Leaning against the bar, Leo spoke into his cell phone. “Yes, sir. Everything’s in place. The tenants will be out by the end of the month.” He waved to the bartender to bring another scotch. “Yes, sir. I’ve bought out those I could and hired some gentlemen to ‘persuade’ the ones who couldn’t decide quickly enough. Unfortunately, there are still a few hold-outs and they’ve petitioned the city to grant historic landmark status to all the buildings on that lot.”
He jerked the phone away from his ear. Barely listening to the angry outburst on the other end, he winked at an attractive woman who had moved to the bar. Oh yeah, he thought. This one will do. Covering the mouthpiece on his phone, he said, “Can I buy you a drink, gorgeous?”
“There’s a little problem with that.” She pointed to his wedding band.
“Aw, she’s a couple thousand miles away at home. And we’re here together. Whaddaya say, beautiful? My firm takes care of all my expenses… and I do mean all.”
She grabbed her drink from the bartender, turned and stalked away, shaking her head.
Sipping his scotch, he scanned the room like an animal on the prowl. Hmmm, a few possibilities. He spotted a woman walking toward the far side of the room. Nice ass. Now there’s a likely candidate. No, wait. Damn. Glasses. Leo didn’t like women with glasses – made them look smart.
He still held the phone a few inches from his ear, not listening to the words as much as monitoring his boss’s volume. He knew the rant by heart – he had heard it several times over the last couple months. It started with ‘Why the hell is it taking you so long?’, continued with ‘Do you know how much money the firm stands to lose?’ and finally peaked at loud volume with some version of ‘I knew you were going to fuck this up.’ Usually by that point Leo would be fuming. But this time, he just smiled. He had good news, but he was waiting for his boss to work himself up before sharing it. The opportunity to fuck with this asshole was too good for Leo to pass up.
With the boss still on a tirade, Leo continued looking for a play partner. He spied a hot little redhead smiling at him from across the room. Too bad about the hair, baby. Leo didn’t like his women to talk too much, and redheads were the worst.
His gaze flitted over another (too fat), and another (no tits) before settling on a well-endowed brunette sitting just a couple tables over. He signalled the bartender to send her a drink and to put it on his tab. Oh, baby, I’d like to—
Before he could even get that fantasy started, his boss’s yelling from the phone yanked him back to reality. “What was that, sir? Sorry, it’s a bit loud in here.” Leo savoured this tiny bit of revenge and said, “Well sir, I hadn’t finished what I was saying before you interrupted. I’ve already handled the historical landmark petition. I convinced a city inspector to pronounce the property unfit for human habitation.”
With his boss suddenly silent, Leo grinned and held his middle finger up to the phone. I can’t wait to steal your job, asshole.
The bartender delivered the drink and pointed back to Leo. He raised his glass to her and she raised hers in return while giving him an inviting smile. Oh yeah, he thought. Let me just finish with this idiot and you’re in for the ride of your life, honey.
“Well sir, turns out he likes the working girls. He was happy to play ball once I hinted his wife might be interested in the photo collection I’d put together.” As his boss responded, he smiled and thought, It’s about time you realize my value, you little prick.
To his boss, Leo said, “Yes, sir. That’s also been addressed, though it was the hardest part.”
And you better damn well appreciate how hard it was.
“The councilman finally named his price. This afternoon, several of our subsidiaries made quiet donations to his re-election campaign. I meet with him tomorrow morning when he signs the eviction papers.”
He smiled at the brunette and held up one finger to indicate he’d be done quickly. She winked at him and leaned forward at her table, allowing Leo a good look down the low-cut top she wore. His boss asked another question and Leo thought, Jesus, shut up already!
Still leaning against the bar, he turned his back to the room and lowered his voice, “No, sir. I used one of the offshore accounts. Nothing can be traced back to the firm.”
Leo straightened, surprised by the praise coming over the phone. “Why, thank you, sir. Yes, I’m well aware of the money the client brings to the firm. Yes, sir. Absolutely. Two weeks at the most. I guarantee it. In less than fourteen days, the last few ‘irritations’ will be removed from the complex and the client will have the city’s blessing to begin development. Condos, wasn’t it?”
He listened a moment, then pumped his fist. “Really, sir? Partner? Well, sir, you know you can count on me. Once the councilman signs the eviction order, it’s only a matter of days before law enforcement throws out the last few dregs in preparation for a better class of people.”
He stood a little taller, puffed out his chest and checked himself in the mirror behind the bar, a rooster preening for attention. About fucking time.
Leo snapped the phone shut and took a deep drink of his scotch. The rosy glow he felt wasn’t only from the alcohol. Full partner. It’s about damn time, after busting my ass for so long doing the dirty work for the idiots upstairs.
His thoughts returned to the moment. I definitely deserve to celebrate. He checked his hair in the mirror again and turned to face the room. Let’s go get that lucky lady. I need—
“Holy shit!” Startled, he jumped and almost dropped his glass. The empty barstool next to him was no longer empty. “Who the fu—”
The word caught in his throat when he realized, Jesus Christ, this bitch is hot!
He looked her up and down, admiring the curves of her petite body, a hungry predator assessing his prey. Her sizzling red hair cascaded halfway down her back and when she glanced up at him to speak, he saw the flash of bright green eyes. After a moment, he realized she was the redhead smiling at him from across the room just minutes earlier. Oh yeah. If you want it so bad, baby, you’re in. I definitely deserve a threesome tonight. Just, God, please don’t be a talker!
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did you want to be alone? Or did you have other plans if she didn’t work out?” Leo’s surprise visitor nodded toward the buxom brunette walking out of the bar.
He looked and, sure enough, she was leaving on the arm of some old guy. What the hell? I had that shit locked up.
As if reading his mind, the redhead said, “Let her go. She’s a pro and you don’t really want to pay for it, do you? Not when there’s someone like me sitting next to you…”
Leo, still on a high from being offered a partnership in the firm, simply sighed and turned back to the sexy little redhead. Well, let’s see what the runner-up has to offer.
He gave her his most charming smile and laughed. “I can’t believe she took advantage of my generosity like that.”
She laughed with him, and followed with a seductive smile that caused a definite reaction below Leo’s waistline.
Damn. She wants it. Turn up the ol’ charm, my boy, and let’s get this one in the sack fast. Need to be fresh for that morning appointment with the councilman!
“And no need to apologize. I didn’t see you sit down, and you took me by surprise. I’m not complaining. Sitting next to such a beautiful woman will make me the envy of every guy in here.”
“Not a very original pickup line.” She chuckled. “But I like it. Thank you.”
Gotcha, he thought. He held out his hand. “My name’s Max,” he said, using his favourite pseudonym.
Leo never told a conquest his real name. It could get so annoying when they tried to find you, especially when they let themselves get pregnant. That’s why he no longer worked jobs that might take him to Chicago.
She shook his hand and smiled. “Hello, Max. I’m Ryanca. ‘Ry’ for short.”
“Can I buy you a drink, Ry?” He motioned for the bartender.
“Sure.” She turned on her stool and said to the bartender, “I’ll have a Black Magic.” The bartender cocked an eyebrow and she responded, “Vodka, coffee liqueur and lemon juice. I’ll leave it to you to figure out the proportions.”
They watched the bartender make the drink and when he brought it, Ryanca took a tentative sip, smiled and said, “Just right. Thank you.”
She turned back to him and looked up into his eyes. “So – Max – come here often?” She laughed and took another drink. “One bad pickup line deserves another, wouldn’t you say?”
He was about to respond when she leaned in close and said, “Max, we both know what you want. Wearing a suit to a bar this late in the evening means you’ve had important business today, and since you’re sitting here so late in the day sporting a wedding ring, you’re probably from out of town. Otherwise you’d either be home with your wife, or you’d be wearing something more comfortable than business clothes. The ring on your finger and the fact you bought me a drink means you’re looking to cheat.”
Alarms sounded in his head. Did the wife hire a private eye? A tiny bit of guilt tinged with shame tried to crawl up from the dark depths of Leo’s soul and into his conscious thoughts. Not even aware of doing so, Leo quickly suppressed it.
She held up her hand to forestall his protest, lowered it to his chest and slowly ran her fingers up and down the length of his tie. “Don’t worry – Max. I want it, too. So why don’t we skip the bullshit and get out of here?”
Normally, he wouldn’t have wasted his time with someone like Ryanca. He didn’t like when his women thought for themselves. The way she had taken control – that made him a bit uneasy.
Unfortunately, a quick scan of the room indicated nothing better. Christ, nothing but fatties. Well it’s this broad or nothing. And what am I worrying about? The wife trusts me and wouldn’t hire someone to follow me. Besides, I deserve this. I work hard. I should get to play hard.
His decision made, he announced, “Well Ry, I’d like nothing more!” He gulped down what was left of his drink, and laughed. “And to continue with the bad pickup lines… your place or mine?”
She smiled. “Oh, mine will be just fine. It’s close by.”
Perfect. I’ll knock out a quick one, claim I forgot something at the bar, promise to come right back and be asleep in my hotel bed by eleven.
He grabbed his jacket and said, “So Ry, what do you do?”
For a very short moment, her smile faded and her eyes seemed to focus on nothing. A look of melancholy stole across her face. Just as quickly, it was gone. She smiled warmly and said, “I’m an artist of sorts. A tattooist.”
“Really?” he said, with no hint he had noticed her temporary shift in mood. “I’d have expected a tattooist to have more tattoos.”
“I only have one, Max, but I can’t show you in public.” She winked at him over her drink, took another sip, and set it on the counter. “But there’s a good chance you’ll get to see it very soon. Mmm, let’s go.”
As they entered her apartment, he noticed the definite lack of furnishings. There was a small cot against one bare wall and an unrolled futon against another – no coffee-stained mugs in the kitchen, no dirty clothes on the floor. “Hang on,” he said. “Doesn’t look like you actually live here. Are you a pro, too? No offense, baby, but I don’t pay for it.”
She laughed and closed the door. “No. This is just a temporary residence. Like you, I’m only visiting. Still want to see my tattoo?” She playfully fingered the top button of her low-cut sweater.
“Oh yeah, baby, absolutely.” His libido immediately regained control and he reached to take off her top. “Gimme those—”
“Not so fast, big boy.” She pushed his hands away. Smiling playfully and watching his eyes, she undid the two top buttons and let her sweater open just enough to fire his imagination. “Mmmm. Your turn now. Take off your shirt… and then I’ll show you my tattoo.”
No longer thinking with his brain, he salivated, “Yeah, baby, anything you want.” He attacked his buttons, fumbling with the last one and popping it off his shirt. He threw the shirt to the floor and growled, “Now get that sweater off, baby. I wanna see what I’ve been working for.”
“Alright, Max. Or whatever your name is. You’ve definitely earned this.” Still holding her sweater closed, she undid the last buttons and pulled it off her shoulders low enough to expose the upper curve of her breasts. She chuckled. “My tattoo’s on my back. Ready?”
Whatever gets you naked, bitch.
“Yes. Show me.”
She turned and presented her back. He gasped.
Ryanca fastened her sweater and turned back to face Max, but he was gone. Instead, there stood an incredibly detailed stone statue that resembled Max. And his wasn’t the only metamorphosis. Ryanca’s once-fiery hair now shone brilliant silver and her dazzling green eyes had turned black.
Moving as if in a trance, she knelt before the cot. From under the pillow she pulled a rolled up leather tool belt. A delicate silver thread encircled the faded leather several times, holding it closed. She returned to the statue and laid the item at its feet. After a quiet moment, she touched her finger to her lips then to the silver thread, and watched as the thread untied itself. She unrolled the faded leather belt and fastened it around her waist. It held dozens of small pockets containing a collection of miniature chisels and hammers, the largest no bigger than an average screwdriver and the smallest the size of a tiny sewing needle.
Her fingers moving gracefully, she selected one of the smallest chisels and a hammer of about the same size. She stood and gently placed the fragile-looking tool against the upper chest of the man-statue, and gave it a light tap with the hammer. A tiny piece of rock fell to her feet. She stepped back and stood unmoving, her jet-black eyes upon the statue. After a few moments, she stepped forward and resumed her task. For the next several hours, the tap-tap-tap of hammer and chisel upon the statue beat a steady rhythm, only pausing when Ryanca, or whatever Ryanca had become, switched tools.
Finally, as the sun shed its first light through the apartment window, she stopped. Stone chips littered the floor around her feet, some so fine they could have been mistaken for ash. She carefully packed the last of her tools into the leather belt and rolled it closed. Touching her finger to her lip, then to the silver cord, she sealed the pouch.
Returning her attention to the statue, she caressed the delicate design she had etched upon its chest and smiled. After a bit, she lowered her hand and turned her back to the statue. As before, she unbuttoned her sweater and let it fall to reveal her shoulders and upper back, exposing the brightly coloured tattoo upon her right shoulder blade — a nightmarish female visage, done in minute detail, with seven snakes wrapped round its head and twined in and about its hair.
Ryanca gasped and swayed on her feet as the tattoo’s colour leapt off her skin and arced to the statue, bridging the gap between them like a tiny rainbow. After a few seconds, the rainbow winked out and she fell to her knees, her tattoo faded to a colourless, faint grey outline. Exhausted and panting, she knelt on the floor as her platinum hair slowly regained its fiery redness.
Once she had caught her breath, she stood and fastened her sweater, covering the tattoo which now exhibited a bit of fresh colour – and only six snakes. She grabbed her pouch and turned to the statue, taking it in as if she had never seen it before. Her green eyes locked on the brilliantly coloured imprint. “Interesting choice.”
With a light touch and a warm tone, she stroked the statue’s cheek and said, “Good luck… Max.”
Locking the door behind her, she left the apartment.
He woke, lying on the floor, head pounding. Ugh. Must have had one too many last night. My head… He sat upright and cradled his head in his hands. Looking around the room he thought, Where the hell am I? Man, I must have had WAY too many last night. I don’t even remember this place.
After a moment, he noticed a dull soreness in his chest. He looked and started. “What the hell?”
A tattoo? Running his fingers gently over the new ink, he winced at the pain. Weird. No blood or swelling. I’d always heard there was a lot of blood with tattoos. Whatever. I’ve got to get out of here.
He tried to stand and found his wobbly legs would barely hold him. He leaned against the wall. All right, this is too much. What happened last night? He closed his eyes against the pounding in his head. Ok, I can do this. Focus… focus.
Trying to gather his thoughts, he mumbled, “Let’s see, I remember going to the bar… a conversation with the boss about the building… the tenants—”
He stopped mid-sentence, eyes wide as realization oozed into his soul like a putrid flow of sewage. “My God…” His knees buckled and he fell, collapsing under a tsunami of crushing guilt. Great sobs and ragged gulps for air shook him and his tears came in torrents. “What have I done? Jenna… those tenants… my entire life… so much horrible… how could I? Dear God, what have I become?”
He curled into a quivering ball, hugging himself and crying hysterically.
It took a while, but his tears finally slowed and his breathing returned to normal. He sat upright, holding his face in his hands.
Bad. I’m bad. I’ve done bad all my life. To everyone. At every opportunity. I can’t—
The dam broke and an uncontrollable sobbing took him again as decades of suppressed guilt, shame and anxiety broke free. He hugged his knees to his chest, unable to do anything but rock back and forth.
After a bit, the soreness of the tattoo on his chest deepened. It pulled his attention away from the paralyzing emotional pain and he stopped rocking. He looked through tears at the new tattoo covering the left side of his chest and, try as he might, he still couldn’t remember the previous night. Once again, he gently touched the new ink. He ran his fingers over the design and as he did, the monumental weight that had so violently overtaken him seemed to ease a bit.
He unlocked his phone and tapped a speed-dial number titled ‘flowers’. His voice a little shaky, he spoke to the man who answered. “Jim. Hi, it’s Leo. I need two – no, three dozen red roses sent to my wife. Charged to my account.”
He listened, sniffing at tears.
“No, I’m all right. Thanks for asking. Just a rough night and I’m, uh, I’m a little worn out.”
More on the other end.
“No. No hush-hush deliveries to anyone else.” Leo paused and came to a decision. “And you know what? I won’t be sending any more hush-hush deliveries. After you send the roses to my wife, close the account. Thanks. Bye.”
He disconnected, distractedly stroking the tattoo. He felt… better. He wiped his face with his arm to clear the tears and hit a different speed-dial number.
“Hi, sweetie,” Leo said, and he lost it.
His wife Jenna’s voice pushed him back over the edge. All those years of unacknowledged guilt once again rushed to the surface, blotting out everything else. The tears began anew and the sobbing took him again.
He quickly disconnected the call and held the phone at eye level, weeping as the words came. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, my God I’m so sorry. I love you. How could I treat you like that? All these years wasted…” He hugged himself again, trying to fight back the pain as the torment threatened to sweep him away. His phone buzzed and he sent it to voicemail. It buzzed again and again, he let it go to voicemail while he slowly pulled himself back from the edge, gently and unconsciously rubbing his new tattoo as he did so.
The next time the phone buzzed, Leo took a deep breath and answered. Trying hard to keep his voice steady, he said, “Sorry about that, honey. Bad signal here.”
He wiped more tears from his face.
“No, nothing’s wrong. Can’t a husband call his beautiful wife just to tell her—” he felt his voice begin to shake and took another steadying breath. “…to tell her how much he loves her?”
He closed his eyes and fought back the emotions that still threatened to consume him. Please let me just finish this call.
“Honey, I have to be quick. I have an important appointment in a bit. I just wanted – needed – to call and tell you this trip will be my last for a while. I want to spend more time with you. Like you’ve been asking for. But before I can come home, there is something I have to do here and it might take a little longer than I had planned.”
He noticed he was again stroking the tattoo. It no longer hurt. Weird. And it feels warm, almost comforting.
“Yes. And when I get home – Paris.”
He heard her doubt as she spoke. He had made these kinds of promises before just to get her to stop complaining about his obsession with work. But this time she’d be surprised, because he meant it and he’d damn sure make it happen.
“Yes, really. After today, I’m not putting the job first anymore.”
His eyes popped open and he almost smiled at her next comment.
“No, I haven’t been drinking. I mean yes… I was drinking last night, but I’m stone cold sober right now and I promise – Paris the day after I get back. Two weeks, three weeks, however long you want!”
Another question and Leo raised an eyebrow.
“I… don’t know.” He looked again at the tattoo, his fingers still moving over the ink, and felt soothing warmth begin to run through him. “I just don’t – I don’t want to do things the same way anymore.”
Leo’s entire body relaxed and he began to feel he had more than just a shaky grasp on his sanity. The overpowering guilt had ebbed, fallen back a bit. It was there and he was still acutely aware of it, but it no longer threatened to take control.
He smiled at his wife’s next question, knowing what his next phone calls would bring. “No, I don’t think the firm is going to mind me taking a short-notice vacation.”
He was still smiling as she finished.
“Ok, I’ll call right after my appointment. And sweetheart, I – I love you so much. Bye.”
He tapped his phone screen to disconnect the call. The soul-crushing guilt and revulsion caused by a lifetime of wrongdoing that had just minutes ago pinned him to the floor no longer held him prisoner. It was there; he knew all the harm he’d done. Every painful memory festered in his mind like a bit of rotted meat, and he truly regretted the lying, cheating and stealing that had gotten him to this point, but the pain no longer paralyzed him.
I have a lot to do.
Leo did a quick Internet search on his phone and dialled the number he found. “Good day, Special Agent Johnson. I’m calling the FBI because I’d like to report a corrupt city councilman and city inspector.”
He grabbed his shirt from the floor and slung it over his shoulder.
Leo listened and said, “Yes, I have proof. I’m the one who facilitated it. My firm represents a company that wants to build condos here. I bribed a city councilman and blackmailed a city building inspector to get some buildings condemned and have the tenants evicted.”
As Leo spoke, he felt more and more at ease, knowing he did the right thing. “I can show you the paper trail that ties my firm to some very large campaign donations to the councilman. I can also give you the photos I used to blackmail the city building inspector.”
Leo listened and with no fear answered the agent’s question. “Yes, I know I’m incriminating myself. I accept that. Is there an FBI office in this city? I’d like to get this done as soon as possible.”
Leo took down the agent’s instructions and disconnected. He felt renewed. Rejuvenated. Yes! This is what I should have been doing all along – what I will do from now on.
“Well, after I get out of jail.” He chuckled at the joke. He understood he faced serious consequences, but the realization brought with it no fear. Somehow he knew that no matter what happened, his life would be better, even if it included time behind bars.
He wouldn’t have time to start the process of getting a historical landmark designation for those buildings. But he knew a couple honest lawyers who did that kind of thing and once he told them the dirty deal that almost happened here, they’d be happy to do it, maybe even pro bono.
He put on his shirt, but before fastening the buttons, he rubbed the tattoo once more, enjoying the warm sense of calmness it brought him. The intricate artwork intrigued him – a brightly coloured and majestic bird leaping into flight from an inferno. He recalled something he’d read years ago and smiled. It’s a phoenix. A bird that rises from its own ashes to a new beginning. Nice. Whoever did this has real talent. I hope I paid them what it was worth.