Patience realized that it wasn’t bruises that were scarring her face.

It was the unsteady path of a tattoo needle that spelled

S L U T

Across her face.

Flora’s warmth burned underneath her hands in the lukewarm water.

“Tell me,” said Patience. “Tell me who did this.”

The older woman’s head lolled backwards. Her eyes were empty.

“Flora, please, please, just tell me!” her voice broke.

Flora’s eyes flickered. The damaged ink twitched on the edges of her eye. “I was in the kitchen. I heard a knock. I thought it was you. Four men were at the door. Four men. And that man. The Italian. That man.” Her voice was a low, barely audible rasp.

A strange chill began to numb her legs. “What man?”

“They… the four, the big one hit me in the face. I ran to the kitchen, I was screaming, I said I’d call the police. They began to hit me. Tore my nightgown. Started to punch me. None of them said anything. He was watching. I ran to the living room, I was bleeding, screaming. They began to kick me. One forced me onto my knees.”

Drip drip, went the water into the bathtub.

“All four of them. Until I was crying, they, one after another—and they hit and kicked me, punched me, used me, on my knees and back. One of them took out a needle, a gun, and it began to buzz. My face hurt so much. And he just sat there. At the table. He ate a slice of pie. And he was laughing. He was smiling.”

That man.

Salvatore.

The realization came to Patience coldly—almost unbelievably. Her mind struggled to comprehend it. Salvatore, his dark hair blowing across his brow, his smile, a cigarette held loosely between his fingers.

He—why did he—

Patience held Flora close and pulled the plug. She wrapped her in a dirty towel and staggered into her bedroom.

Flora had made the bed perfectly, the duvet tucked under the pillow, the flower vase outlined against the night window. Flora had always liked her room to be neat, and with the cleanliness of a grandmother, had arranged everything to be subtle and clean. Patience peeled back the covers and slid the older woman under them. The flickering yellow light shadowed under her eyes, the mole on her neck, all the details Patience had never bothered to memorize.

The ink was burned permanently across her face in a harsh line.

Patience took her shoulder in her trembling hand. “Everything’s okay.” Even if nothing was. “It’s all over now, Flora.”

The woman didn’t answer. She was somewhere far away. The only sign of her being alive was the gentle rise and fall of her chest.

Patience switched the lamp off and closed the door gently behind her, being careful not to slam it. The carpet was soft under her heels, and Mickey brushed by her ankles on the way to his food dish.

She emerged in the torn-up living room. Mind running on autopilot, she crossed to right the coffee table. It made a small thunk as she put it upright.

The shards of the lamp were cleanly swept up and dumped into the trashcan. She took the cracked sewing machine and carefully steadied it on its table. After that, she carefully plucked each needle from the carpet fibers and put them in their plastic case.

To look at the room now, one could hardly think that there had been a terrible crime committed there. The coffee table was in front of the sofa. The surface of the rug was a bit ruffled. The sewing machine was propped up on its table, a harsh crack on its plastic casing, but solid and intact.

Patience stood there for a long time, listening to the silence. The silence of the street outside, in the sleepy families in the houses on their street, in the peacefulness and darkness of their suburb.

The velvet of the sofa was soft under her fingers. It felt like the hide of a black panther, silky smooth.

The edge of her wrist nudged against something hard and sharp. Her copy of Roughing It was sitting, concealed by the cushions of the sofa.

She stared at the book for a long time. Her tongue was dry. The brown letters imprinted themselves onto her mind.

A car zoomed past the house. Its headlights flashed across the yellow wallpaper and the owl clock with the eyes that moved back and forth in time to the pendulum.

Flora had been beaten and gang-raped.

And Patience was too busy having dinner with criminals to notice.

She snatched the book and flung it against the far wall. It slammed against the wall and flopped on the floor, its spine bent as the papers crushed underneath it.

Patience stomped on it, over and over until pain jarred up her leg, then she turned and flung it at the window. Sobs burst out of her throat in waves, coming over and over as her fury and grief overwhelmed her.

This was her fault. She had extended a hand to Salvatore—with his eyelashes, and the way he smiled at her, and his protective arm around her—and she allied with him, and sat by his side, and looked into his eyes. And she had thought, at least he’s not Leonardo. She had seen his brutality over and over, and put it out of her mind. At least he’s not Leonardo. He had shoved his cock into her, hit her until she cried, and tortured a man to death in front of her eyes.

But at least he’s not Leonardo.

Patience was screaming now, all her emotions, her rage and hate coming out. She shredded the pages with her feet, destroying the dog-eared copy. Her knees hit the ground, her chest convulsing and wails coming out one after another. Maybe the neighbors would hear her, and call the police. But if they had not when Flora was being raped, then she doubted they would now.

Why could he how could he why why why she knew he hated Flora, she knew he despised her for meddling with her and him. But she thought of him, his soft face as he held Gina in his arms, and as he looked over in the car at her like she was the only woman in the world, and some innocent part of her wondered how?

He’s a mafioso. He makes his living on suffering.

Patience had made the biggest mistake of her life by allying with him.

And Flora had paid for it.

She pressed her face into the carpet, crying so hard her throat ached, her knees digging into the scratchy fibers. In a room far away, Mickey was eating cat food, without a care in the world. Somewhere, in a room far away, Leonardo was putting on music and lying back with a glass of dark wine. Somewhere, Salvatore was stretched out on his bed, the mattress bare under his body. Maybe he was smoking a cigarette, his eyes dark showing smug satisfaction at how he taught that red-haired bitch a lesson.

***

Patience did the dishes. Each clink of the silverware reminded her of when she lived alone, in that dingy apartment stripped of decoration or color. Flora’s house was modest and bright, made of pink embroidery and tabby cat kittens, the house of a woman whose children had all moved out.

Even if, of course, it wasn’t. Because Caroline was rotting in an abandoned grave.

A bird twittered from outside. She opened the window above the sink and let the fresh morning air blow the curtains back.

Mickey brushed around her ankles, and she bent down to run her soapy hands along his back. He mewed in offense and dashed away. He really was a fusty old thing, wasn’t he?

She returned to the dishes, listening to the quietness outside and inside. Flora was usually awake by now—either preparing for work, or doing some early-morning chores. Patience had often teased her that she liked having someone to clean up after—it satisfied the nesting instinct of an older woman.

Patience slid the last plate into the rack, dried her hands, and went into her own bedroom. She unearthed her files from underneath the bed and went through every single one, every photograph and recording and document, and carefully isolated the ones pertaining to Salvatore Mallozzi. She pried up the floorboard and arranged them under the wooden plank, before shoving it shut and stomping on it to make sure it wedged correctly.

Then she pulled on a skirt and an unwashed blouse and left the house. The lock clicked silently behind her.

Patience could barely bring herself to care that her hair was ratty, or her skirt was crumpled. It wasn’t about her. It was about the woman lying comatose in her bed inside the house, a permanent stamp across her face that ended her life. It was about justice. Justice that she had ignored for so long, that she had put her hands over her ears and turned her back on. Justice that needed her, and her alone to mete out.

The twitters of the birds echoed lightly in the air as Garland City roused itself from slumber. The streets were quiet, with only few pedestrians hurrying to their early morning jobs. Most of them sidestepped the girl hurrying in the middle of the sidewalk, her hands fists at her sides and her shoes slamming on the pavement.

Patience could feel the cold steel of the revolver against her thigh, tucked into the front of her skirt. The crisp spring air had the distinct smell of car exhaust and dripping leaves. She breathed it in, allowing it to fan the flames inside her.

After so long, her mind was clear. A wire had been tripped. For the sake of Flora, she was going to end this.

***

The hand-painted sign of the butcher shop came into view, peeling letters in red paint. Her legs moved faster, heels thudding on the concrete. A gray waft of wind blew her hair back. When she saw the familiar dark head of hair, the ground seemed to freeze.

Salvatore was leaning back, safe in the sleepiness of the early-morning city, his playing cards lying spread out before him as he laughed and chatted with Jack Salandra. Luca was leaning against the side of the butcher shop, smoking a cigarette. Wasn’t Luca dead? A different Luca, maybe.

Salvatore was wearing a white shirt and suspenders, elbow casually resting on the woodcut table. His dark hair was messy in the way it often was when they had sex, and for a moment she felt the roughness of his fingers inside her, and the harsh press of his mouth against her. She had brushed it away before now—it’s a necessary evil.

Patience lightly touched his shoulder. He turned halfway, neck bending, his eyelashes dark and his eyes bright. He had a white-toothed smile. “Patty girl, what are you—“

She drove her revolver into his face.

The crack of his facial bones shattering jarred up her arm. She felt his nose and cheekbones turn to putty as she slammed the iron gun into his face again and again. His arm went up as he thrashed his head from side to side, but she was already halfway onto his lap, one leg spread over his waist as she battered him with the butt of her revolver.

Her breaths burst out in harsh sobs, a low howl of fury erupted from her throat. “You motherfucker you cocksucker you evil son of a bitch—“ And it wasn’t just anger, it was betrayal and disappointment too, the banter they had shared, the feeling of reciprocity when they both voiced their hatred of Leonardo.

Patience was tossed back as he threw her off, and her heels skidded on the concrete. She staggered to keep her balance as Salvatore stood up.

“What the fuck is your problem? Cazzo! You god damn crazy bitch, this is broad daylight!” Salvatore wiped his wrist over his nose, smearing blood across his face. His face was a mask of fury.

A dozen yells and shouts sounded around her, and a pair of hands yanked her backwards. She stumbled past the ridge of the sidewalk and into the bare street.

Patience aimed her gun at the man pulling her. She fired one shot, and it ricocheted off the chipped side of the butcher shop. The man in the long coat stepped backwards. The harsh sound rang in her ears for a long time.

Salvatore stiffened, every muscle stilling as his black eyes fixed on the dark hole of her revolver. He was at an angle that she was familiar with—still but tense, his muscles firm and ready to attack when an opportunity opened. His nose was bent sideways, gushing blood past his lips and bared teeth.

“One more movement,” she said through gritted teeth, “And you buy it.” Her finger twitched on the trigger. She wanted the blood of a bullet hole to join the blood that already streamed down his face. Patience would do it. She could look into his dark eyes and pull the trigger like he was a hitman cornering her in a mansion, seeing the blood flow from his glassy eye.

Flora’s broken body hovered in her gaze—a violated, destitute body of a woman who had comforted and held her close. Flora was warmth. She was warmth while he was flame, kind eyes while his were sharp pieces of coal, softness when he was harsh edges, gentleness when he was cruelty.

Patience’s finger tightened.

“It’s over,” she said, breaking the thin sheet of silence over the street. He was glaring at her in his high-strung way, in that I can’t believe you just did that way, that you’ll regret this when this is over way, that way she had feared she would have to get used to when he put a ring on her finger.

Patience hated. She hated the thought of him sitting at a table, carelessly eating a piece of pie as he laughed at the violation of a woman who had selflessly cared for Patience beyond her capabilities. Just because he didn’t want her to go to the fucking police.

She hated the thought of how easily it fit in her mind. Salvatore would do that, because he was the kind of person who would do that. And she had ignored it. She had put it out of her mind, because they had a common goal, and that was all that really mattered.

“Everything is over,” she said. “This ends now. Don’t contact me. Don’t contact Nizzola. Stay away from the campaign. If I ever see you outside my house, I’ll file a restraining order, and that’s if I don’t kill you first. I never want to see your face again.” She meant every word. She spat them.

“You women.” His contemptuousness made her want to scream. “Always something with you, isn’t it?” Not seeming to be bothered at all, he sniffed a trail of blood into his nose and smoothed his hair back. “What’s the reason for this latest tantrum? Come inside and stop fucking embarrassing me, Patty.” His voice dropped on the last line, edging into the familiar black humorlessness that tipped her off that he was becoming annoyed.

“No.”

Patience was very aware of the presence of his men, all watching them closely, ready to intervene at any moment. She stepped forward and pressed the barrel to his pale, bleeding lips, feeling a bitter, perverse surge of delight at how that caused a fresh stream of blood to trickle down his chin.

“I can’t believe I didn’t see what was in front of me, all this time.” She tried to keep the waver out of her voice, but it was there, trembling and taut like a thread about to snap. I didn’t want to believe it. “You’re evil, Salvatore, you’re just as evil as Leonardo, only you make more excuses for it. Taking up with you was the worst mistake I ever made.” Ice water was flowing out of her throat. “It was the worst mistake I ever made!”

Patience saw every movement, every pulse of his veins, every spasm in his pale throat, his chipped fingernails curling into fists. He was someone who would have catcalled her on the street, someone she would have crossed the sidewalk to avoid. He was a degenerate, a criminal, and she had gotten into bed with him.

Why?

“Why are you doing this shit?” Salvatore hissed. He took an ominous step forward, but she didn’t back away. “Is this about the baby? Put the gun down and come inside.”

Patience kept her feet planted on the ground. Her heel was hurting. The scar on her left ankle was aching, digging needles deep into her Achilles’ tendon.

“Flora,” she said. “Why did you do it to her? Why did you hurt her like that? Don’t you know how much I love her? Why did you do it to her?" Flora was ruined and ravaged beyond repair, with a harsh, permanently marked black scar across her face that ended any hope of employment or marriage or life.

Fresh tears started in her eyes, restrained for so long. Flora was at the sewing machine, fixing a skirt or blouse she had grown out of, always with her needles in her mouth and her long eyelashes tipped downwards. Flora was cooking, the gentle rattles of pot lids and the savory smell of pot roast drifting through the air.

Like the mother she had lost so long ago. Something she had never really appreciated until it was no longer there.

Patience’s words sent him into a blacker rage. Salvatore’s lips curled back, exposing pale and splintered teeth. “She’ll fucking recover. Is that all this is? Some bitch getting what’s coming to her?”

“You watched.”

“Watched? I gave that cunt everything she deserved.”

His crude dismissal made her breath short out and her tears flow thicker. There really was nothing redeemable about you, was there?

“No. You’ve always been a murderer, Salvatore. You’ve always been a rapist. And no matter how many nieces and nephews you dote on, no matter how many times you tell me you love me, you will always be the same person. The same person I never should have met.”

Salvatore’s deep breaths were loud in the early morning quiet of Little Italy, like the huffs of a bull.

In the wet sheen over Salvatore’s dark eyes she saw the shattered skull of John Hanley, the anonymous agony of the man on the chair in Bianconi’s house, and her silent scream as he forced his cock into her, his hands soaked with blood.

His growl deepened, a deep, hoarse part of it trying to be comforting. “You need to quiet down. We can get past this. We’re going to be husband and wife—“

“We aren’t,” she said. And maybe it was the way she said it—bitter and toneless and truthful—but in his eyes she could see the thought take hold. Something began to dissolve in those black depths.

“I love you and you love me. You said, you said as much—“

“I never loved you, Salvatore,” she broke in shortly. “Everything I did, every touch I gave you, it was calculated. It was to make you do what I wanted. Every tender word, every soft touch, every—the way I looked at you, Sal? It was all a lie. I never loved you. I never even liked you. You were a dog for me to use.” Just like you used me.

It was true. The way Patience used her cunt, the way she kissed him, every time she forced herself to touch him. It felt like a baptism to let it out.

The street was silent, onlookers staring wordlessly. Salvatore and Patience were in a bubble, a silent space between the two of them. The white sign inside the butcher’s door read OPEN.

Patience knew him so well. She knew when he was on the edge of losing it. But this was something different. This was like watching an animal being tortured.

His face was blazing and pale with anger, chest heaving with repressed sobs. She continued to speak, relishing in the way he broke down further, even as her chest tightened as each tear made their way down his cheek.

“Do you think I ever held a modicum of sympathy for you? What a joke. I tolerated you so far as I could be sure you would win Nizzola for mayor. But the moment this happened, the moment you did this...”

He slammed his arm forward, gripping her throat and dragging her towards him. “You liked it,” he said, and his voice was a hoarse, raw, desperate growl. “You simpered over me and blushed over me. You’re just as complicit in this as I am, Patty. You told me to kill those people. You stuck your hand in my pants and you, you, you did all of this. Fucking whore!”

She heard his voice break into a half-sob, barely restrained for not wanting to lose his composure in front of his men. It was cracking and trembling with a quality she had never heard before, something that made his fingers tighten and his neck spasm.

Salvatore’s eyes were so human. They were of a murderous torturer and criminal. They were the eyes of a lover and brother and father.

Patience yanked her head back and shoved the barrel into his face. “Don’t touch me. We’re through. We’re over. Salvatore, we had nothing.”

We had nothing.

And they hadn’t, really. Even whatever vestigial, forced shreds of affection she had carried for him in her heart, they had all been blown away as the veil was torn from her eyes.

“I’ve just realized now what you were. What you always were. Goodbye.”

As she turned away, a hand gripping her shoulder stopped her. “Don’t you dare walk away. You’re having my goddamn child. Turn around, Patty, look me in the fucking eyes.”

She did. And as she met his dark, frightened gaze, she spat out the last bitter, damning confession.

“It’s not yours, Salvatore. It’s Leonardo’s.”

Patience had seen cruelty in his eyes, she had seen indignation, she had seen mirth and happiness. An unstable array of emotion, one shifting to another as easy as breathing. A volatile mix of domination, affection, and fury. But she had never seen them go blank like this.

For the briefest second, his face was of a man whose world was pulled out from under his feet. It was slack, blank. It was the split second between realization and despair, of a man whose life was being shattered, and who had no way of stopping it.

It was all a lie.

His hand dropped limply.

Patience began to walk away, slowly, towards the edge of the building. Warm blood trickled down her wrist, onto the concrete. She felt every pair of eyes on her, every jarr her sharp heel made on the concrete making its way up her left leg.

There was no sound behind her. Not a footstep, nor a voice.

She was wet between her thighs. Her mental snapshot of his face was causing something hot and strange to rise within her, not comfort, but something deep and primal. Something cruel.

As she rounded the corner, she began to walk faster, and faster, until she broke into a run.

***

The sun was high in the sky when she came back, dappling light though the pale leaves onto her freshly-mowed green lawn.

The house was quiet, as it usually was this early in the morning. Patience let Mickey out as she opened the front door, and securely locked it behind her. The curtains were still down, shrouding the inside in musty darkness.

Patience walked down the dark hall—she knew the way so well, she didn’t need light. Just a hand pressed securely over the smooth wooden wall.

As she opened the door, she noticed Flora had moved in her sleep. The bright sunlight shone in thin slivers over the pink bedcovers, shaded with hills as her legs made lumps under the covers.

“Flora,” the girl said, trying to keep her voice quiet. The older woman’s scarlet hair slid over the pillow as she turned her head to face her.

“Salvatore and I are done. I broke with him, and his gang. It’s all over, Flora. He can’t hurt you any more. Our hard times are over.” My baby has no father. Our campaign has ended.

Flora’s brown eyes stared blankly at Patience, like the eyes of an owl. Shining and empty. Bruises from the tattoo were forming over her forehead, swelling her puffy lips. “Home.”

“What?”

“I want to go back home. Back to Kentucky. Take me back home. I want to…to…”

A loud chirp of a bird drowned her voice.

“The cucumbers in the gardens. They were so sweet. The peppers. Momma hung them on strings in the kitchen window. The kittens used to bat at them with their little paws.”

Her voice was a thousand miles away.

“Take me back home, Patience.”

There was no home. Not anymore. Her brothers and sisters had left and married. Her daughter was gone. Her Kentucky home was bulldozed.

But her mind was in a sunnier place. She was back in the fields of sunny grass, feeling the warm ground under her feet, seeing a brown deer leap out of sight, playing peek-a-boo with her brother with the broken shingles on a cabin.

Patience sat at her bedside for a long time. She memorized each and every pockmark, freckle and clumped eyelash, and the texture of her lips as they hung open.

The first time she had seen Flora, her face was hidden beneath her cloche hat, wrinkles concealed by makeup. When Patience had crawled onto her doorstep, Flora’s hands had been holding her nightgown closed, but her face was bright in the light and her dark, worried eyes. She had put Patience in her bed, and stroked her head like a mother, and told her everything was going to be all right. Though she knew she could be killed, Flora sheltered her and cared for her and protected her at risk to her own life.

The sudden ringing of a phone in the living room startled Patience. She stood up to answer it before Flora stirred from sleep.

“Hello?”

“Who is this? Put Haywood on, please,” said the irritable voice.

“I’m sorry, Flora can’t come to the phone right now.”

“Well, then, tell her if she doesn’t show up soon, she might as well say goodbye to next week’s salary. If she doesn’t come by tomorrow, that means next month’s salary!” His voice was heavy and irritated. “That lazy bitch… she needs to come as soon as possible. Tell her to call back as soon as she can.”

The phone line had a moment of silence.

“No,” said Patience.

“Pardon?”

“I said no. I know who you are. You’re her boss who keeps her extra hours because she’s a single mother. You’re the one who calls her a slut behind her back and won’t promote her while she’s struggling to keep up with her mortgage.”

“Listen to me. Put her on the line, and maybe I won’t fire her. I don’t know what delinquent she has living with her, but she and I going to be having a talk if you don’t put her on the phone now.”

“You are going to let her off. Because she’s ill and hurt. She’s been working like a slave for you too long. You won’t take advantage of her anymore. But if you do, I’m going to make sure there are repercussions.”

The voice was offended and blustering. “And who, exactly, are you?”

“No one important. But what is important is that I know one Leonardo Borghese and Salvatore Mallozzi. And both are quite willing to put… sanctions on you if I tell them to.”

It’s all a lie. There are no sanctions to place. There are no men to place them. But her tone was flat and dead enough, and at the mention of the names he fell silent.

“Flora is not up to attending work this week. Or the next. In fact, until I give you confirmation, she is on fully paid leave. Is that clear?” Patience said.

“Y-Yes,” said the other voice in a waver, suddenly meek. “Please, if you would, tell them that I am a good storerunner. I obey the law. I don’t have anything to do with their—

She hung up.

Patience went into Flora’s bedroom again and laid her head to rest on the older woman’s soft, warm belly. Every lift of breath made the girl’s eyes droop, like she was a child sleeping with her mother on a sunny afternoon.

And soon, with the bright sunlight beating down on the curtains outside the window, she slept.

 

 

Chapter Text

The sun was blinding.

Her dress flapped around her ankles. She tripped around the hemline and stumbled. A sea of blank faces watched her, white masks that cried and laughed and screamed in ghastly, frozen expressions. They watched her silently, standing like a jury in front of a guilty man.

She lurched up and kept running. The sun shone bright over her loose hair, whipping across her face.

Patience chanced a look back, and the faceless crowd had parted to leave a thin path, through which a tall, dark figure stepped through.

It wasn’t running.

But it was coming closer.

Her heart was screaming in her chest, her legs pumping, breaths exploding in her throat.

The sunlight stopped at its gaping black eye holes, but although they were dark and bottomless, she knew who they were fixed on.

Patience opened her eyes.

The room seemed plunged into an abyss for a second—each pane of reality she saw double, and the colors were faded and dark. The curtains shifted and became four, and the sunshine-yellow wallpaper took the muted color of urine. Shadows drifted across the floor, only to flee when she blinked.

Her throat was paralyzed—when she breathed in, something caught like a latch in her throat. She sat up as fast as she could and gasped, taking one deep breath after another. Ever since she swallowed the lye, she’d started to have breathing problems. A few days after she had taken it, her throat had burned whenever she spoke, and her voice came out in a croak. Now she wasn’t hoarse anymore, but more and more often she woke with her throat stopped up and oxygen straining her chest with panic.

The girl slowly wrapped her arms around her legs. The ghost of her dream still trailed soft hands on her, but the memory was fading slowly, leaving only chill and bare skin. Patience desperately wanted to call for Flora, to seek her comfort, but every word, every cry and pathetic apology, they all stuck in her throat.

All she could hear in her empty room was her breaths in her ears, and the distant tick-tick of the grandfather clock.

***

It wasn’t a good morning for Benjamin Nizzola.

First of all, his alarm clock stopped working. And when he jumped out of bed and put his socks on, he realized his golden retriever had savaged his printed speech draft for tomorrow. And by the time he got his next draft up and printed, the sun was peeping over the sky and his children were late for school.

When Georgina woke up, she spared no time chewing him out as she dressed their children and packed their lunches. “—always snore through the alarm clock, the goddamn Manhattan Project couldn’t wake you up—“

“Georgie, it just broke, I swear,” he protested weakly as she sent him one of her familiar withering tongue-lashings. “I’ll buy a better alarm, gosh darnit, these cheap, district-manufactured ones…”

“Stop trying to "benefit the workers" and just buy them from Switzerland like the rest of us do. God, you’re so embarrassing! Whenever the city officials come to our house, we look like a workers’ boarding house! Start acting civilized!”

Georgina was stressed, he knew—Paula wasn’t doing so well in grade school, and Benjamin was gone too much to be of any help. Ben Junior was a boisterous toddler. And now that Benjamin was working late nights on his mayoral campaign, it was all up to Georgie to deal with them.

Georgina had her hair pinned up in a blonde bun, whitening on the edges of her crumpled forehead. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her smile. When Benjamin had married her, they had been young and full of ambition, both attending the St. Joseph Catholic School in the richest district of Garland City. Georgina Baranowska had been the daughter of working-class Polish immigrants, and Benjamin Nizzola was the middle-class son of a struggling politician. They had hit it off immediately, sharing the same sense of humor, the same hobbies, the same determination to right the evils of the world. Georgina’s uncle was a low-level thug for a Polish gang, and had been killed when she was a young girl. The two had a lot in common, and for a while Benjamin fantasized about both of them, side by side, fighting injustice with her slick navigation of Garland City upper class and his unrelenting drive to see the end of corruption.

But then Georgina had gotten pregnant, a marriage was hurriedly arranged, and their prospects were put on hold.

Dad had put Benjamin into a snug clerk position at City Hall to provide for his family, and he and Georgina had settled unassumedly into suburban married life. It was like their ambitions had never existed. Suddenly they had a small girl (and soon, a boy) to care for. They talked less about corruption in the courthouse, and more about what diapers to buy, how long he was staying overtime, whether they could go out for a family outing or whether he had too much work to do. Benjamin’s waistline expanded, and worry lines started on Georgina’s forehead.

Benjamin’s golden retriever nipped excitedly at his loafers as he left their black-gated house on the way to his car. “Later, Sammie boy!” Benjamin called, inwardly grousing at having to exercise the paper-chewing, hyperactive dog that he had only gotten for his children anyway.

A few cars were already parked in front of the building. The janitor’s car, Councilman Ewart’s car—who was always early and would always be until either his death or the Revelation, whichever came first—and surprisingly, Winslow’s beaten-up Chevrolet.

Winslow never came this early. It was always in a nick of time, triumphantly waving photographs over her head or grasping a paper cup of coffee as she bulled up the stairs. Winslow had a latent spitefulness to her (her attitude towards his secretary Jamison made him cringe, and Benjamin could never forget the way she had hissed at him on their first meeting), but made it up with good, hard work. It was more than once she came up with crime statistics and evidence to counter Borghese’s campaign—from where, he didn’t know, but had vague suspicions that he shouldn’t ask.

He heard the tapping of the typewriter as he climbed the stairs, and sure enough, there was Winslow, hunched over a desk as if she had been there for hours. “Here early, huh, Winslow? Making up for the other night?”

He immediately sensed the difference in the air. Winslow’s mousy hair was greasy and tangled, her eyes ringed with dark. A glistening cold sore was starting on the corner of her mouth. Her blouse had the quality of being hurriedly ironed just a few minutes before wearing it, with creases hiding at the edges of her armpits and neckline. Winslow had always been a little unkempt, but always took the marginal time to make herself presentable. This was… something else. I can’t bring her to a campaign meeting like this. What’s her problem now…?

“Where’s Jamison?” she said.

“He’s taking sick leave,” said Nizzola.

Patience looked as if she barely heard his words. She took out a sheaf of papers from the drawer of her desk and shuffled them listlessly.

“Miss Winslow, are you all right?”

She stopped. “Why do you ask? I’m fine.”

A prickle started on the back of his neck. He could tell she wasn’t putting in any emotion in her voice—it had the dull, flat tone of someone who couldn’t wait to get this conversation over with.

“Well,” Benjamin said, still trying to joke, “Whenever I bring up Jamison, you mutter about what a useless goober he is. But you’re… just so quiet this morning.”

A smile stretched her face like a skeleton. “Yeah,” she said. “Jamison. He really is a useless fuck, isn’t he?”

“Winslow! Don’t swear in the office!” he was shocked and irritated. “What do you—“

“It doesn’t matter anymore, Benjamin. You might as well go home now, because this campaign is over. There is no way you’re going to beat Borghese without Mallozzi.”

“Miss Winslow? What are you talking about?”

Mallozzi?

Benjamin’s breath halted. Sal “The Bull” Mallozzi—he was a frightening man. One of those men his father would have spoken about with a note of fearful anger and told to avert his eyes on the street. Those men had never really changed their ways when they got on the boat. Those were the kind of men who lived in tenements and killed people because of the code and glared at you like you betrayed them when you gave speeches to their districts. Black eyes and black hearts. Blood-stained hands clutching the crucifix.

One meeting had been enough for Benjamin. Salvatore Mallozzi had taken one look at him with his black eyes and figured out with a harsh, judging glance that Benjamin was beneath him. The lean, gangly man with corded muscles had been in cosa nostra, there was no doubt. Probably back three generations. But Benjamin had assimilated, never learned the language, never held himself to the code, never held the deeply ingrained mistrust towards authority as had been bred in the rural mountains of Sicily. Benjamin was an outsider.

Winslow pressed her face into her hands. “I fucked up. It’s all over. The campaign. Any chance we might have at defeating Borghese—it’s all down the drain.”

“What about the campaign? Winslow—Patience.” When Benjamin was a child, his father would always take his shoulders and look him straight in the eyes when he cried. Something about the directness of his eyes and the authoritativeness of his voice would calm Ben down.

He gripped her shoulders in his hands and forced her to look at him. “Patience, calm down. Tell me what happened.”

The girl’s pale green eyes glistened. He saw her throat twitch as she swallowed. “We… we broke up, him and I. Broke ties. Now we’re quits, and he’s not going to help your—I mean, our campaign anymore.”

“You broke up? You were together? What happened to make you split up?”

Winslow seemed so innocent. She had that graveliness about her, but she looked like a fifteen-year-old, with her short stature and small breasts and big, childish eyes. Benjamin knew she was connected to the Di Scarpetta family, but how much, he did not know. He had heard rumors drifting around his ring of higher-class associates, that the boss of the Di Scarpettas had gotten a brand-new girlfriend who was ordering him around. Was that her? It couldn’t have been.

“No,” she said, a tad forcefully. “We were never a thing. We were just acquaintances. Mutual—mutual interests interfered between us.” She rubbed her forehead. “Someone very close to me got hurt.”

“Who did it? Is your friend okay?” Benjamin just wanted her to stop with the histrionics and tell him what happened, but she was determined to be evasive.

“She’s not,” she said shortly, “But that just means we’re stranded, without any inside help, and there is no way in hell I am contacting that piece of festering shit again and begging him for help. You might as well just shut down your office and go home. We—“

Muting the rest of her tirade, he felt an inexplicable sweep of relief come over him.

He was relieved that they were on quits with the Mafia. The thought of that gangster Mallozzi fixing the vote for him had nagged at the back of his mind. What would Benjamin’s father have to say about him? He was better than them, that was why he was running. To stamp out the corruption. So why was he accepting help from the very originators of that corruption?

And now it was over, thank god. They could start anew. And even if it did make things more difficult, he didn’t have that weight on his mind.

“Winslow,” he said firmly, “We can do this. If that detestable Mafioso split with us, all the better. We didn’t need him.”

Patience took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. Was she crying? Georgina cried a lot. She had cried during his first date, she had cried when she had found out she was pregnant, she had cried during childbirth. Women seemed to like to cry.

Benjamin awkwardly hugged Patience close. She had gotten quite fat, but as he noticed it, she pulled away. “Sorry, Ben.”

“Don’t say sorry. Mallozzi was a scumbag and we’re well to be rid of him. Whatever he was doing to help us—I don’t know, but I’m happy to be rid of it. Cheer up.” He cupped her face in his hands and lifted it. “Smile. Let’s get to work. We’ve got a campaign to run.”

***

“There had to be some records of his wrongdoings. A police report, some testimony from a girl he’s pimping. A stray fingerprint.” Benjamin set his paper cup of coffee down on the bureau and pulled out his typewriter.

Patience had thrown herself into a frenzy of work, poring over the transcriptions of his campaign speeches. He sensed a sort of desperation in her.

“If we get just one of these things, we might stand a chance,” said Benjamin. “I’d bet half the city already has misgivings about him, as private as they are. He’s been seen in public with numerous other organized crime figures, and he’s heavily rumored to be involved in some illegal activities. Remember the horse-racing scandal a couple years back? He was acquitted, but that can’t have raised his reputation in the eyes of the Garland City public.”

She chewed a fingernail. “If—you know, hypothetically, if we got our hands on a piece of evidence like that, then what would we do with it?”

“Well, we make it a scandal. Especially if we get some woman to confess he’s in a prostitution ring. Plaster her face all over the city newspapers, maybe file a frivolous lawsuit. The only problem I can think, is if we can even get a mainstream newspaper to run it—Borghese’s got them all in his pocket.”

Winslow smiled bitterly, her pink sore splitting. “If only we had a journalist on the inside to help us.”

“Of course,” said Benjamin, “we could always try more indirect ways of taking him down. There has to be some sort of record of his gambling profits—undeclared income, perhaps?”

“True. We could pull an Al Capone and net him with his tax returns. But I have a feeling he’s laundering it all, maybe through legitimate businesses like his nightclubs.”

“He’s always one step ahead,” muttered Benjamin.

“That he is.” Patience was quiet for a moment. “Going back to what you said—what about a mugshot? A criminal record? Maybe one from a long time ago, but one that definitely links him to organized crime?”

“It’s possible. Depends on his age.”

“A teenager.”

“That could do. As long as it links him with the ‘organized’ aspect and not just some random write-up for smoking in public.”

The edge of her mouth twitched. “Maybe I can do something about that.”

The office was silent for a few seconds, filled with a tenseness emanating from the two people in the room. An alarm rung from a clock kicked under a table.

“Patience, our campaign meeting is in five minutes. Go into the bathroom and freshen up.” He had held off on being hard on her, but he couldn’t have her going to a meeting smelling like a dumpster.

“I think I might skip this one, Benjamin.”

***

When she got back home, Patience lifted the floorboard and spread her files and photographs on the bed. She had hid them, from Leonardo, from the F.B.I. agent, guarding them jealously in a dream of a climactic reveal that would vindicate her and all her hard work.

Her mind was in turmoil. Without Mallozzi, their campaign would fail, and fast. If they publicized the evidence she had, that might be able to swing the tide of the vote.

Of course, the community might rally behind him anyway. And by submitting her evidence, there was a chance it could all be dismissed as fakes—rustled up out of nowhere to help a mediocre candidate’s campaign. And then God help her if she wanted to take it to court afterwards.

But… if Leonardo became mayor, could she even take it to court? Would it just get shut down immediately when she began the proceedings? Would it disappear into the court evidence repository as ‘lost’?

It was not an easy choice to make. And even after thinking it over, Patience still hadn’t come to a decision. She gathered it up and stowed it back under the floor.

When she came out into the living room, the radio was on, and she recognized the familiar unpleasant voice with a jolt.

The fuzzy reception didn’t do justice to the man’s presence, but it got his charisma across well enough. Leonardo had a fine voice, a deep baritone, all at once understanding and rousing.

“— I ask the great citizens of Garland City to believe me when I say I want to bring jobs to the jobless and homes to the homeless, and I ask God to guide me through my path to leadership. This is the land of the free, and we as Americans have the right to fulfill that creed. We are Italians, we are Catholics, we are people. People who want to contribute to society, who want to work and provide a better life for our children.”

Every word he spewed was a vile lie. He didn’t care about the people of Garland City. He didn’t care about jobs or homelessness or the American Dream or making lives better for anybody but himself.

She could just imagine him. In front of a Catholic church, or some other building being constructed. Black suit and disarming smile. He would speak and reassure and beam, and he would gather his votes like gnats from the squealing people.

How can this man become mayor? Every single sentence he spoke was a neatly wrapped box with nothing inside.

“We want to be free of exploitation by company owners. Did you know that Benjamin Nizzola’s father was complicit in the breaking up of thirteen unions—not in New York State, but in Garland City alone?“

Patience slammed the radio off, nearly breaking it. She didn’t want to hear another word. He was a monster, and he had ruined dozens of lives without a shred of remorse. And if he were elected mayor, there was no limit to the havoc he would wreak across the city.

She thought back to the files she had under her floor, and swallowed.

***

The floor was swept. Mickey had been fed. Patience slid a bluegrass record—Flora’s favorite—into the victrola and clicked on.

Patience poured a generous helping of vinegar into the spaghetti sauce she was making. The warm smell wafted through the air along with the twangy music. The tomatoes were raw and the sauce was too watery—Patience had never been much of a cook.

As of lately Patience had been on a vinegar kick—she was insatiable. She devoured all the red wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar, pouring it onto salads and into sauces. She shopped at the nichest, most out-of-the way farmers’ markets in order to satisfy her cravings for the purest, most tangy vinegar in existence. Her palate was watering just thinking of it. She surreptitiously took a sip from the bottle and stirred the sauce with her wooden spoon.

Before, Patience had been indifferent to the flavor, assuming it a little strong and avoiding it. Now she couldn’t get enough of it. She was sure it was the little thing inside her that was making her get these mouth-watering cravings. When her college roommate—short-cropped hair, bohemian lifestyle, as if that would lead to anywhere good— had gotten knocked-up, she had developed a taste for those sickly-sweet canned peaches, the ones that tasted like pure sugar with orange extract. The roommate had left college soon after to marry and raise her children. At the time, Patience had regarded her with a strange mixture of pity and scorn.

With a baby inside her, Patience could understand her roommate’s pull to just give up and resign herself to being a housewife. Leaving to do investigations for her clients took an enormous amount of willpower, with her ankles swollen and her brain pulling her down into drowsiness half of the time. The baby was due to start kicking soon, and then it would be a whole other can of worms. She couldn’t just turn off her mind and forget about her pregnancy. She would be reminded every single day.

Sometimes, unbidden, she wondered how she would feel if the child had a different father—not Leonardo or Salvatore, but someone gentler, someone closer to her. Like Michael. She could imagine his arms around her, pressing gently onto her belly, his soothing murmur in her ear. But his face was starting to fade from her memory, as was his voice, so she had to content herself with an impression.

If the baby had a different father, would she feel happy or pleased, or—God willing—some shred of affection toward the baby forming inside her, instead of just a slow, grudging emptiness?

Patience wondered if all mothers felt the detachment she did. Like it was just an end result of a biological process, as if leaving a lab sample to grow mold on it.

When she took the sauce off the oventop, it still tasted like raw herbs and canned tomato paste. Patience was sure if Leonardo was here he would laugh at her pathetic attempt at Italian cuisine.

She poured it onto egg noodles and sprinkled some grocery store parmesan cheese over it. Then she took it into Flora’s bedroom.

Patience had been giving Flora morphine from the pharmacy as of late. Whenever Flora was awake, Patience could hear her plaintive sobs. All night, the woman was convulsing under the covers and talking to people that weren’t there.

So Patience began to give her medicine, just until the scars on her face healed and her mind mended itself. It worked well. A dose in the morning with her breakfast tea would knock her out for the rest of the day. It was easy to change her sheets and bedpan and see her sleep peacefully, than hear her plaintive ramblings and see the pink scratches down her arms. Her bruises yellowed, her scabs healed, and soon her face returned to that familiar flushed color.

Today was the first day Patience hadn’t given her morphine.

Flora was propped up on a wall of pillows, as Patience set the tray up. “Flora, here’s dinner.”

The older woman blinked blearily. She seemed out-of-it, but lucid enough to recognize Patience. The girl’s gorge rose as she saw Flora’s face. The pores, stained with black ink, covered her face like a strip of leprosy. It was impossible to see her for who she really was—a lovely older woman with sad brown eyes and soft red hair. Now she was just a face with livid black letters across it.

“Sorry if it’s too vinegar-y,” Patience tried to laugh, her eyes glued to the black word across Flora’s face. “I started to feel like sour things lately…”

“Oh? Getting a hankering?” Flora said. “I had the same craving when I was expecting Caroline. I loved sour everything! God could only keep me away from those foods… my husband would buy me sour foods at every single grocery store in the city and come and spread it all front of me like a feast.” Flora attempted to laugh. Heart pulsing in her throat, Patience attempted a laugh of her own.

As Flora ate, Patience sat still as stone, watching the threads of her tattoo twitch as she took bites. The scab covering it had flaked away, revealing an unsteady line of shaky letters that blackened her eye and marred her nose. Though messy, she could read them perfectly. S L U T.

When Flora finished, she started to get out of bed. Patience leapt to her side. “Flora, steady!”

“I’m fine, honey. I need to go to work.”

“You’re on leave, remember?”

A distant realization struck Flora’s face, and her hand went up to trace her tattoo. “Oh.”

Patience wanted to turn away, but forced herself to keep watching. “You should go take a bath. It’s been almost a week.” Inside the bathroom was the mirror, and Flora would get her first look at herself. Patience dreaded it, but she knew it had to happen. And at least Flora was stronger now than she had been before.

The older woman nodded and stood up, then stumbled. Patience wrapped her arms around her to steady her. The older woman’s body felt wasted, more skin and bones than she had ever been.

Flora unsteadily made her way to the bathroom—she still had trouble walking, and although Patience had stitched her up as best as she was able, she was no professional, and the stitches had been clumsy. The girl wanted badly to call an ambulance or doctor, but Flora vehemently forbade it. Patience knew her reputation would be ruined if the neighborhood found out—and in a small community, news traveled fast.

Patience heard the lightbulb switch on in the bathroom. She could almost hear it from where she was. The bulb flickered a few times before it shone, in a dull, steady buzz.

Patience closed her eyes and focused on the hum.

She expected the cries, but the silence was worse.

Eventually—she didn’t know how long, it might have been a minute, it might have been an hour—she heard the lightbulb switch off, and Flora’s bare feet quietly leave the bathroom.

Patience met Flora in the hallway. The woman was smoothing back her red hair, tucking it neatly back in a bun, and straightening her dress.

Her face was devoid of emotion. Patience guessed she had to hide her emotions a lot through her life. No father, a mother who beat her, moved to the city when she was twelve and married three times since she was sixteen.

But still the older woman still held herself in that tall, unbroken way. How can you be so strong? She smiled weakly at Patience. “Patience, honey. Did you feed Mickey?”

“I’m sorry,” blurted Patience in a confession. “I’m sorry for him, him doing all this to you. It was my fault. If I hadn’t—“

A soft hand slid over her shoulder. “Patience, it’s not your fault. It’s not. We’ll get through this. Sweetheart.”

Patience did not know how much effort was exerted to say that sentence. Flora was leaning heavily against the wall, shoulder pressing onto the cheap wood panels.

It is my fault. It’s all my fault. Patience wanted Flora to yell at her, scream that everything was her fault, look at her with a gaze full of hatred and betrayal like Patience deserved. Not these soft, defeated eyes that slid off her like wool off a loom.

I did this. I did this to you. And you just fucking forgave me.

“You need to lie down,” said Patience.

“I’ll be fine.” Flora gave that forced smile again. “Did you pay the electric bill?”

Her mind shorted out. “Um, I don’t think I did, but let me check—“

Flora brushed past her. She limped slowly, but forcefully, one hand planted firmly on the wall, and she was left alone in the hallway.

“Flora!” Patience’s voice cracked, and she bolted forward to wrap her arms around her waist. She pressed her face into her shoulder, inhaling the perfumey smell of fabric cleaner. Tears beaded in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t think that—I was just—I love you, Flora, I do, I didn’t want this to happen. I, I, I just—“ her voice went to a hundred dead ends, with every sentence dying when she thought of explaining herself. Because how could she, really?

Flora patted her hand. With her head turned away, Patience couldn’t read her face, but her tone took on a hint of something cracked and distant. “Patience, honey. I have bills to pay.”

Patience reluctantly let go of her and watched her walk down the hallway. Flora was a woman who had to have known, just by looking at herself, that her life was over. Her tattoo marked her indelibly. She could never get a job, or marry, or even go out in public without a veil. Her life had been reduced to the four walls around her.

But still she went on.

Patience leaned her forehead against the doorframe. The wood was rough against her forehead.

A woman with a disfiguring tattoo and a girl with a bastard child. What a pair they made. Wasn’t the world cruel? If anybody in the neighborhood found out about either of them, they would be shamed forever.

Her hands curled into fists.

***

It had been her decision to ally with Mallozzi. Her decision to turn down Agent Turner. She had dithered away in a field of indecisiveness when she could have struck Borghese in the neck. She had held off, submitted, made excuses, laid on her back.

Enough.

She needed to act, and act now.

Patience dialed the number, her chipped, raw fingernails tapping painfully against the plastic.

“Hello?”

“Benjamin. It’s me. I’m ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“To give you all my evidence. I have fingerprints. Police records. Mugshots. Timelines. Do you want to go a newspaper, or do you want to take it to court?”

Paula was yelling in the background. “Is—is this true?” Benjamin said, his voice hushed and disbelieving.

Flora was in the kitchen, trying to kneel down and pick up shattered pieces of dishes as her violated body collapsed in on itself. Michael was God knows where, dead or on the run. Those pollsters were dead, leaving families to mourn. All because she hadn’t acted.

“Yes,” said Patience. “I’ll give you everything. Every piece of evidence, the proof we need. I have it all. We’ll win this campaign. Benjamin, contact a newspaper. Try the Merrimont Post. Tell them I sent it.”

“Patience, really—do you even have this information?”

“Yes. And I’m giving it. This ends now. Borghese’s not going to be mayor of Garland City. I’ve spent enough time… dawdling and making excuses. We’ll get this evidence out there before the speech next week, and hopefully? We’ll catch him just in time.”

***

The house was dark and silent and comforting, the dim light shining off the cheery face of the owl clock, and off the mussed red carpet.

Patience sat down in the armchair in the living room, for a long tine. The gentle tick-tick of the owl clock sounded across the room. The victrola was still playing softly in the corner, muffled banjo twangs. Every inch had been cleaned, every shard of glass had been swept up, each piece of furniture righted. The doilies were lying over the sofa arms. The flowers in the vase were browning at the edges. Everything was as it should be.

If Patience listened closely, she could hear the distant laughs of the kids across the street, concealed behind the thick curtains.

Flora would have opened them by now, letting the warm, peaceful evening air wash through the house. But Flora was in her bed again, curled on her side with one arm wrapped around her body to cup her injured mound. She was sleeping. She had fallen into the comforting blanket of darkness that washed away all her pains.

So the curtains stayed shut, swathing the room with darkness.

It has to end.

Her belly was like a hard stone under her skirt.

Patience had put it off. She had whimpered and whined under the all-seeing eye of God, she had dithered in her pathetic emotions. She had refused to see the reality in front of her. But now, she couldn’t put it off anymore.

Salvatore was gone. His support was over.

Inside her she carried an end. A dead end. The stump of a tree. What kind of life had she envisioned for them, anyway? The black lividness of Salvatore’s eyes as she gave birth to a blond child? The blank satisfaction of Leonardo as he held his golden progeny in his arms? The emptiness and distant revulsion as she stared down at her baby?

What life was there for her child?

What life was there for them both?

Everything had to end some time. And the end had come now.

 

 

Chapter Text

Flora had one hand resting on her lower belly, the other holding a dress in place under the sewing machine. There was a huge crack in its plastic casing, but the machine was working stronger than ever, much like its owner.

“I’m leaving, Flora. I’m meeting Nizzola for coffee, and then I’ll be running some errands the rest of the day.”

Flora met her gaze, and Patience felt a prickle. “I’m not lying to you, Flora,” she swore. “I promised I’d never lie to you again. When I say I’m going someplace, that’s where I’m going.”

The sewing machine started up with a tap-tap. "If you would, please, while you’re out just stop at my workplace and pick up my projects for the weekend. We can use the extra money.”

"You're still on sick leave, Flora."

"Not for much longer."

***

It was a gourmet coffee shop. Polished wood tabletops and leather seats. The dark, heavy scent of coffee hung in the air, mixed with cigarette smoke. Benjamin was in a table beside a window, fiddling with his sleeve with a glass mug of coffee lying forgotten to the side.

Patience took the lukewarm cup and drained half of it. “Let’s move, Ben. I don’t feel safe in front of a window.”

He looked skeptical, but followed her to a table in the corner. She leaned forward on her elbows, dropping her voice to a mutter.

“Speak up please, Miss Winslow. I can’t hear a word coming out of your mouth.”

“I can’t. People might be listening.”

Her eyes flicked around the room. The people there were mostly older, balding professionals, young lovebirds, and occasionally a finely-dressed woman with a plume in her hat. None of them were in any way conspicuous, but Patience was paranoid. Salvatore hadn’t contacted her since their disastrous clash on the street, and by the newspaper headlines, he wasn’t taking it well. She wanted to be utterly certain that no information made their way to either him or Leonardo.

“When are we going to have our big meeting?” she said lowly.

“Next week, Saturday, in the Merrimont News building on the edge of Harlan Square. You can’t miss it. It’s the one with the blue peeling billboard that faces the square. It got badly bashed up in the riots, but most of the letters are still there.”

“What did the chief editor say about the idea?”

“He agreed immediately.”

“Before or after you brought up Michael?”

“Before. They haven’t been getting a lot of traffic lately because of the election. People want to read about all the corruption and campaign happenings, and they’re just a local newspaper. Plus, the chief editor said, a story like this? This is the scandal of the century. And brought to them by the very opposition candidate.” He pushed his glasses up his nose and sighed. “Are you sure these Merrimont Post folks are trustworthy, Winslow?”

“I’m sure,” said Patience confidently. “Did they say anything else about Michael?”

“The chief editor said he hadn’t seen him in months. He seemed very upset when I mentioned him. I’m not going to ask you who this Michael Sheehan is, Miss Winslow, or how you knew that he was missing. I still don’t quite trust you. I have a feeling you know far more than me—“ he stopped and nervously tapped his fingers on the table. “And I don’t want to know how far this knowledge goes. But this is it, Miss Winslow. There is no going back after this. Are you willing to publicize your evidence? Do you really want to bring down the brunt of Borghese? Hel—heck.”

Benjamin hated swearing. He always substituted the schoolboy-afraid-of-his-mother-overhearing words. It was confusing to Patience. Growing up, her aunt and uncle had never cared about what she said. Fuck, hell, shit, goddamn, were what was said in their hearing without nary a protest. But then again, they had never especially cared about anything she said or did.

”Do you really want to bring the brunt of the entire Garland City mafia on us?” said Benjamin.

Patience took a deep breath. The café bustled around them, the low drone of conversation buzzing in her ears.

This was it. All the years. The sleepless nights. The bullets, the scars, every drop of sweat and blood she had shed. Her world was spinning. Do I really want to do this? Give away every bit of evidence she had worked so hard for?

“Yes,” she said finally. “We can do it.”

“He says he’ll have it on the presses by next Saturday. He says it will no doubt make the news, so stay tuned to Channel 6.”

Patience laughed and closed her eyes. It’s all over. “All right. Let’s make it a date, Ben. Are you ready?” She reached over to grip his hand, and after a moment, he gripped her back. “Prepare for a circus.”

“Prepare for an arrest. A lot of arrests.”

Patience was so relieved she could cry. All the years. The late nights, the work, the begging, enduring her male clients’ hands sliding over her leg. It was all worth it. Her parents would be vindicated. The people of Garland City would now know what kind of man Leonardo was. Court. Jail. Justice.

She couldn’t keep her smile off her face. “We’re going to do it, Ben. I promise. This is the end. You’re going to be in history books. The mayor who brought down the mob.”

He smiled, and a bit of brightness made its way to his face. “I’ll hold you to that, Miss Winslow.”

“Please. It’s Patience.”

Soon they were out the door, into the warm spring of a beautiful city district. The sidewalks were smooth, people were well-dressed, and the shops opposite them were lined with fashionable boutiques and jewelry stores.

“Next week, then?”

“Next week.” Benjamin tipped his hat to her. “I hope this turns out well for both of us, Miss Wins—Patience.”

“I know it will.” She smiled easily, buttoning her coat around her.

“Are you staying around? We can get another cup of coffee if you like.”

“No. I have somewhere else I need to be. It’s okay, I drove here, you don’t need to give me a ride!”

“What’s this appointment? More shady dealings?”

“No. Just meeting an old client…”

***

Candace Kingley’s apartment was in downtown Garland City, in the place they called the Show Business District. The apartment building was squashed between a theater and an upscale restaurant, the brightly flashing neon lights bouncing off the red brick of the multistory building.

It took Patience several tries to work up the courage to enter the revolving glass doors. She turned back once, twice, and almost made it to her car before she was spurred back. I need to do it. I need to do it.

The apartment itself was cramped and small, not helped by the general clutteredness of the space. Given its location, rent was probably exorbitant, even for the head dancer of one of the most popular theaters in Garland. Patience sat on a satin divan beside a discarded wine bottle, listening to Candace rant. The blonde woman was not at the theatre, so she looked a little sloppy, with her unraveling blonde hair and her crumpled silk nightgown.

“He said he would pay me this week, but he put it off again. This is the third time this happened. He owes me money. I think he’s seeing someone else. He’s going to replace me as head dancer, I just know it. I want you to take a look at him. Follow him for a couple days and see who he meets. If it’s Felicia—that whore—“

Patience’s heart was thrumming in her throat. The striped purple wallpaper wavered in front of her eyes.

Her pinky was touching her midriff. Even that felt too much. She could feel her skirt straining against the taut belly, hem imprinting its dents in her stretched skin.

“Are you listening, Patience?” Candace’s voice snapped the air like a breaking band. “I said he stays at the theater past when I leave. He says it’s because he wants to talk with the girls and manage the theater closing, but I think he’s doing more than that—“

“Candace,” Patience said, “Have you ever been pregnant before?”

In a moment, the atmosphere died. It became dark and angry. “What does that have to do with what I’m asking you to do?” Candace spat. “I don’t pay you to judge me. I pay you to do your job!”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“If you want to make snide comments, take your business to one of the other sluts on my dancing team. Or get out of my apartment. How dare you think you can—“

“Candace, I’m expecting.”

The woman was silent for a moment. Then she barked out a laugh. “You? You're expecting?” Her voice was incredulous and amused, all at once. Candace bent over, hands on her knees and hair streaming over her face. “Patience! Hell, this is rich!”

She stood up and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Come on, tell me the details! Who’s the special guy?” she poured herself some more wine, grinning.

“He’s just some asshole,” Patience said bitterly. “We’re not together anymore.”

“Oh, you can’t mean that!” Candace pushed her teasingly. “Come on. He had to have been something special to get Little Miss Prude to step out of her panties.”

Patience wanted Candace to stop talking and just give her what she needed, but Candace was in a gossipy mood and wasn’t liable to until Patience coughed up the goods. “Well, he was good in bed, I guess. And… he was a good cook.”

“He sounds like a dream come true. Come on, what did you like about him? What about him caught your eye? Was he just butt-ugly with a huge dick and a spatula?”

“No. He was pretty, I guess. Like a singer or a model or something.” Golden curls and blue eyes. “He took good care of himself.”

“He can cook, he’s a good fuck, and he’s a knockout? Why are you calling it quits with him? If I got a guy like that I’d dig my nails in and never let go!” Candace sat down on the crumpled satin sheets of her bed and took a draught of wine.

“Yeah,” said Patience. “He was a real catch, all right.” He was so beautiful and sculpted I couldn’t keep myself from climaxing. His strong body pressing itself between my legs, sliding lovingly against me, making me scream in pleasure. His soft red lips on my skin. He put his length inside me.

We created a baby. A person.

Candace smiled, a little condescendingly. “I’m glad for you, Patience. I always thought that no one would have you, and to hear that you netted this amazing guy… wow. I knew you needed a man in your life. Get back with that boy, girl, he sounds like the catch of a lifetime!”

“He forced himself on me,” said Patience quietly. “I don’t want the baby.” Just that small admission made her emotions come bubbling up again, threatening to drown her. She felt traitorous tears well up in her eyes.

There was somewhat of a shocked silence from Candace. Against her will, Patience felt sour, toothless resentment. Makes more sense, doesn’t it? Poor, dowdy little Patience can’t get a cock in her unless it’s against her will.

Candace huffed. “Who did it to you?”

”You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

There was a clink as she set her glass down. When Patience looked up, the woman had her forehead in her hand.

“So you want a… procedure. And you came to me.”

“I figured you would know.”

Patience did not know whether Candace would take it the wrong way or not, but she didn’t seem to. “I can refer you.”

Patience looked down at her bulging belly through her gray skirt. She was getting farther along. Almost too far.

“Doctor Szekeles. He’s a good man. Some of the doctors will bother you. They’ll make perverted comments, you know? Some will even try shit while you’re under anesthetic. Not Szekeles, though. He used to work as a surgeon but got his license taken away for something, I think he was doing some under-the-table stuff. Now he’s out of a job and all he does is under-the-table stuff. But don’t worry, he’s real good. I never had any problems with him.”

Candace Kingley poured another glass, full of dark, clear red wine. The woman took another deep swallow. There was something unfamiliar beneath her false eyelashes. “How far along are you?”

Patience looked down at herself. “A few months. Three or four.” She didn’t know. From when it had been conceived, it could have been the tenth time he pressed her into the bedsheets. The same time he had forced her against the wall, bent her over the sofa, fucked her while she cried and begged him to stop.

“That’s not good. You should have gotten it before now.”

“I know,” said Patience. “I thought I wanted to keep it. Well, I thought I just… didn’t want to get rid of it. But I’m out of options now.”

“Don’t punish yourself,” said Candace softly. “Women have it hard. Sometimes we do things that we wish we didn’t have to do. I—“ Her voice died for a second, as if she was ashamed. “If I hadn’t—well, if I hadn’t done what you’re doing now, I’d probably be washing dishes and raising brats in an tenement building somewhere. And hell! Now I’m head dancer of Stalheim Theater. I’ll be touring Europe soon with my troupe. There were, there were times…”

Candace’s voice was intimate, as if forcing herself to be comforting. “Where I had to… well, work my way up the ranks, so to speak. And sometimes that came with undesirable consequences. Like yours. And if I hadn’t gotten the procedures, I wouldn’t be Head Dancer now. If I had stopped at any point—and believe me, there were a lot of them—then everything I hoped and dreamed for would have fallen by the wayside.”

And if I had stopped at any point, then everything I hoped and dreamed for would have fallen by the wayside. Those words struck deep into her heart. Patience had never liked Candace, but for a moment, as a woman, she empathized with her.

She reached for her hand, but Candace pulled away. “It won’t be pretty,” said Candace. “It will hurt.”

The neon lights flashed out of her window. San Jose Bar. Happy Hour. Thunderbird Theater.

Inside Patience could imagine the painted and beautiful women, dancing and performing for drunk and catcalling crowds. She wondered what was under the layers of makeup.

“He’ll put a tube up inside you. It will feel like your womb is being scraped out, it will hurt so bad. Try and find a cloth to bite down on. It will hurt more than—it will be the most painful thing you’ll ever go through. But you have to keep your emotions down. You have to keep your brain shut off. You can’t think of it as a human, as your son or daughter, because if you do, you won't go through with it.”

Unbidden, Patience wondered if it was a boy or girl. A girl with her eyes, a boy with his golden curls. She pushed the thought away, but it was already stuck there, lingering inside her alongside her child.

“I’ll give you a number.”

Candace scribbled a phone number on a piece of paper. “Like I said. He’s good. You’ll want someone to pick you up after, though. Because you’ll bleed a lot. He’ll puncture you inside, and a lot of blood will come out. I’ve never had this happen with Szekeles, but if you bleed and bleed and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop, go to a hospital. I knew a couple of girls who didn’t, and it didn’t turn out too well for them.”

Patience looked at the crumpled number in leaking, stained ballpoint pen. “Thank you.”

“It will leave you in bed for a couple of days. You’ll get a fever for a few days, a roaring hot one. But when it’s over, your problem will be over as well. It will be hard, lying in bed the first few days, especially if you don’t have anyone with you. Be sure to drink a lot of water and take aspirin. But when it’s over, it’s over.”

Tears pricked her eyes. “Okay.”

“Patience.”

Candace’s voice was more flat than she had ever heard it. Candace was a vicious and melodramatic woman, but Patience had never heard this fury in her voice, not even when she was spitting and hissing over her newest unfaithful lover.

“Tell me who did this to you, Patience.”

The air was as thick as if a cloud of smoke was lying over it. Every breath she took was heavy and dirty, poisoning her throat.

“It was Leonardo Borghese,” Patience said, and in one fell swoop, she felt as if a giant burden had been lifted from her.

Candace put her glass down with a clink, and the air was cold again.

“You’re right, I don’t believe you.” Candace’s smile was venomous as a viper. “Someone like him with someone like you? You’re crazy. Some good-for-nothing sleazebag knocked you up because he’s the first man who ever showed you any attention, and you just don’t want to believe it. Admit it to yourself and you can move on. Go on, get going. Get your procedure.”

Patience lowered her eyes and began to gather up her purse.

“And Patience? For the good of both of us… pretend this conversation never happened.”

***

Patience put the phone down into its plastic cradle.

Thursday, 9:00, at the closed medical offices of one Burstein and Sons. She should have felt better that they were doing it in an actual doctor’s office, but instead she just felt sick.

The night her appointment arrived, she vomited into the toilet twice. The heaviness of her belly weighed against the porcelain of the bowl. Her ankles screamed when she put too much weight on them. And she noticed a small, faded dark line beneath her navel, which worried her.

The days had passed, and Flora was looking better. Patience had found her only once, sobbing in the bathroom after the postman had come to the door, but she had dried up as soon as the younger woman opened the door. “It was just a shock to him, that was all. Next time I’ll wear a scarf.”

Flora never went outside to water her herb garden anymore, and it wilted under Patience’s clumsy care. The lawn overgrew. The outside of the windows became stained with birdshit and leaf stains.

But inside, Flora had settled herself down, working on her sewing projects, cooking, reading, easing back into the flow of life. Save for the black words stamped on her face, it was as if nothing had ever happened, although Patience could not pry into her mind to find out. As of lately Flora had been reading a series about an old woman who went around the world solving mysteries, and Patience had been bringing them back from the library to satisfy her. Anything to keep her mind off her situation.

On Thursday, two days before she was scheduled to release the information leading to the uncovering of a massive criminal conspiracy in the higher echelons of Garland City, Patience got up at 7:00 and dressed to go out for the night.

She put on a pair of black, high-waisted pants and a baggy sweater, and pulled her hair up in a messy bun. The sweater was not the tight knit kind so many fashionable women were wearing nowadays, but it concealed her figure. The black pants were for if she started bleeding—black did not stain.

“I’m leaving, Flora,” she called to Flora. The comforting sound of a sewing machine running thrummed through the house.

She felt as if there were a weight attached to each of her feet as she moved toward the door. The waistband of her pants dug into her swollen belly.

“Where are you going?” The kitchen table was set up with her sewing projects, disordered dresses and sweaters. Flora's gaze met hers at the front door.

She froze. I said I wouldn’t lie to you. “I just need to get something done.”

“Why are you all dressed up? It’s not that cold outside.”

The sweater hides my figure. From you and everyone else. “I need it for where I’m going.”

“Where are you going?”

I said I wouldn’t lie to you anymore.

“I’m getting an abortion.”

The words sounded like they were being uttered by a different person. A person who had her high, clipped Massachusetts accent, but someone who wasn’t her, some slut who had gotten knocked up and was choosing the coward’s way out instead of taking responsibility.

Seeing Flora’s face settle, Patience wished she could have lied, she wished the pure falsehood could have flowed through her voice like it had before.

But Patience had promised.

Flora’s face was a Noh Mask. Patience had seen them before, when her aunt and uncle had taken her to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. They were perfectly empty, eye holes in a white mask and a frozen expression.

“A baby? You’re having a baby?”

“Yeah.”

The silence was comforting it the way Flora’s house often was. Sleepy, with the neighbor's dog barking outside.

Flora stood up, needles clattering to the floor, and was suddenly at her side. Her arms, strong and warm, wrapped around her back and pulled her close. The smell of linen and old perfume tickled her nose.

Flora’s hand slid onto her waist and curled on her belly. “Oh—!” she stepped back, hand covering her mouth. Her eyes were sparkling. “Oh, Patience! You’re going to be a mommy!”

Not anymore, she wept silently. “No.”

“Who was it? Was it that dark Italian? Or that Irishman you’re always talking about? Was it that married man Nizzola? Or someone else? Oh, Patience, this is a blessing—“

“No, it’s not,” she burst out, sinking down to her knees.

“Yes, it is, because Patience, we can deal with this. You’ll be a good mommy, I know. I’ll help you raise the child, Patience, I will, and we can have it together, just the two of us—“ her face showed sudden, wild joy, but it was melting fast,.

“No. I have to—I can’t keep it, Flora. I wish I could—I wish I could keep it, but if its father knows—“

“No, no, I don’t care, whatever father it has, we can deal with it. I’ll take care of it and take care of you. I’ll go back to work. You’ll have your baby, we’ll move, go to Louisiana, California, Canada, we’ll hide. You don’t have to do this.” Flora’s hands clutched her shoulders, even as Patience pushed her off again and again as she stood up.

“Stop it.” Sobs were rising up, and she hated that they were. Her heart was being torn out through her throat. “This has to happen, Flora. For the campaign—for everything. I have to do this. If he finds out, my life is over. Our lives are over.”

Flora’s grip dug flaming channels in her bare shoulder, pulling the hem of her sweater down to her breasts. “No, stop, Patience, don’t do this, don’t do this, please, it’s a baby, it doesn’t deserve it. We can get past this. We can.”

“I’m sorry,” said Patience, and she was crying. Because she was sorry, more than anything in her entire life. Every small, insignificant little atonement she had made towards Flora could never measure up to this. “I can’t give birth. I love you, Flora, I wish I could, wish we could, but the campaign—the court case—I can’t let it fail. Let me go!”

Flora’s fingers desperately clutched the hem of her pants, fingers tight and her lined face twisted in despair. Patience pushed her off again so that she staggered back.

“Patience! Patience! Caroline!”

And as Patience heard the last word, the door swung closed behind her.

She was standing alone in a warm spring night.

She had no other thought but to go back inside and comfort to the older woman lying on the floor, to let her slide her hand over her belly and reassure her that she would keep the baby.

The woman was lying on the carpet, crying and screaming over her daughter, her mind being torn apart. Caroline, Caroline, come back, my baby, my daughter, come back, we can fix this.

We can do it all over, Caroline. Ever since you were a baby in my arms. Ever since you were a little girl in a frilly skirt. Ever since you were older, in that silk dress I told you not to wear. Every since I saw you leave the house with that guilty look on your face. Those times you embraced that degenerate man in front of me. That time you slapped me. The time you disappeared and never came back.

But Patience couldn’t.

Please, forgive me. Just this once, I need to be selfish.

Patience couldn’t keep it inside her. She couldn’t let it ruin her life and the future of Garland City. She couldn’t let it be born under the soft blue eyes of the one she hated so much.

She couldn’t let it be an exhibition in court.

When Patience came back, she decided, it would all be about Flora. She would sleep next to her and read her stories. She would take extra jobs to make money. She would be with Flora every hour of every day.

When Patience came back, it would be different. They would be together, with nothing between them. The media would revolt and riot over the unmasking of Leonardo Borghese and the other criminals of the city, and the corruption she revealed. But they would be together, fending them off. Her and her, Flora and Patience, arms around each other, weathering it like they always had, like the mother and daughter neither of them ever had.

But after. After the bleeding. The crying. The hurt.

After.

She hailed a taxi so her Chevrolet couldn’t be followed. As she got in the car, she heard a high wail start to sound behind the tightly shut door. Light streamed out beneath the crack of the door.

Patience told her driver Burstein and Sons, 1780 Lafayette Avenue, Sixteenth District, and with a jolt, they left.

***

The doctor’s office was in an empty strip mall, by the highway.

A pharmacy and a small grocery flanked Burstein and Sons Dental Center, their lights winked out. The blank, arched neon lights stared blankly at the whizzing of the passing headlights of the highway.

Patience rang the bell on the peeling green door, where a young woman with a surgical mask asked her name and hurriedly beckoned her in.

The waiting room was bare and empty. It had the required, blank hotel-room art on its walls, of vague American landscapes of trees and forest, and a few red leather chairs. Creases in their leather revealed the white foam underneath. The smell of Listerine lingered in the air, pungent as chemicals.

No one was there except for Patience. The other woman had disappeared through the door to the dentist’s office. Patience hoped it would be her who would do the procedure. The thought of a perverted man with greedy eyes giving her the operation made her sick.

She sat there as the clock ticked. Her hands were laid over her pregnant belly the whole time.

The young woman couldn’t stop touching herself. Her blunt fingertips brushed her swollen, sensitive skin. She couldn’t stop imagining the baby inside her, the one Flora had cared so fiercely for, so much more fiercely than Patience had.

The minutes passed by. The silence weighed over her like a blanket. The leather of the chairs stuck to the back of her neck, sticky and cold.

The young girl imagined the tube sliding up, up, up inside her, shredding apart her insides and making blood pour down her legs. She thought about feeling her child fall out of her, a clump of blood and limbs and hair that was half of her. A half that might have her Norwegian grandmother’s nose, or her father’s smiling green eyes, or who liked Mark Twain novels and fell asleep with her mouth open like her.

She stared at the dark revolving doors for a long time. The dim, white mist of spring obscured the outside glass. Someone, maybe a child during when the office was open during the day, had drawn a smiley face and a sun in the fog of the window.

I can walk out. Right now.

I can change all this.

Just one movement and she could end this. Get up, walk out of the door. Take a taxi, go home and never look back. Return to home. Return to Flora.

I can keep my baby.

Patience heard the heavy footsteps of the doctor echoing down the corridor, accompanied by another, heavier set of footsteps.

They were unpleasantly familiar. The soft tap of the shoes made something discontented erupt inside her.

She closed her eyes tight, feeling the sweat stick to her eyelids.

I can’t.

The moment she realized it, salty tears swelled in her eyes, and her nose began to sting. The smell of Listerine made her want to vomit.

I’m too far gone. I can’t stop now.

This was the end, this was the court case, this was Nizzola’s campaign, this was every thing she had given up, this was the end that justified the means. No matter how she felt, it needed to be done. It wasn’t about her. It was about the greater good. It was about Garland City, and her parents, and putting the most dangerous man in Garland City behind bars. She needed to do it.

The footsteps were coming closer. Tears were dripping down her cheeks. She cupped her belly, thumb rubbing over it, feeling the heaviness inside that would soon leave her. God save me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

That sudden voice, that voice, so soft, so delighted, so joyful, so familiar, echoed through the empty doctor’s office.

“Ahh, dolcezza, you’re going to make me a papa!”

And at that moment, she felt the first twitch of life inside her.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

For a split second before recognizing the voice, her body tightened instinctively, like a mouse being cornered by a cat.

It was the same sort of principle as had been learned with Pavlov’s experiments with his dog. When a creature experiences outside stimuli linked to an event—either traumatic or desirable—its body will react regardless of its thoughts, going off simple, primordial body memory.

When Patience Winslow thought of Leonardo Borghese, she thought of his harsh touches that could tighten on her limbs and cause her so much pain, those touches that had hit her enough to bruise and could break her bones like twigs. He was almost like a god, dark and unfathomable, jutting into her life to turn it into a shattered ruin, before withdrawing with a smile on his face. Ever since she was a child, and so much more as a woman.

But then she also thought of the gentle touches, his thumb rubbing across her cheek, his fingers tickling her between the legs. His soft lips on her collarbone, drawing lower, and the comforting ease in which she lay with him on top of her.

Her mind was a washed-out primal plane of fear, neurons attempting to connect with the wash of fear response chemicals that flooded it. But even so, some dark corner of her body experienced a deep spark.

***

“Ahh, dolcezza, you’re going to make me a papa!”

His voice was the low, calm tone she had become used to, but it had a note of contented joy. Almost satisfied. Like a cat who had got the cream.

Patience’s body erupted in a sudden fight-or-flight response, jerking out of the leather chair with enough force to stumble. The revolving doors were so easily within her grasp—

A pair of strong arms, clad in stiff fabric that dragged across her skin, hooked around her waist.

The sudden pressure and the heaviness of his limbs against hers made her begin to scream. “Let go, let go, no, no, NO!”

Her mind was blank with terror, shivering down to her legs and making her nerves fail. Leonardo’s face was pressed against her, her sweater pulled down to reveal her pale shoulder. His pleasant mouth smiled against her quivering skin.

“Pazienza. Should I call you that anymore? Perhaps I should call you Mamma.”

“Let me go, let me go, LET ME GO!” she screamed fruitlessly. His long fingers slid under her knit sweater, digging into and caressing her skin.

“Oh, look how big you are. How could you have hid this from me such a long time?”

The soft pads of his fingers trailed across her taut, pregnant skin to brush the pale cleft between her thighs. In his voice she could detect a certain joy, a fatherly happiness, with a tremor in it.

“Oh, mia figlia.”

Patience started to cry.

She was trying, she was trying so hard, she was writhing in her loose clothes, she was fighting with all her might against his iron-hard grip. The revolving doors were right in front of her. In one single movement she would be beyond them.

“Let me GO!”

She screamed so hard her throat burst, but the headlights of the highway cars just flashed past, disappearing past the peeling doors and cracked asphalt.

There was no one in the strip mill, no one to answer her cries. All the stores were closed, their headlights shining off blank gray neon letters. Fractured concrete and old sidewalks. Dark forests beyond the lit doctor’s office.

No one knew she was here.

“Calm down. It’s for your own good. Calm down. Dolcezza.” The way he said it—dolcezza—made a wave of weakness finally come over her limbs, and her legs collapsed.

Leonardo was crouching on the ground down, arm digging her in her lap and one hand across her belly. She was half in his lap, half sprawled across the floor. Her bare ankles dragged across the linoleum as he shifted, settling her better on his lap. Cold sweat poured down her neck

His arms crossed around her, cocooning her in warmth. “Ssh, ssh, ssh.”

The blond man’s voice was right by her ear, tickling her as he reached up to comb a handful of hair away from her face. His lips brushed her bare skin, sending tremors through her body.

“Signore Borghese?” said a rough, gravelly voice, the one she recognized as having heard over the phone. There was a man standing by the door, arms folded. He had thick white muttonchops and a beard, looking rather like a surly Santa Claus.

“My apologies, Heinrich. Could we go on with the examination?”

“It’s not yours,” Patience sobbed helplessly as he dragged her up. “It’s Salvatore’s. It’s his baby. It’s his, it’s his—“

Patience was politely ignored as she was led to the examination room. Her gut chilled as she saw it. It was just a bare room with green wallpaper. It was stripped of dentist’s equipment, the needles and drills stowed away in the corner.

A blue leather chair shone in the spotlight overhead. The metal lining glinted in the white light. The chair had two straps by the legs. On a table were two dozen silver, metal instruments.

Soon she was watching her legs being pulled apart and secured, while Leonardo’s arms held her firmly in place. “No, please, let me have some decency, please—“

Patience watched the leather straps tighten on her ankles, spreading her carefully apart. Her pants were tugged down to her thighs, and her underwear carefully peeled back. Leonardo was behind her, his breath tickling her hair.

“How many months?” Leonardo said.

“Several. Three at the least if I had to estimate.” The doctor prodded her skin clinically, kneading her heaving skin with his cold hands.

Leonardo teasingly tweaked her ear. “Who did you think you were trying to fool, sweetheart?”

Her chest heaved in the white light under the clinical, pointed eyes of both him and the doctor.

“I’m concerned that you haven’t come to me before now,” Doctor Szekeles continued, kneading her abdomen. “She seems inordinately frail. Childbirth will be hard. I’ve seen this in many women before—“

His papery hands traveled across her body, tickling like a spider’s legs. Unable to bear it anymore, Patience kicked out, her ankles yanking fruitlessly at the straps. She twisted her upper body, but Leonardo had her firmly in his grip.

“—With her short stature, and—pardon me—how tall you are, there’s a good chance of the fetus causing damage during birth. I recommend you have observation during the entirety of the pregnancy. I can reserve a time for you each month...”

“I’m afraid that will be quite impossible, as we will no longer be in Garland City for that length of time. I will be accepting recommendations, though, Doctor…”

The two men continued their conversation as she wriggled and fought, trapped. They both talked over her, as if she weren’t even there. The feeling of being held down, of being restrained and ignored, made a visceral horror spread through her body.

Like I’m a thing. A pregnant cow or dog.

Thankfully, the doctor began to unbuckle her legs. Patience gratefully drew them up to her chin. She was shaking.

The girl couldn’t believe this was happening. She wanted this to be a nightmare she would wake from, safe and cozy in Flora’s soft pink room. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening.

Leonardo pulled her gently off the chair. “Stop crying. There, there. Everything’s all right, Mamma.”

“Sh-shut up,” she sobbed. “You know damn well nothing’s all right, you sack of shit!”

He twisted her wrist gently, but the force in his hand was enough to quiet her. “Now, you know how much I hate it when you use those kinds of words,” he rebuked her as he led her down the hallway.

Doctor Szekeles followed close behind, his scuffed leather shoes clopping on the floorboards. “Miss Borghese, I really must warn you to take care of yourself during the course of this pregnancy. Assuming you haven’t borne children before, due to your body type you are at undue risk of miscarriage or complications during birth. You've got yourself a good man, Mrs. Borghese, and I’m sure he’ll help you through the worst, but—“

At the doorway, she whipped her head around and snarled at him. “The name’s Winslow, Doc, not fucking Borghese. When I get back I’m going to bust you to the feds so hard you’ll eat gruel off a metal plate for a decade.”

The white-haired doctor stayed in the door as they stepped onto the wet concrete of the parking lot.

Outside the empty office was a long, lacquered black car, the windows tinted. It looked quite out of place on the cracked and pitted asphalt. As Leonardo opened the door to usher her in, she lashed out in one final, desperate attempt, kicking back and biting down on his arm.

Leonardo withstood the kick with barely a tremor, and Patience got nothing but a mouthful of fabric for her efforts. He pushed her facedown on the seats and slammed the door after them.

With a low hum, the car started to move.

Patience’s face was pressed into the seat, her tears sliding down the leather. “Why? Why?” she burst out. “How? How did you know?”

She could feel his presence above her, carefully shifted so that his weight wouldn’t press down on her back to put pressure on her pregnant belly. His hands sunk into the seat beside her, finely manicured nails digging into the expensive leather.

“Pazienza, being apart from you for so long made my body long for your touch. What a challenge this is. We have places to be, yet I wish to hold you in joy of celebrating our first child.”

“Answer me!” her voice was cut off when he slid his hands under her shirt and cupped her sensitive breasts. Leonardo’s legs were bracing her, resting his bulk on her lower body. She thought that Salvatore had taken her once like this. But she suspected Leonardo had more refined tastes in intercourse—through any of the innumerable times he had fucked her in his house, he had always demanded they be face-to-face. “How long have you known?” she demanded.

His smile curled against her nape. “Long enough.”

Patience felt a tightening in her belly as he slowly rubbed her pink nipples, smoothing the creases out and coaxing them into red buds. A current of pleasure ran through her. Her inside veins swelled with milk as it made its way to the tips of her nipples. The more he massaged them the more the pressure built up within her body, until she wanted to scream.

His fingers rubbed and caressed them slowly, in the gentle way she had not experienced in so long. Salvatore treated her body like a playground. Leonardo treated her body like a temple.

And then his weight was gone. He pulled her up with him and nestled her into his side. Being so close to him after such a long time made her heart freeze.

Leonardo’s profile against the window was groomed and elegant, his high brow and Roman nose arched against the halo of light from the streetlamps. His hair was carefully teased into an stylish sidepart, one side carefully coiffed and the other combed flat against his head. His shoulders were straight, suit neatly ironed, black tie tucked into the crisp white front. Leonardo’s slender legs were crossed politely, as if he were riding on a subway, carefully formal and polite and fake. Like he was ready for a campaign speech, not a kidnapping.

He was the same as he always was.

In control.

Patience wondered if there was ever a time when he wasn’t.

The scenery blurred outside of the misty window. She saw lights flash past, some slowly lifting into the sky.

“Are we in the Garland City Airport?” her voice was a squeak.

Leonardo said nothing, but when the car halted, he pulled her out.

Her flats stumbled on the concrete. “Where are we going?” she demanded, jerking her arm.

There was a small, white plane on the dark, wet airfield. A white staircase led up into its body. Behind it, large behemoths of passenger planes sat silent and dark in the late night.

“Where are we going?”

He clasped her arm in his as he led her onto the staircase, and even though she tried to wrench away, he forced her to stumble onto the white plastic stairs. He herded her up the stairs, right behind her. The doors slid closed behind them like the slam of a coffin.

She was alone with him in the plane, sitting on a velvet gray seat. The inside was comfy, small, with four chairs and a cart in the back filed with drinks.

He sat down opposite her, chin resting on his hand.

And their eyes met.

Blue, blue, blue.

In the silence before the engines fired up, he smiled. “Sit tight. We’ll be off in a minute, Mamma.”

She snapped. “Don’t call me that!” She screamed, tearing at her seatbelt.

His fingers bit into her arms as he restrained her. “Patience. Calm yourself. Calm yourself.”

His voice never rose an inch, not even when he slapped her harshly across the face.

Her entire body jerked in the sudden, searing pain as she fell sideways, clutching her face. For all his tight grip on her and his snarled threats, Salvatore had never gone out and assaulted her while she was pregnant. The surprise left her in shock. A trickle of blood dripped down her nose.

When she looked up the blond man had sat back again, his hands folded across his knee. He was relaxed back like a sprawled lion. There was nothing in his posture that remotely suggested regret or second thoughts.

Cold blood seeped into her veins. He hit me without flinching. His pregnant fiancée.

It had been a while since she had last seen him—at the Ritz had been her last time, with his Panama hat and white suit. Now he was dressed more somberly, more familiarly, in a charcoal gray suit buttoned up to his neck with a black tie tucked into the front. His hair was slicked, not loose in those bouncing curls, and the lightness of his hair framed his high cheekbones. He was unruffled and satisfied.

The plane’s engines started with a roar.

”Where are we going?” she whispered, her fight gone.

“Somewhere where you’ll be safe.” He had that neutral tone. That interview tone. Carefully formal and shut out of emotion. He reminded her of the portrait of his mother above his bed, their features similar in their impassiveness. “Somewhere quiet, where you can give birth and not inconvenience me.” He reached forward, and with his thumb wiped away the blood trickling down her chin.

The headlights outside the window reflected off his eyes like shards of glass. As glossy as a predator hiding in the tall grass, watching its prey.

***

They were airborne.

The pressure in Patience’s ears was about to pop. What will Flora think when I don’t come back? What will Benjamin think when I don’t show up to the meeting with the editor? She needed to contact them. And then, before anything else, she needed to let them know who had her in his grip.

When they landed, she would find a telephone and alert Flora and Benjamin. Patience had escaped him once before. There was nowhere he could take her that she could not find her way from. Los Angeles. Wyoming. The Nevada desert. The middle of the Rockies. She would find a way out. She always did.

Patience sat back against her soft headrest and met his eyes, He was pouring himself a glass of brandy. When he turned back to her, he was holding two glasses, one filled with amber liquid, the other filled with clear water. “Have a drink,” he told her kindly, handing her the iced glass. “You’ll feel better. I apologize about the examination I had Heinrich conduct. It couldn’t have been pleasant for you. Next time I’ll get a woman midwife, wouldn’t you like that?”

The wet coldness on the outside of the glass slicked her hand.

They were alone. Thousands of feet above the earth’s surface.

“How did you know?” Patience asked, her voice low and quiet.

He smiled as he sat beside her. His shoulder was warm against hers. “How did I know? Well, I have to admit. I expected as much. Though you tried so hard to hide it, poor thing.”

Patience took a sip of water. It was cold and icy against her parched throat.

“When I saw you during my first campaign speech—wearing that little red dress you look so delectable in—you were on edge, I could tell. More than usual. Like there was something you weren’t telling me. I had my suspicions, but during the dinner with Charlie and that peasant Mallozzi I had it all but confirmed. Seeing you there, standing hands over your mouth with your eyes showing that realization—I hope you know morning sickness can strike at any time, not just the morning.”

His warm hand slid over her belly. The touch of him was repulsive.

“Doctor Szekeles,” Leonardo continued. “I know him well. He’s a good friend of mine. He performed the surgery on your ankle when we were living together. Don’t you remember?”

Patience realized it with a bitter lurch. All those months past she had woken up with her leg failing, and a thin neat line of stitching over her ankle. But she had never seen the mysterious doctor who had performed the surgery.

“When he told me my woman was coming in for an abortion I could barely hide my joy. You tried to conceal it so well, didn’t you? You dawdled and blushed in front of my eyes, your little fingers caressing your belly. But I knew. I knew whose seed was inside you…” his loving voice made revulsion prick her shoulders.

Her baby twitched below his fingers, as if seeking its father’s touch.

“I was going to get rid of it.”

“And yet you kept it so long. Feeling guilty, Pazienza? That Protestant guilt. I could see it in you the first time I met you.”

She shoved him off once again in another surge of bitter fury. “Don’t touch me. Don’t you dare touch me, Borghese. I’m not the same girl you defiled. If you think I’m just going to lie down and take it—“ her voice broke on the last words. Her voice was strong, but her brain was in a rapidly degenerating state of terror.

It was over. It was over. She was with him, she was in his grasp, she was in the nightmares again, he was with her in an enclosed space. He could rape, torture her, oh god, his eyes on her.

“You have a hell of fight in front of you, Borghese,” she ground out, “Because all I’ve done is gotten stronger. I’ve learned to deal with people like you. And you have no idea what you’re up against, motherfucker.”

“Swearing again.” His voice was like the rasp of a violin.

Leonardo’s face was as porcelain as a doll, blankly painted with the vaguest of happy expressions. The light reflected dimly across his creamy skin, off the white of the neatly buttoned shirt under his coat.

He was a shadow made of white, blank and incorporeal, nothing but an impression below a pair of glass-blue eyes.

“I’ll have to train you out of that. A real woman sits when she’s told to, obeys her husband, and talks and acts like a lady. You’ve always been resistant to domestication, but now that you’re with child, you’ll have to act more like you were meant to be— a wife and mother.”

Incongruous with his cool serene face, his hands gripped her taut, swollen belly like a falcon’s claws. She was cold, afraid, like a mouse in a cage.

He let his forehead rest against her belly, warm as a furnace against her skin. “I’ve waited so long for a child. And now, inside you… my beautiful baby. Mia figlia. I feel privileged to be part of such a sacred process of life. I am a father now. And you are a mother.”

The way he stated it—like it was simple fact of life— made her realize her predicament.

Neurotic, unkempt, bitter Patience Winslow was going to be a mother.

Nobody knows where I am.

Barely anybody knows I’m pregnant.

He’s planned this.

He’s planned it all.

***

The compartment was silent, his hands on her. His hair was coming loose, golden locks falling to frame his face, long enough to brush his collarbone. If she reached up, she could smooth them out of his face, so easily, like that time in the restaurant. He had the same voice, the same face, the calm, peaceable aura.

She wanted to scream and cry at him, but her voice died in her throat.

His strong legs were gradually spreading hers apart. Patience was dressed in a wrinkled blouse and a loose pair of black slacks, her muddy hair tangled and her belly bulging. She could barely find it believable he would find her an object of lust. But then, maybe it was just about the swollen bump between her thighs. In any case it was the only thing his blank eyes were fixated on, hand trailing over it while he purred out his words.

“How could you keep a child away from its father, Patience? You are so cruel.” His lips sealed on her belly. “Separating a child from its parent is a cruel sin. Doesn’t every baby deserve to have a father? And you, its own mother… just wanted to pick it up and get rid of it.”

Those words pierced her heart. Get rid of it. She had told herself those words so many times, when she was lying in bed awake, when she felt the nausea well up as she knelt over the toilet. When she sat in the waiting room of the abortionist.

“You’d be a nightmare of a father, Leonardo,” she hissed defensively. “You’re crazy. You’re a murderer, a—a sadist and you just don’t care. You don’t care about anything other than yourself. I know it. I’ve lived with you. I don’t know why you want a baby, but I know it’s not for some sentimental fucking reason.”

His soft scarlet lips curled as they pressed against her taut belly. “Patience, you are so paranoid. If a waiter offered you an extra glass of water, you would check it for poison. Is it simply too much for you to believe that I want to marry you because I love you? To have a child because I want one of my own? If the simple desire to be a parent is too alien to you, perhaps you have no business being one.”

His hand spidered over her belly, and she had no idea who he was being possessive of. “What sort of mother would you be, Patience? One who would rather kill her child rather than give birth to her?”

Her guilt was rising up, sharp and instinctive. “Better than an insane Mafioso. One who orders peoples’ ears cut off in his sitting room. One who rapes its mother and gives speeches the next day about how compassionate he is. Can’t you see who you really are, Leonardo?”

“Patience, I must really implore you to call me Leonello. You are dolcezza, my sweetness, and I want you to call me by a pet name. All parents do it. I’m sure your parents did.” Marilyn called Richard sweet thing. She really was a Southerner through and through. Sweet tea and sweet pie and sweet thing.

The slow hum of the airplane ground through her ears. Patience shoved him to pull him off, but he just gripped her arm and pulled her down to meet his lips.

The shock of Leonardo’s soft, warm lips against hers made her nipples tighten. They pressed over her like a promise, his tongue gently entwining with hers. The sweet smell was almost floral, choking, like being in a flower shop. His proximity, his soft skin, the smell of him, his breath mingling with hers, they all made her limbs fail. Shivers broke out over her body. 

His hand joined hers, clutched in her lap. “It’s been a long time for you, hasn’t it, Patience?” he murmured against her lips as they separated. His blue eyes were half-lidded, and as he drew closer, the grip on her hands tightened.

She looked aside, her chest heaving. His fingers stroked her chin, dancing across her skin.

“Didn’t the Bull give you any loving? Or was he just too violent for your sweet sensibilities?”

“For what he was, he was a hell of a lot better than you,” she said, but her voice was shaky and weak. “He had a bigger pecker, for one.”

Leonardo did not seem angry. His arms caged her in, eyes glinting like a dark pond. With his smile and his shoulders pressing to hers, she felt herself fail, just as she had so many months ago. His hand slid below her waistband, pulling it down. As he slowly kissed her, his knee slid in between hers, and his hand went down to take its place.

“You’re a terrible liar, dolcezza. I can see it in your eyes. When you lie, your left eye tics. It’s just a simple motion, but it gives away everything. You’re not very good at holding in your compulsions, are you? You never were.” his cold fingertips dug down, penetrating deep into her core.

She was spread like she always had. In the end, nothing had changed, and she had not changed. Her sensitive core lit up like a candle, prickling persistently between her legs. His hard fingers massaged her pink lower lips, and she spread like a flower. His joints twitched and relaxed in surrender as the digits submerged themselves in between her legs.

The girl didn’t feel pain, or distress, or violation. Just pleasure. His breath huffed across her throat, teeth grazing her pulsing windpipe

“No,” she said, trying weakly to push him off. “Not while I’m with… not while I’m in my condition. You have to know how dangerous it is...”

“If you lie still,” he told her quietly, “You’ll have nothing to worry about, Patience.”

He pushed forward, his knee squeaking against the leather. His mouth traveled lower, to caress the tops of her breasts. Her arms went up to push against his chest, but he gripped them in his and forced them on each side of her head.

The top of his shirt was unbuttoned. His hair was loose now, coming free from the sidepart to fall in a shower down to his cheekbones. His face was like a Renaissance sculpture, perfectly unmoving and placid. His light brows, fair skin and elegant nose, they all could have come out of a pre-Raphaelite painting.

He slid his hands up her shirt to caress her nipples. His pads brushed her nipples, toying with the spongy pink flesh. A jolt lanced through her body as he forced a knee in between her legs.

She was pressed against the dark, restricting chair, Leonardo caging her in all sides with hands and legs and hips. A hand slid between her legs, a shock of cold against her sweating thighs.

The girl yanked her head back to take a gasp as his lips traveled lower.

When he pulled her sweater up, her dark, swollen nipples stung with the cold air. It was short-lived as his mouth enveloped them in wet warmth. Her legs arched upwards as his tongue curled around her sensitive nubs. Her entire body was being shocked by jolts of electricity, every nerve hypersensitive as he caressed her damp skin.

The headrest fell back as Patience struggled, her arms weakly gripping the gray armrest.

He stood between her legs now, looming over her as he pulled her sweater off and undid her bra. The chill of the air washed across her bare skin.

His shirt was unbuttoned, exposing an expanse of muscles and hard chest, drops of perspiration running down his neck and collar. By the bulge in his black pants, he would not take no for an answer. Despite his carefully cultured calmness, he was a man, and men took what they wanted. She had learned as much with Salvatore.

Patience’s sweatpants came off next, exposing her white and trembling lower body to his gaze. Her thin legs, tapering up to slim thighs and a disproportionately swollen belly, and the dip of her hips that he pressed his lips to.

“Is there really anything more beautiful than a woman swollen with child?” he murmured as he knelt between her thighs. “It’s no wonder the earliest art we, as humanity, have produced has been of pregnant women. Isn’t it amazing that such a small, frail body such as yourself can nonetheless carry and birth a human being? You should be proud to be a woman, Patience. Inside you carry the continuation of our bloodline.” His voice strained on the last words.

Her hands were buried in his hair when he gave her the first lick. By the second, an electric shock jolted weakly through her body. By the third, she yanked him, although she had no strength in her fingers.

Leonardo turned his head to the side, tongue slicking from underneath her to trail over her thighs. She arched her head backwards, brown hair spread like a dove’s wings over the leather.

“No,” she said, her breath heaving, “Leonardo, no, oh God…” the outside of his flat tongue brushed the swollen outer ridge of her cunt, before curling down into her bloodshot insides. Her insides tightened deliciously as he lavished them with love.

His blond hair tickled the inside of her thighs. His soft lips pursed against her hot, swollen cunt, pressing downwards and massaging her sensitive lower lips.

His thick tongue opened them like a blooming flower, pushing into her and sliding against her insides. Each low scrape made her breath short out and her hips lift.

Patience had no strength left in her hands. She clutched his head weakly, not sure whether to shove him away or further in. Her hips jumped with every lick he gave her, and when he separated, they lurched forward, as if urging them back.

“I think you taste different, dolcezza. Perhaps it’s our baby that’s changing your body.” Patience’s eyes were closed, spots of color blooming across the insides, but even so she heard him undo his buttons.

She kept her eyes tightly closed, trying to shut out the pleasure, even when his long, slender fingers began to dance across her chest, sliding the sweater up to reveal her small, tender breasts. The cold air pierced her nipples, only to be enveloped by his wet, warm mouth.

“Mmm—oh!” A slight sound slipped out of her mouth.

He smiled against her breasts. Something hard and hot nudged against her spread lower lips.

With the first penetration, her jaw tightened and the inside of her eyelids exploded with stars. The hot, pulsing length buried in her made her entire body spasm.

It had been so long since a man had taken her in his arms. She hadn’t realized how much she missed it until she felt the heat of him over top her.

Her legs lifted against her will to wrap over his strong, thrusting hips. His thick length forced her body apart, making her clenching birth canal accept every inch he forced into her. Leonardo’s breaths came in high and tight as he slowly began his rhythm, the hard, seeking head of his cock pummeling to the back of her body. Every slide and thrust made her nipples perk, her throat spasm, and her body erupt with unyielding pleasure as she felt the warmth of his cock bury itself in her.

Her eyelashes trembled, and moisture slipped from underneath them. His tongue trailed over her cheek. “Don’t cry, Pazienza. This is a happy moment. Two parents joining in celebration.”

The part of her that was a woman rejoiced, but the part of her that was a scared little girl just wanted to curl up and cry. I want Flora, some distant part of her realized. She wanted to detach herself from her body and stop feeling these sinful pleasures. She just wanted to nestle herself in the arms of someone comforting.

Another thrust and her mind was jolted again. She drew up her hands to cover her face, but he pinned them down mercilessly. “Come on. Show me your face, Patience. Mia mignotta. I want to know how much you’ve missed me.” He punctuated his words with another deep push.

Her clit was a heated button in the middle of her body. His hipbone ground down against it, making it pulse like a flare. The sudden explosion of pleasure made her breaths heave up in her throat. Her belly felt like a bag of water, trembling with every movement he made.

He slowly pulled out before penetrating her to the deepest. The blond man carefully kept his stature off of her small pudge, supporting himself with his arms. His black coat was discarded, and his white shirt was unbuttoned, drops of sweat dripping down the taut muscles of his chest.

“You do realize I'm not going to let this fly?” Patience hissed as he ground forward. “Wherever we go, whatever you do to me, I’m going to escape you. I’ll—“ the high haze of her voice broke as he intently lurched forward. He swiveled his hips steadily as the head of his cock massaged the inside of her cunt. His slender pale waist pressured her clit, carefully stimulating her bundle of nerves with the edge of a hipbone

Leonardo’s breath washed over the nape of her neck. “Where we're going, I won’t have to worry about that.” He punctuated his words with a nasty movement that slammed against the neck of her womb.

Her vocal cords strained. She ached to let out a gasp, a moan, but her pride kept her silent. She wasn’t some slut lusting over cock, she wasn’t. She needed to fight back again. Even with the overwhelming pleasure sinking to every corner of her body, she couldn’t shake the tight ball of stress deep in her belly. She shouldn’t be spreading her legs like a whore and waiting for some pretty boy to release his useless seed inside her. She should be fighting back like the woman her mother raised her to be.

Patience lifted her upper body, wrenching a hand out of his grip and trying to yank her sweater down. “Get off—“

The blond man’s hand slammed onto her neck, pinning her down. The back of her head hit the seat with a thud of pain. Her eyes watering, she saw him bend over her, his eyes like pieces of coin with their silver sheen.

”Don’t say no to me, Patience. Don’t ever say no to me.”

Leonardo’s hands tightened, squeezing her airway. She choked, hands fruitlessly pulling at his.

He smiled as he looked down at her. It was amazing just how little his manner changed with the simple addition of a smile. He gave off no air of happiness, just something fake and blank, like a painted smile on a puppet.

“Do you know what I like about you, Patience? Your vivacity. You’re a career woman. You don’t rely on husbands or fathers to make your living. You carve your place out in this world by yourself. A woman who knows who she is and knows what she wants—that’s a rarity in this world. But you’re a mother now, and it’s time to put these childish aspirations behind you.”

His hand tightened on her neck. Her eyeballs were exploding, her breath on fire.

“You need to learn to obey.”

His fingers were cold on her throat, tightening on her rose-flushed skin. His cock pierced deeper into her, the hot, throbbing head rubbing against the farthest ripe flesh of her lining. Every time his cock separated from her, her body called for him to resubmerge himself.

“A mother and a wife needs to have respect for her husband and the father of her children, just as a husband and father needs to have respect for her.” His voice was soft as fleece, rubbing against the inside of her brain as he pummeled faster and faster, her legs arching wildly as his hips slammed against hers. “I love you, Patience, but you need to know when to lower your eyes, know how to nurse our children, know to lay on my bed and submit to me.”

Patience’s hair was splayed against the leather, neck arching back as he gave his last thrust back into her. The drops of her perspiration stood out against her flushed skin.

The warmth of his seed usually made panic spark in her pleasure-soaked mind. But now it was useless. He could force his semen as deep as it would go and it wouldn’t change the fact she was already pregnant with his child.

As he pulled away, Patience turned around and covered her body. It was a waste of time—Leonardo had seen every corner of her worth seeing. Her heaving, slender abdomen had been raked over. Every inch of her skin and ripe, rosy nipple had been seen and enjoyed.

A strong hand pulled her up. Warm semen began to trickle out of her hole to congeal hotly against her thighs.

Patience was now sitting beside him in the plane. She stared out the small, pale blue window in the wall. Beyond she could see a dark, midnight expanse with distant clouds of white drifting across the sky.

His stiff cloth suit was rubbing against her soft skin. She weakly fought back against him, pummeling his hard body. Barely reacting, he closed his hands over her face, with one sealing over her mouth as the other pinched her nose.

Her throat protested, the useless particles building up in her lungs. She dug her fingers into his face, but he yanked his head out from her searching fingernails. His eyes were fixed on hers, above an impassive expression as perfectly placed as if it had been sculpted onto a statue.

Leonardo’s fingers lifted, letting her gasp a breath of air before it closed again. Her brain wailed. She was dying, the lack of oxygen closing in on her.

His fingers let loose for a brief second, then they clamped down again.

She didn’t know how long it lasted. The dark dance of life and death, the suffocation and loosening of her breaths. When her mind spiraled into nothing, blank except for the dual feelings of breathing and not breathing, he let her go.

Patience slumped against his side, gasping for air. His warmth was comforting, in a primitive way. She lay against him, his breath washing over her hair, his warm arm wrapped around her body. They sat like that for a long time. His heartbeat thudded like the tick of a clock in her ears, lulling her into slumber.

The girl drifted into sleep, again and again. In one dream, she was confronting Flora. The woman’s brown eyes were worried, her arms clutching her bathrobe closed. In another, it was Michael. His brown hair and gray eyes were the only things she remembered about him. He yelled at her, called her a whore and a traitor.

Her eyes flickered open, crust embedded in her eyelashes. A cool hand was resting across her hot belly. ”Ssh,” he whispered. “Go to sleep, Pazienza."

She was becoming comfortable with the sweet smell of his cologne, like a bouquet of flowers.

Her eyes drifted shut again.

When she woke for the last time, the round window was blurred with wind and rain. Beyond it, she saw bare hills and olive scrub trees, and a barren landscape she had never seen before.

The sky was gray. The land was vast, and dark purple mountains emerged into the horizon above a landscape dotted with gray.

“Where are we?” she murmured, her voice hoarse.

“Sicilia,” he said, and even though she did not know his language, she understood the doom of where she was.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The outside air hit her in a wave of wet warmth. As she disembarked the plane, her flats splashed onto the damp tarmac. Leonardo was inside talking to the pilot, leaving her alone to get her bearings. They were on an isolated concrete strip, nestled between jagged foothills and sweeping mountainsides.

Wind thrummed through her hair. The vastness of the landscape made her feel very small. It had freshly rained, and fog was beginning to swirl around the hills. In the far distance, she saw the misty gray horizon of the sea.

Leonardo’s hand clapping her shoulder was like an electric shock. “Shall we go, then?”

“Where?” she questioned simply as he led her to a car parked on the edge of the airfield. A man was leaning against it, smoking a cigarette, but he threw it away as he saw them approaching. “Signore!”

“Buongiorno, Bernardo,” Leonardo said kindly, exchanging a kiss with the younger man. “Andare a casa, per favore?”

“Con piacere.” He tipped his hat to her. “Buongiorno, Signora Borghese!”

“Buongiorno?” she ventured. “My name’s Winslow, not Borghese…”

Leonardo’s hands on hers spurred her into the car. “For all intents and purposes, you are Signora Borghese here. Do try and answer when someone addresses you as such.”

The seats were dark leather, soft under her sweaty palms. Her neck was stiff from lying upright so long, so she rubbed it quietly as he slammed the door after her. “How long will this trip take?”

He buckled his seatbelt in. “Only about an hour. If you would like to lie down and rest some more, do so on my lap. I’ll do my best not to disturb you.”

His hand pressed against her neck, gently but with the promise of force, pulling her down to nestle her head between his legs. For a terrified moment she was afraid he was going to force her to suck him off, but as his hand settled into a slow, gentle stroke across her hair, she relaxed.

Her heart was thudding, mind whirring like a windmill. All she could do was stare at the windshield through the gap in the seats. Flecks of rain pattered across the glass.

Patience wanted to wrench herself off and yell at him—to try and pry the door open and throw herself onto the road—but she was alone, in a foreign country. She could not speak the language, nor did she know where she was.

The car bumped underneath her. For a few minutes she drifted off again, before jerking awake.

The girl sat up and looked out the window. The sea was gone, and she was surrounded by densely-forested mountains. Beyond, she caught glimpses of cloudy sky and sparse foothills sprinkled with green.

It’s beautiful, she thought. It reminded her of her home in Massachusetts. Surrounded by green, sweeping mountains, with the long roads winding to nowhere.

“Leonardo,” she said softly, “Do you live here?”

“Sometimes.”

She watched the lonesome figure of a donkey crest a hill, dark as a shadow against the pale horizon.

“It’s beautiful.”

“On the surface, maybe. Sicily is a land of many contradictions. You should know better than to judge books by their covers. Sicily is the land of the gods, but Sicily is also the land of cosa nostra.”

“It reminds me of home. Of Greenhaven.”

“I’m glad. It is better that your new home look like your childhood one. You will be happier.” His knowing tone made her want to turn around and snap at him, but she kept herself in check.

But they were leaving the forest roads behind now, traveling deep into the rocky foothills. She saw faint mountains rise up like bumps against the sky.

Save for a man on a bicycle carrying a load of fish in a basket, she saw barely anyone.

The harshness, the rural barrenness, the isolation—she had never seen anything like it before, not even in the windswept pine forests of rural New York.

***

As soon as the salty sea air hit her, nausea overcame her like a storm.

When Patience stepped out of the car, she thought she was seeing a mirage. A Roman-style mansion was stranded on a deserted beach, columns thrust into the sandy soil in front. A white dome towered into the sky, ringed with dark windows.

The Mediterranean influence on it was obvious, from the arches and the white halls, the sweeping balconies and the vast ocean stretching in the distance. It was like an ancient Roman temple transplanted onto the rural beachside of Sicily.

Engraved against the front of the house were impressions of nymphs carved into the stone, hair flowing and pots held above their shoulders. Their expressions were grave, staring blankly at them as Leonardo herded her along the white stone path. At the door, he heaved her into his arms, much to her cries of surprise. “Ormai la frittata è fatta!” he teased as he carried her over the threshold.

When he set her down on the cool marble floor, she stumbled to keep her balance. He caught her and kissed her, arms wrapping affectionately around her shoulders.

His lips tasted like bitter wine.

***

Leonardo, she thought, was a man of habit. The room she had stayed in Garland City had been furnished in a certain way—decorated tastefully with hints that led her towards more domestic activities. Her bed took up most of the room. It was white, like everything else in the mansion.

She wished she could forget these few days.

Every time she had climaxed, every time she begged for more. Ever she knelt and took him in her mouth, and the many times she wrapped her legs around his shoulders as he brought her to pleasure with his tongue.

Leonardo had come for the last night. Next, he had told her, he needed to go back to Garland City. He “had a campaign to run”.

Beyond the balcony, she saw gray, cloudy skies. In the distance, gray frothing waves swept across the ocean.

He buttoned his white dress shirt across his chest. She wanted to tell him to shave. A wash of golden stubble had made its way across his youthful face.

The sea air made her sick constantly, and there were few things she was able to eat. As she lay on her side, watching the ocean roil and riot, she felt the telltale twinge of a kick inside her womb. Her daughter was getting active. Leonardo always referred to it as their daughter. She didn’t know why he was so certain, and she hadn’t been in a state to ask.

“It’s been a lovely few days, hasn’t it?” his voice interrupted her thoughts. She sat up, and a wave of dizziness immediately hit her head.

“Now, I will be leaving for a while. There is food in the pantry. If you wish to speak with me, use the phone in the living room. It connects straight to my home phone.”

Combined with the seasickness, she wanted to vomit. She knew deep down he couldn’t stay with her forever, but still, she felt a rush of freedom at the thought he would be leaving. “How long will you be gone?”

“Only a few weeks.” He slid his coat on. “There will be people to come and check on you in my absence to see if you are doing well. The baby’s health must be taken into consideration, of course.”

“You’d better watch out,” she said, trying to keep the croak out of her voice. The days with him had stripped away all of her fire, but she still found a little bit in her to stoke the flames. “I have people in Garland City, people who will question my disappearance. Powerful people.”

“A cutrate sellout and some hysterical housewife. I’m sure their allegations will be taken completely seriously.”

She would be lying if she said his words weren’t like a punch to the stomach. “Benjamin won’t let this go. Do you really think you’ll be able to keep me here?”

“You’ve become talkative all of a sudden.”

She felt a jolt of fear. “I didn’t mean—“

“Don’t apologize. I love that about you. You always speak what’s on your mind.” He was buttoning his coat up to his neck. ”You’re a feisty one, but until you give birth, you need to stay right here.”

Her heart leapt. “After, can I—“

“Come back to America? Of course. After we marry, and after the baby is born.”

Her brow furrowed before it clicked. “You just want it to have Italian citizenship. So I can’t take it out of the country without your permission. I know what you’re aiming for! I went to Criminal Justice school—“

“I have said it before. Patience, your paranoia knows no bounds. I simply want my daughter to be born in my homeland, the one where I spent my childhood and where and my ancestors tilled and shaped the land.”

He had a way of making her second-guess herself. With the honesty in his voice, a small whisper in the back of her head said, maybe he’s right. Maybe he does just want…

Leonardo sighed happily as he tucked his shirt in. “Marriage. At Palermo’s biggest cathedral. How does that sound? Hundreds of guests, the incense filling the room. The frescos lit up above us as we say our vows. Fine wine and a banquet under the vast white domes.”

He drew near to her, and took her head between his warm hands. He kissed her button nose. “And to think. None of this would be happening if you hadn’t marched up to me on the courtroom steps. Brave and foolish and beautiful without a care in the world. Your hair flying wild, your eyes as green as fresh leaves. I never forgot your eyes.”

She closed her eyes as his warm breath washed over her face. “You could have done so much better than me, Leonardo. There are so many women more beautiful and more agreeable than me. Actresses, singers, daughters of politicians, blonde bombshells … why me? Of all women, why me?” You could have so easily passed me over. You could have so easily spared me of all this.

He smoothed his hair in the mirror and flashed her a smile. “You know what they say. Gentlemen prefer blondes, but gentlemen marry brunettes. Addio, Pazienza.”

When he left, the echo of the door shutting resonated like a church bell in her heart. She sat up abruptly, her hands tangling through her hair, before she leapt up.

Her body was a wreck. Her lower back hurt, from his repeated penetrations and lying prone for hours at a time. Her pregnancy made her ankles swell and waves of nausea sweep over her. The first thing she did was close the window. Cut off from the sickness-inducing sea air, she could think.

Patience mentally ran over the map in her head, the route she had taken to come here from the concrete strip of an airfield to the villa by the sea. As the sun waned, she alighted on a plan.

Patience was not optimistic. She had grown up in rural Massachusetts. Just stepping into the bounds of the wilderness made her feel very small.

The Massachusetts population was concentrated on the coast, with fishing and Boston city banking making up most of its income. But Patience was not raised in the city. She was used to sweeping forests, unpenetrated by human footsteps since the Wampanoag. Just beyond the familiar happy, frolicking wheat fields were dense, unforgiving miles of woods, where coyotes and mountain lions lurked. Where steep cliffs led to sudden drops and rivers could run deep and rapid, ready to gobble up an unsuspecting girl.

Patience knew to be wary. Not of people, but of the land.

But she had seen enough people in Sicily—the man carrying fish, the village close by, the donkey in the field—to know she was close to civilization. People could find her. People could help her. As long as she got far enough away from here.

The living room was whitewashed, with leather couches and marble floors. Colonnades held up the ceiling at the corners of the room. On the far side was a dark fireplace, shards of dying sunshine dancing off the Roman statue of a man riding a chariot placed on top. A white leather camelback sofa, with teak arms and legs, sat in front of a floor-length window, right next to a side table heaped with plush blue books.

Patience didn’t bother dialing the phone. She knew it went straight to Leonardo’s home in Garland City. Leonardo did not forget anything. From all her experiences with him, that was one thing she had learned.

No loose ends, he had said.

She scavenged a pair of boots from outside the front door. They probably belonged to Bernardo. They did not fit her well, but she laced them up tightly.

When Patience was a young woman, only seventeen or eighteen, she had hitchhiked everywhere she went. She was a single woman with no job or car, how else could she travel? The people had been chivalrous, at least on Highway 41. She had gone to and from Greenhaven safely napping in the bed of a truck many times before.

How hard could it be to hitchhike? Sicily could have only been the size of Delaware. She could just get a ride to the nearest city, and then she could find a phone to call Benjamin or Flora.

Flora.

Patience needed to talk to her. If only to calm her panicking mind.

Flora. The older woman needed to know where she was. Was Flora sitting home, head in her hands, listening to the clock tick hour after hour as Patience’s absence lengthened? Was she at the department store, demurely being screamed at by her boss and stitching up dresses? Each minute she spent away from her friend, Patience felt her blood pressure spiking. I’m okay, Flora, I'm okay, she mentally sent the older woman. Don’t worry. I’m coming back to you.

Patience looked for hiking clothes in the closet. God, how many clothes did he own? He had more outfits than Candace. She had found at least three closets, and all were full to the brim of expensively-tailored clothes for men and women. However, none of them were in any way suitable for hiking. Eventually she pulled on a cashmere sweater and a pair of slacks that Leonardo owned from a closet just off the laundry room. She needed to buckle the belt up to last hole to get it to wrap around her waist, and roll up the sleeve cuffs, but it fit her reasonably well. She tied her long, unruly hair in a messy ponytail. Then she set out.

The neatly-cut stone of his driveway ended abruptly. There was only a cracked, white road that led from the beachside villa to wind between the rocky hills.

The road was ancient—clay and rock. It was so different from the neatly paved roads she was used to. Even in her hard boots, the roughness of the road jarred her ankles. It probably dated from Roman times, with the cracked and weathered stonework. She set out briskly, in the dimming evening. The waves washed steadily over the shore, the sound growing dimmer the farther she traveled.

The landscape was alien, almost like the surface of the moon. Old and barren. As she struggled up the hills, she noticed that she couldn’t hear any rumbling of cars in the distance. The eeriness of it disturbed her. The rough, jagged roads carved into the hills seemed like scars on the landscape--on the entire country. Like the scars of the second world war, but deeper. Scars that went back hundreds and thousands of years. 

She was too far into the country, she consoled herself. Once she reached a highway it would be more populated.

Her baby jostled her from inside. It had only started moving a few days ago, but it seemed dedicated to make up for all the time it had missed. “Someone’s trying out for the Olympic gymnastics team, isn’t she?” Patience murmured.

Her ankles hurt. Only half a mile, and already she was panting. God, where was the girl who stalked her clients through miles of streets and alleyways? Where was the girl who staked out mob hideouts for hours at a time?

The land was becoming more bristly. The ridge of a mountain rose in the distance, covered by thick pines. She hiked a few yards up to a hilltop and observed the land around her.  In the distance she saw the great white behemoth of Leonardo’s mansion. The other way, the rocky road wound into the thick forests that stretched in mountains beyond her sight. 

Patience Winslow had lived in the metropolis of Garland City for four years. Before that, she had attended university in a college town. It had been so long since she had been in the countryside. The vast wilderness before her suddenly made her feel like a small girl. She was in the middle of the hills, isolated, alone, with only the dying sunlight to light her way. Just a small child weaving her way through the forest paths, her bare feet thudding as she rushed to get home.

Wind threaded through her hair. For a moment, she was home again. The forest and quiet sky surrounded her, and then she was lying in a field again, chewing a stalk of hay and watching the orange streaks fade from the darkening sky of rural Massachusetts.

Another gust of sea wind and Patience was launched back to reality. She scrambled down the hill and headed quickly toward the mountain. As soon as she reached the treeline she heaved a sigh of relief. The road had broadened, and was sprinkled with gravel. People would surely be traveling it.

Yet as much as she marched and as much as her ankles screamed with pain, she saw no one.

The girl hiked up steep mountain path, her heels sliding through the loose dirt and gravel. She kept to the side in order to hail a car, yet as the hours stretched on, the road remained empty.

She struggled up the mountainsides. Her aching and tired body, midway through pregnancy, was not suited to climbing tall hills. She sat down frequently to rest, the damp gravel soaking into her pants.

Her mind bleared with dizziness. Surely she would encounter a car soon. Or a donkey cart. Or at least a village. If she just kept following the road…

A pair of headlights swam in front of her tired eyes. She stumbled out onto the gravel and began to run. “Help me!” she shrilled. “Stop! Stop! PLEASE!” The car—a rusted automobile without a roof—slowed down. Something large and dark was shoved off it, and then it sped up.

Patience jumped aside as it roared past, and landed hard on her hands and knees. What kind of assholes don’t stop for a pregnant woman? She straggled along, mud staining the front of her sweater and her pants. As she drew closer to the dark lump, she made out limbs in the dim moonlight. A pig or goat carcass? Bless her, her mind always turned to the most innocent of things.

The moonlight played off its glistening face. It was a man, bound in a curious way, like a goat to market. He was on his belly, with his arms behind his head and tied to his ankles. He lay limply on his side, on the side of the road, like a bag of trash that had been thrown out.

There was a dark hole in the side of his head, matting his thick dark hair. Blood trickled down his ear his neck, and over his wide-open eyes, rolled to the sky.

Alone in the vast forest, she looked at the dead body. Then she began to run faster down the road, stumbling and stubbing her toes, panicking and screaming in her throat. The flaked soil was thrown up in clouds behind her.

What kind of country was this where bodies rotted off highways? What kind of country was this where roads sat silent for hours, abandoned of travelers? She wanted away from this dark, canopied pine forest, where the blood in the soil moaned and strained. Where the sand washed across the desolate, pre-Roman dunes, ancient and empty.

She ran so hard her back ached and her toes felt numb, until finally when she rounded a mountain corner, she saw a vast valley beneath her.

For a moment she was enraptured. The moonlight washed over white paths, spreading like strands of cobwebs through the moonwashed valley. Rugged stone mountains hugged it in, like a baby cradled in the arm of its mountain mother. Brick-roofed buildings densely dotted the landscape, and pure white arches interrupted the white paths. In the sweeping darkness of the valley she saw many bright dots, like sparks thrown from a vast fire. The isolation could not be unstated. It looked as if it had not changed since the unification of Italy.

Is this where Leonardo spent his childhood?

Patience stumbled down the road. The weathered rock slowly turned to smooth stone, and she staggered along the street leading into the town. She went to the first house she saw with a light in the window.

Patience knocked on the wooden door. She heard a burst of rapid language behind it, then it was opened by a young woman. The woman had dark brown hair and eyes, and heavy acne scarring on her forehead. She stared at Patience blankly, then frowned when he saw her belly poking out above her waistline. The girl spoke a few words sharply to her. Patience heard the word marito.

“No marito,” Patience said. “No husband. Phone call. Help!” She mimed a phone call.

A man with a thick dark mustache appeared behind her. They spoke a few words to each other. Patience thought she heard Leo but she couldn’t be sure, maybe he just said l’. The language was rougher than she remembered, more guttural. They were frowning as they quarreled with each other. Patience had second thoughts, but the night was strange and frightening and full of dead bodies. She needed any help she could get.

The girl eventually opened the door and ushered her in. The cottage was cozy but modest, made of smoothly cut stone. Inside was a warm hearth, and decorations hung above on the walls—she spotted a crucified Jesus, and the faded portrait of a saint holding a crook. A pot of something was boiling on the stove, and wooden utensils hung on the wall behind it. The floor was packed dirt. An old woman wearing a black headscarf was rocking a baby in a chair by the corner.

“Telefonata,” Patience repeated stubbornly as the woman led her by the hand into another room. Her hand was rough despite how young she was—she couldn’t have been any older than Patience. This room was cleaner, with smooth stone walls, two beds and a bouquet of flowers on the windowsill. A picture of Jesus Christ hung above the many icons on the wall, beside a window that looked out into the vast moonlit mountain peaks.

There was a phone by the rocking chair, shiny yet incongruous in the modest surroundings. The man was already dialing something on it. Patience made a beeline and tried to speak to him, but he held up a hand. As he dialed, Patience tapped her knee and repressed the urge to snatch it away from him.

In a few moments, a soft, familiar crackled through the speakers.

“Pazienza? Già?”

As soon as the distant voice crackled the speakers, Patience stiffened. The coziness of the house suddenly seemed like a prison.

“Grazie, Federico. Lasciami parlare con lei.”

And then the phone was in her hand, and Leonardo’s voice purred into her ear.

“You did it sooner than I expected, Patience.” He sounded almost pleasantly amused. “I was anticipating for you to make an attempt, but not this soon. I just got back home to Garland City, you see. Into the mansion you know so well. Your bedroom is still as it was, disorderly sheets, crumpled bookspines and all.” he heaved a sigh. “We spent some of our best days here. Our child was conceived in this house.”

“Leonardo,” she said, not knowing what to say, “I didn’t—I wasn’t trying to escape. I needed air.”

“Patience. Cease. Both you and I know what you were attempting to do. I was expecting it. How could you have come all the way to Scafapani in search for fresh air? You are the sort of woman who takes her fate into her hands, and I’ve come to terms with that. But now that you’re expecting…”

The wooden chair was hard under her, and the dark oppressive eyes of the young woman weighed on her like a veil of soot.

“This is not acceptable. I told you that I wanted you to submit to me. And that means staying where you are and obeying me. What if our baby was hurt? What if a bunch of bandits made off with you? What if you fell down into a river and drowned? Scafapani is miles away from my home. What if you collapsed and died with no one to help you? What then, Patience? I already worry far too much about you. You need to take the child’s safety into account when you do these reckless things.”

She swallowed. Her throat felt numb. “I can’t stay here. You know that.”

He was silent for a moment. Then, his voice, softer and baritone, more comforting, flooded the receiver.

“You know, when I think of you, in my mind, the first thing that surfaces is your eyes.”

She blinked. Her eyes drifted up, but the girl had already left. In the distance, she heard the squalling of a baby.

“As green as the river that runs through my hometown. The first time I saw them… it was like a chord had pulled in my heart. When I gaze into your eyes, I feel as if I am home. Every speck in them entrances me. Pale as an uncut emerald, as dark as the green sea’s hue; the sea I swam in as a child. I have so many memories in those eyes of yours.”

Her eyes drifted shut. His voice had the intimate tone of a love-soaked bedside confession.

“I fell in love with your eyes, Patience. When my daughter is born, I pray to my God she will have my golden hair, and your green eyes.”

His voice faded from the reciever. Patience’s knees were trembling.

”When I cut your tendon, it rendered you useless to run away. Like hobbling a horse. It forced you to stay close to home. If I dug my fingers into your eye sockets, do you think it will have the same effect? If I pulled your beautiful eyes out of your head, and cradled them in my blood-soaked hand, would that hobble you? You would have to feel your way around the house, tripping and stumbling. Your optic nerves would never be able to experience the vivid reds, royal blues, and sunny yellows that bring the world around you to life.”

Her throat was dry. “Why—“

“If I ripped your eyes out, I would keep them with me. In a jar in my pocket, or by my bedside. Just so I could gaze at them while you are gone. That beautiful green shade. A keepsake of your body. Tell me, Patience. Is that what you want to happen? Do you want me to carve your eyes out of your face?”

“No.”

She swallowed, or tried to. His dark voice reverberated through the receiver, quiet and comforting and so incongruous with the words he was uttering.

“I beg your pardon?”

“No.”

“Will you be good to me?”

“Yes.”

“I warn you, dolcezza. I have eyes and ears everywhere. This mountain is isolated, and everyone who lives on it knows me as one of them. I grew up here. I lifted their village up from poverty. They know what to do and what to say if you approach them.”

Her nose was running. “Okay.”

“You will take care of yourself and the baby. I’ll call you every day. Promesso.”

“Leonardo?”

She was pathetic, she was helpless. And still she asked. “Can you give someone a message? Can you tell her I’m okay? I don’t care if it’s you or someone else. I just want her to know I’m alive.”

He chuckled deeply through the phoneline. “You should be worrying about our child, not some Garland City whore. Your old life is over. Focus on the new.” And he disconnected.

A while after, Bernardo came by, speaking passable English and driving a tarnished car, and she mutedly went home with him. As soon as she saw the clean, hotel-like mansion where she lived, the white marble surface and vast distant ocean in black, she felt the intricate gates caging her in.

***

The yawning silence of the villa echoed in her ears.

It was opulently decorated, but formally and artificially. As if he had not lived a day there. No doors were locked. A dozen bedrooms were furnished tastefully, and not one of them could she trace to him.

It was like she lived in a model home. The clean marble floor echoed under her bare feet. The sunlight dimmed beneath the linen curtains, fading the gray-spotted walls opposite them. A thousand sculptures and vases sat untouched on their side tables. In chests of drawers, artifacts and coins sat behind clear windows. There were no pictures hanging on the walls, save of a few crumbling cityscapes. No portraits of blonde woman nor dark-eyed men hung on the walls, nor was a single desk drawer locked.

Wide, sweeping windows cast white across marble floors as cold as snow. Canopied beds were neatly made, clean sheets spread over wide mattresses. All the more room for her to wriggle away from him during the night.

Patience planned ferociously in those early days. She emptied wine bottles and crumpled up messages inside of them before hurling them into the ocean. She wracked her brain, trying to recall every World War method of getting a message out from behind enemy lines she had studied in college. Writing a letter in lime juice? No good, Leonardo wouldn’t let her send letters. Passenger pigeon? There weren’t any pigeons, just seagulls.

The beach was deserted. Both ways in either direction, she never saw a single human. Patience had heard his voice, and knew he kept his word when he said he would tear her eyes out if she meant to escape again. Her terror of him kept her from running down the beach and into the forest—how many eyes and ears he had, she didn’t know.

In all her days of sitting on the balcony, scanning the waves, she had not seen even a speck of white on the horizon. No yachts, no ships, not anything. It was a hauntingly deserted Mediterranean beach.

She was alone, and she was trapped.

The queasiness never left her, as she wondered what the political climate in Garland City was like. Benjamin would be sitting in his office, yes he would, or he would be preparing a speech, mopping the sweat with his handkerchief and staring at his puffy spectacled eyes in the mirror wondering Where did Patience go? She was supposed to meet me. We were going to expose all of this. Is she all right?

She wondered how Flora would go shopping without her. Would she cover her face with a scarf and risk the stares? Or was Flora still inside the dark house, afraid to leave while peering through the shades, a sliver of light shining off her mutilated face?

Gold-framed mirrors lined the empty halls. Sometimes, unwillingly, she caught a glimpse of herself in them. She saw a frail waifish girl, her white dress billowing and too big on her save for the increasingly protruding belly she sported. Dark bags under her eyes and hair growing long and tangled, like the wood nymphs that had hidden in Sicilian woods hundreds of years ago. She looked more like a girl than a mother, and she feared that she would always feel that way.

It was like she was a ghost haunting a house. With little else to do but think, she often reminisced.

Sometimes she was eighteen again, striding into Garland City, bright-eyed and righteous, with a bookful of ideas on how to right the wrongs of the world.

And then she was alone, a wasted waif, huddling in a bare apartment, eating porridge and drawing lines from one photograph to the other. The voices of a thousand dead people echoed in her ears as she stared at her files. Just as alone as when she had sat on her bed at her aunt and uncle’s, staring at the scraps of newspaper cuttings in her shoebox. Her small, young mind had already been swamped with a premature need for revenge.

The loneliness had always lurked in the back of her subconscious. Months ago, she had gotten a taste of it when Leonardo locked her in his mansion. But now...

Patience was in a foreign country, separated from everything familiar, from all the friends she had loved and relied on. Flora wasn’t around the corner to cosset and cuddle her. Benjamin couldn’t listen to her plans and suspicions with crumpled eyes. Patience couldn’t walk to a café and start a conversation with a stranger, she couldn’t bicycle anonymously down a street and listen to the chatter of the city. No one spoke her language; everyone knew she was an outsider. Save for the little person in her belly, she was alone.

The marble floor was hard under her bare soles. All she felt was the persistent twitching of her baby inside her, the child of the man who had stolen her family from her. The man who had aimed the trigger at her father, smiled, and let the blood arc across the air.

Patience went to sit on the beach often. She felt less alone with the distant laps of fins in the distance, and the cries of the seagulls that whirled and danced across the dunes. A stray egret strutted across the seaside reeds, piercing the wet sand with its arched beak and turning its head to look at her with a quizzical eye.

The sand dug underneath her ankles as she stood up. Waves washed over distant rocks dotting the shore, and seashells crunched under her feet as she returned to the mansion.

In her mind, she talked to Michael and Flora. She imagined what they would say to her. It had been almost a year since she had talked to Michael, and she hardly recalled his voice, so there was little he said to her. Flora always had the same panicked tone. Come home.

Home to Patience had never been within reach. Was her childhood house her home? It had been bought years ago by a shopowner couple, and the light brown townhouse had been converted to a general store front. Was home the empty, cold residence of her aunt and uncle? Was home a college dormitory? Was home the Garland City apartment where she had eaten burned scrambled eggs for four years, and had been evicted from in the lowest time of her life? Was home the brief respite and love she had experienced living cosseted with Flora?

Patience wondered sometimes where Leonardo thought of home. He had moved from Sicily, uprooted his life as a young child, and come to America. Did he consider turbulent Garland City his home, or vast, rural, blood-soaked Sicily?

The sea didn’t bother her as much anymore. The first few days the nausea had bothered her, but smelling it day in and day out, her body became accustomed to it. Sometimes she stripped off her pantyhose and ran into the waves. She had never had much time to spend at the beach, neither in New York or Massachusetts. Now she had all the time in the world. The cold seawater soaked up her legs, and up her thighs, until it sent her scampering back. Feeling the grit of sand and shells, sea creatures under her soft soles— for a moment she was reminded of the river by Greenhaven, and the many hours she played in it. The leeches would stick to her legs and latch there, sucking, and she would pull off their long black bodies while blood streamed down her legs.

The sea air ruffled her air as she watched the sunset fade across the gray, turbulent sea. She wanted to strip her clothes of and dive into its depths until she couldn’t see or hear anymore. She wanted to let the dark seawater fill her ears, fill her mouth until all that was left was the cold emptiness of the ocean. Then maybe the bliss would be all that was left, and she wouldn’t have to live the life she lived, alone and pregnant with no hope of escape.

Instead, she turned and went back into the house, listening to the steady pound of the waves across the beach.

Patience undressed at the doorway, letting her white dress fall onto the marble tile. She walked naked through the house, alone and unseen. If she closed her eyes, then she could almost imagine she was in her old apartment, the smell of must in her nostrils, the ugly ruffled rug beneath her toes.

Sometimes, in her loneliness and alienation, she sung to herself, brief snatches of lullabies her own mother had taught to her. The only song she remembered with any clarity was hard times, hard times come again no more. There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears, oh hard times come again no more…

But when would her hard times end? The horizon was nowhere in sight, no matter how much she strove. Whenever the end seemed to be near, it was a mirage that disappeared as soon as she reached for it.

Patience hated to admit it, but Leonardo’s brief telephone calls, coming once a day at twelve o’clock, were the highlight of her day. The bleakness of her life was briefly interrupted by his voice, and although she despised him, he was the only respite to her loneliness.

The only shred of consolation came from her absolute confidence that Benjamin Nizzola would learn of her disappearance and come to her rescue. Leonardo had brushed him off as a sellout, a wannabe, but he was part of the city council—he had friends in high places. He wasn’t a single divorcee or even a struggling journalist, he was candidate for mayor.

She came to her bedroom and sunk into her sheets. The sheet rustling of her tossing and turning was the only sound beyond the seashore. She had never wished for it before, but she longed for her neighbor’s bickering, the long barks of the dog underneath her apartment, and the distant sound of traffic.

She longed for the sound of people.

Help me soon, Benjamin. I can’t stand much more of this.

***

The donut sat staling on the plate beside him. Benjamin had no appetite right now. He felt that if he ate, he would vomit. The table he was seated at was hard on his elbows.

“You arrested him yesterday?”

The police deputy nodded, eyes hard and mouth downturned under his goatee. “We’re searching his house right this moment. We haven’t found anything—no keepsakes or fresh blood. We’ve found some dried blood samples and we’re testing them, but without a sample from Ms. Winslow, it’s of no use.” He adjusted his cap.

“No witnesses?”

“The landlady was useless. I suspect she might not be all there. Nothing she said made any sense. We had to release her from custody. The neighbors had not seen Ms. Winslow in several days.”

Benjamin kneaded his forehead. His fingers came away slick with sweat. “Let me talk to him.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that, sir.” His eyes hardened. “Dago resisted arrest. Clocked out Danny O’Brien and put Owen Lynch in the Emergency Room. He’s a violent one, and there’s no telling what he could do.”

Benjamin felt vaguely like he should be offended by the word dago, but in the context of the situation, it barely warranted a thought. “That’s my friend who’s missing. My friend. For her sake, I need to know what happened to her. Let me in.”

He had a meeting with Councilwoman Preston in an hour. Pollution on the streets of Garland City was beginning to become a hot topic, and she was willing to lend her support if he could manage to come up with a comprehensive plan. He had done barely any research, and would need to dig something up just before his appointment. He would be better prepared if Patience was here. Disorganized as she was, she was good at scrounging up something useful in the nick of time.

The police station was made of soft maple wood and lacquered tabletops—in the lobby. Beyond, it turned to cold, unforgiving steel. Paint-chipped commodes, cold iron bars and stiff-shouldered policemen escorting criminals.

The white lamp bathed the metal table as Benjamin entered the questioning room. A pale pair of hands were clenched on the tabletop, clutched so hard the veins bulged past the metal handcuffs.

Benjamin was afraid, in that scaredy-cat way his schoolmates had always made fun of him for. He never wanted to see Salvatore Mallozzi again. Just looking into his insane black eyes made his throat freeze up. In the newspapers, Salvatore Mallozzi had risen to an almost legendary level; he was a blood-soaked figure seen at multiple crime scenes, but with all the witnesses unwilling to identify him. A bloody figure only seen in glimpses of photographs, who controlled a large and violent sector of the Garland City Underworld. And his blank, coal black eyes were fixed on Benjamin.

But Patience was missing. Patience, not Miss Winslow. Patience.

Salvatore snorted loudly in the empty room as Benjamin took his seat opposite him. He looked worse than Benjamin remembered. His sable hair was messy and greasy, and his eyes were rimmed with red. There was a fresh bruise on his cheekbone, and bandages swathed his rib cage. He looked like a skeleton in a crumpled suit. “Ciao, grassone. Come to railroad me just like the rest of them? You really are a sellout, you cocksucking son of a bitch. I didn’t do it. I’ve told you time and again. If it was anyone it was that polentone, he has his fingers in all the pies.”

“Leonardo Borghese was dining at home with a close friend on the night of the disappearance. He had an alibi. You, however—“

“Close friend? Are you listening to yourself? Leonardo is more like a church than a person. People worship him. You fuckin’ think he wouldn’t be able to get someone to testify in his favor? Some goon or lackey who wants to suck up to him—“

Benjamin would normally have sat timidly, but Salvatore was in handcuffs and he was not. “Shut up, Mallozzi. I know you did it. I saw her, just after she ‘broke up’ with you. She was crying. You piece of trash. You killed her. You kil