wow, lots of new review-y faces for this story! it warms our cold, dead hearts when you guys pick up on the subtle hints we keep dropping throughout. Enjoy this one, and let us know what your i-talian mobsters playing poker music playlists would be. –j&w
The front door opened revealing a middle-aged woman chewing on gum with gusto. She was wearing these cork wedge platform shoes, the kind you know are actually leftover from her heyday of 70s discotheques and weren't purchased ironically; the best, gaudiest damned leggings I'd ever seen (think AC Slater's workout pants on Saved by the Bell reruns); and a gold lamé top. She totally had jet black hair that you just knew she got set every Friday, once a week, at a standing hair appointment. I could smell the acrylic on her nails from the threshold.
"Christ," she muttered in what may have been a Long Island accent, but then, it could've been Jersey, too. "Aro!" She bellowed this really impressive, nasally bray before sighing and beckoning us inside with her bejeweled sausage fingers.
"Yah just kids," she declared, looking us up and down before shutting the door behind us. Her jaw was really working that gum.
Of all the things we'd been prepared for, it hadn't been… this, so we kind of stood there in the velvet wallpapered foyer and waited for some kind of direction.
"Ma'am, we're here to see some gentlemen about—" Jasper started, using his respectful, talking-to-his-Grandmama voice, but he got cut off by the beastie right quick.
"Oh, I know whatcha here for, Tiger." She Jerseyed up that one- Tie-gah. She gave us each the old once-over in succession, starting with Jasper and ending with me, who she sort of grunted at. "Youse kids oughtta go back to school. Aro! Fuh Chrissakes!" she bellowed again.
"What?" demanded a gravelly smoker's too-loud voice, echoing from somewhere in the back of the house.
"Don't yell in the house!" she yelled back. "Yah got kids hee-yah!" She sighed and turned back to us, giving us the skeptical once-over again.
"Who knows what he does," she huffed. "You want some Ham-buh-gah Helpah and Pepsi?"
"No, thanks," Edward said pleasantly, and Jasper looked like he was seriously considering it.
"Well, you're handsome enough," she said, pointing to Edward. "What's this ya got goin' on, Looks and Chahm?" She gestured back and forth between Edward and Jasper.
"No ma'am. We're just pretty hard up is all, as I'm sure you can imagine," Jasper told her. I fidgeted back and forth from right to left and Edward reached out, steadying me with a slight pressure from his hand on my back.
"Do I look stupid to you?" she asked Jasper, her eyes narrowing and her gum smacking.
"Honey, I married the original hustlah. I've got tree brothah-in-laws and twelve cousins, and they all been in the game since before youse were even born. I know a hustlah when I see one. And you, Ken doll, are a baby hustlah."
Jasper's shoulders dropped and he pointed a finger at her.
"You're a perceptive, Old World broad. I like that. What can I say, Ma'am? We came to win."
"Fine by me, kiddo," she said. "But if you got somethin' sneaky up yuh sleeve, you're gonna leave here with a bullet in your head." With that dire warning, the Carmela Soprano wannabe crossed her arms and glared at Jasper.
That was about when my cold sweat really kicked in.
Jasper pushed both of his sleeves up and held his arms out, grinning widely at her.
"Nah. Nah. I meant the pretty one," she said, pointing a multi-colored two-inch curvy nail at Edward, who did that "who, me?" shrug. "Toldya I could spot 'em."
Oh, fuck us all. Called out before we even sat down.
I may have started to make an odd keening noise in the back of my throat, because I could kind of hear it and Edward yanked on my elbow in response.
"Do you have a bathroom she can use?" he asked.
"Sure (shoo-uh), Dreamboat. Down tru the hall, second door on the left. Hey, don't flush any tampons, and no hanky panky in there. I've got enough sin and very little redemption goin' on under this roof as it is," she said before made a quick signs-of-the-cross and muttering something about the Blessed Mother.
"Right. No tampons, no hanky panky," Edward said, ushering me down the hall already. Behind us, Jasper was inquiring about that Hamburger Helper, wondering if it was the Stroganoff or the Ultimate Cheeseburger variety.
The velvet wallpaper assaulted us all the way to the bathroom, sort of graduating into tacky velvet accented with flocked gold filigree. I let my fingertips graze over the wall, wondering just how difficult it was to get blood out of velvet.
"Stop making that noise," Edward whispered.
"It's my death song," I snapped back, and very suddenly, I had the urge to moan Swing Low, Sweet Chariot while writhing around in the fetal position on the red shag carpet under my feet.
"Stop it," Edward said, opening the bathroom door.
"Coming for to carry me home," I replied.
"What." He rolled his eyes and pulled me in and shut the door behind me.
The countertops were jet black and gleaming. The cozy on the toilet lid was black and fuzzy. Like, not regular carpet fuzzy, but matching the shag carpet theme fuzzy. The room reeked of White Shoulders perfume and after a quick scan, I realized that Plan A wouldn't work. There were no windows in this bathroom for which to leap to uncertain safety.
Edward plunked me down on the black, fluffy toilet seat.
"They're going to kill us," I declared in a shout-whisper, allowing some hysteria to creep into my voice.
"Only if we cheat," he replied smoothly, kneeling between my legs and patting my hair.
"You're not going to, to count cards or whatever?" I asked.
"Can I?" he shot back. He took a deep breath and then ran a palm down his face. "I'm going to fucking kill Jasper."
"Well. Someone ought to," I muttered.
"Look. Worst case scenario- if I play straight, we lose the money. I'll bet half of what I planned, see how that goes, and make the call for the next round," he said, but I think he was more talking his plan out for himself than for my benefit.
"You mean you might count?" I squawked, horrified. "They'll know it, and then I'll have to watch them shoot you! Oh, God. I bet they make you get on your knees. Are these the types to shoot from behind, or are they gonna make you look at them? Oh my God! What if they make me watch! Or what if they don't even shoot me after? What if they make me dig the hole for your body? Or watch your corpse be tossed in to a cement mixer? What if… what if…" I had to gulp to keep up with my own hysterical breathing. "What if they like, keep me to be their mafia princess slave and I'm forced to wear godawful, brassy gold jewelry and adopt that accent? Oh God. Oh my God! I'm going to be forced to drink gin and tonics and attend like, eight baptisms a month. I don't even know what a godmother actually does."
"Bella. What the hell is a mafia princess slave?"
"Edward, I just don't think my hair has the body to get that high, even with hair spray."
"Bella. Stop it. I meant I'll see how it goes."
"Well, how will I know when you decide if you'll count or not?"
"If I do it right, you won't," he told me. "Just be cool out there. And stop with the noises," he said, leaning over to grab some toilet paper on the roll next to us. He yanked out at least six squares and then stood to run them under the faucet for a second before running the soggy paper over my face.
I slapped his hands away and stood up.
"You need to calm down before you stroke out or get us shot," he said, tossing the wadded, nasty toilet paper into the waste basket. You'd think a gangster's wife wouldn't skimp on the good stuff.
"Do you know how long it would take me to dig a hole big enough for your dead body?" I snapped, fisting the front of his shirt with my shaking fingers.
Chest to chest now, he stared down at me while I stared up at him, my chin on his chest. Then he took both of his pointer fingers and stuck them at the corners of my mouth, pulling them upward so I smiled a weird, forced, The Joker smile.
"Get out there and be a demure flirt. Remind them that you're barely legal, because every old guy is into that shit. Smile, have a drink if offered, and seriously. Don't make that noise. You stick to your end and I'll handle mine. Team, remember?"
"I promised, remember? I promised we'd be okay."
"I…. yeah," I said softly before narrowing my eyes. "Yeah, you did. So you'd better pull through this, or I'm going to have to seriously re-evaluate our relationship. Boys who make empty promises aren't worth my time."
He grinned and kissed me, a big, smacking kiss right on the lips. Then he actually honked my left tit.
"For luck," he shrugged, turning to open the door.
Jasper, Not Alice, and our lovely hostess were still at the other end of the hallway. Edward put his heavy, loose arm around my neck and shuffled forward, cool as 90s Vanilla Ice.
"They play in the rec room in the basement," she was saying. "Just walk right on down."
Of course in the basement. Of course, I thought. Sounded about right. I mean, if you were going to shoot up a bunch of cheating teenagers, the ominous basement with nowhere to run would be the logical place to do it.
Jasper grinned up at Mrs. Soprano. He was holding a paper plate of brown slop and a Wild Cherry Pepsi and actually had a napkin tucked into his collar. Not Alice kind of leaned into his side, the plate hovering just over her head.
"Let's go play at cards, kids," Jasper said, and we filed down the carpeted stairs behind him, a thick haze of cigar and cigarette smoke eating us up when we were about halfway down the staircase.
Well. There was just no way to get out of this now, and my subconscious must've finally caught on to that, because all I could do was just keep moving forward, numb to my firework nerves.
I thought of what Edward had said, days before, about how I made these decisions, and well. Here I was, making this decision, too. I chose to hop into that van. I chose to keep running when I found out that Emmett had been stealing. I stole pharmaceuticals, and I chose to partake in the beat-down and subsequent arrest of Royce King. I chose to be here, when I knew all along that I could've stayed in the van or freaked out to the point that Edward would've driven me somewhere else, somewhere far, far away. But I kept choosing this. And it was time I owned it. I couldn't be the weak link here. I couldn't let my family down like that. The stakes were way too high, and I loved them way too much.
"Let's make Emmett proud," Jasper said softly when we all reached the bottom of the stairs.
Emmett would've loved this shit. I wondered if I could get away with writing him a letter to tell him all about it.
And so I decided that we had to make it out of here unscathed, because I couldn't not tell Emmett about this. He may have been gone, but he was still a big, huge, important chunk of us, and we couldn't leave him out of it.
"I'll write him a letter," I mumbled.
"Right. You do that," Jasper said, brushing past me and Edward, sweeping Our Alice along with him.
We turned a corner, Jasper and the Alice leading us and there they were, four gentlemen gathered around a hexagonal, green-felted table. There were framed pictures of Norma Jean Baker's Playboy spread on the walls and a bar tucked into the corner. The table itself looked old and heavy, the carved wood gleaming in the bright light of the overhead lamp/fan combo. Colored poker chips in various-sized stacks neatly littered the table; a deck of cards, still in the box, sat near the elbow of an older portly fellow with a four strand comb over and a belly that looked tight and downright painful. He had a bright red bulbous nose and a signet-type pinkie ring.
It was the most clichéd thing I'd ever seen in my life.
Behind the bar was a tall, lanky, older gentleman who was wearing a Mr. Rogers sweater, complete with suede elbow patches. His salt and pepper hair was slicked back and he smiled like the grim freaking reaper when he looked up at us. He was screwing the cap onto a bottle of Jim Beam as he leered; without breaking eye contact with me, he picked up his low ball and swished the liquid around, the ice cubes tinkling in response. He made his way over to the table, still smiling that Reaper smile as he took his seat.
Opposite of him was a guy who looked exactly what you think a high school algebra teacher reaching tenure looks like. Enough said.
Lastly, there was a guy who appeared to be about, oh, a hundred and twelve years old. Seriously. He was about eighty-two pounds, shaking all over, and had the thinnest white hair I've ever seen. Next to him was a walker with tennis balls on the ends of the legs, but in front of him was a high ball three-quarters full of amber-colored booze and in his shaking hand was a long, slim cigarette.
He just looked so damned small and frail, and possibly senile. It was disgusting, almost, these men taking advantage of this poor little old guy, who couldn't have retained all of his mental faculties. I felt defensive, ready to scold these dirtbags for probably stealing away this guy's pension—
"'Ey, you with the tits. C'mere and sit next to ole Uncle Paulie."
And he said that to me, while patting his knee emphatically.
The weird noise I'd been making came back, briefly, before Jasper shoved me in the direction of the old pervert. "Oh, awesome," I said, stumbling forward from Jasper's shove. I turned briefly and saw Edward biting the inside of his cheek, trying not to laugh. Jasper waved his hand, shooing me along with a wide-eyed expression. I couldn't think of a subtle way to make clear that while I was willing to take a lot for the team, I would under no circumstances be taking liver-spotted ball sac for the team.
Nevertheless, I made my way over there and kind of leaned on the guy's walker, looking down at the tennis balls as they scrunched around with the motion. Wilson. Excellent.
"Well, Hello, Dolly," he said, leering at me through his glaucoma.
"Hi," I said back.
"All of youse sit," said the guy with the gut, who must've been Aro. He and his moll had the same taste in gaudy as his track jacket was electric purple with a double yellow stripe down each arm. Was it like, a Lakers jacket from the 80s? "My house, my game. You kids know what you're doing?"
"Yessir," Jasper said, taking a seat next to Teach.
Edward sat opposite of Jasper, right next to the Grim Reaper.
"Good. Deuce to seven, triple draw," Aro said, picking up the deck of cards. He made a show of turning it around, the cellophane packaging crinkling in his fat hand. He unwrapped it, holding his hand over his head and dropping the opened wrapper. His wife showed up out of nowhere, rushing in and grabbing it. She exited as quickly as she entered.
Aro pulled the cards out of the box and did away with the instructions and the joker; he started shuffling lazily, flicking his wrist as he pulled some cards out and shuffled 'em right back in. He was looking intently and insolently into Edward's face.
"That all right wit' you?"
I watched Edward's eyes blink twice and his lips flinched ever, ever so slightly.
"Fair enough," he muttered, nodding his head once.
I know a little bit about poker. Not much, but enough from school boys and Charlie's buddies to know that five-card stud would've been our best bet. The problem with deuce to triple is that there are no community cards. It's a game of higher concentration, and reading bluffs is a total bitch because of this. There was no doubt Aro chose this game for this very reason. He wanted to win, but more than that, he didn't trust these boys to play straight.
Grim Reaper looked over his shoulder at Not Alice.
"Can't stand there, babydoll," he said, looking her up and down. "You can have my knee, though."
Not Alice kind of just limply stood there, not worried, not nervous, not rudely. More like… just not. Not there.
"Cat got your legs and tongue?" Reaper asked her, chuckling. He licked his pinkies simultaneously and used them to smooth down the hair over his ears. Gross.
"She doesn't talk," Jasper said, staring the guy right in the eye. "Ever."
"Read about that in the paper," Reaper said, and that's when I felt a pruned-up finger on the back of my thigh. "She'd be a great poker player. Come sit with me, Pussy Cat." He beckoned to Not Alice. Jasper looked between the two of them before making the call.
"She doesn't sit, either," he said.
Edward looked up at Jasper with a downright murderous glare.
"This your girl, then?" Reaper asked, turning in Jasper's direction. At least he wasn't looking at Our Alice anymore, and maybe that was Jasper's intention, but I didn't think Jasper was thinking too clearly at that particular moment. In fact, I'd never seen him look so outwardly calm. Only his eyes betrayed his anger. It was unsettling.
For all the flirt-like-hell talk Jasper spat at us, he sure wasn't handling this well. He'd always been too emotional, too intense and too passionate, but now wasn't the time to let him wear it on his sleeve. We needed a distraction and that's what I was there for, so I leaned in next to the living artifact and rested my arm around his neck. He smelled like Brut, which reminded me of Charlie, and you'd think that would be comforting, but it just wasn't. Probably because Charlie never once undressed me with his eyes, what with being my father and all.
The pruney finger was making its way to my inner thigh, and good Old Uncle Paulie was grinning, shaking, and smoking away. I reached behind and smacked his hand, then pointed my finger at him.
"Show me you can win first," I commanded. The table went up in howls and Edward raised his eyebrows at me. I just shrugged and got comfy next to my archaeological find.
Aro harrumphed and all attention turned back to him. He stopped his lazy shuffling and in a neat bit of showmanship flipped the cards around in one hand, fanning them and doing other neat-o tricks that impressed the hell out of me when I was a kid and was doing the job now, as well. Finally bringing them to a neat stack, he knocked on the deck twice and then offered the cards to Edward, studying his face closely. Never breaking eye contact with Aro, Edward accepted the cards, cut them twice and picked them up, also knocking twice. Man, card players. What is that, anyway?
I watched, mesmerized by Edward's long fingers making sport with the deck. He was every bit as agile as Aro had been with the cool card tricks, and I thought for a second that he had given away the farm by showing this table full of old hoods how good he was, but I un-tensed when I remembered that Edward rarely does anything spontaneous when it comes to stuff like this. Every move he ever made was calculated, so he was probably making some sort of statement like, "Don't mess" or "I don't eff around" or whatever. Something like that. Anyway, Edward's hands danced with those cards, shuffling, bridging, re-shuffling. It was a pretty neat trick, and I wondered just how he'd managed to become a card shark during the tenure of his high school career.
"Gentlemen, place your bets," Edward said, nodding to the center of the table.
I'm not sure which colored chips represented how much money, but fuck. It seemed like an awful lot of scratch to me as the table grew silent, the occasional thunk and click of chips being flicked into the center the only sound in the room. Far away, I heard some Connie Francis (I mean, could it be any more clichéd up in here?) wafting from upstairs.
"You kids know what's at stake here?" Aro asked, glancing around the table in turn at Edward, Jasper, and then me. He ignored Not Alice completely.
"Yessir," Jasper answered, leaning back in his chair, running his tongue over his front teeth.
"You understand what happens if you sit down with gentlemen and don't play by the rules of the game?" Aro asked, his finger punching the green felt of the table in front of him with each syllable uttered.
"I'd wager we wouldn't be standing up again," Jasper shrugged. "We're men. We don't cheat." And with that, the game was on.
The hand was dealt, and the room remained silent, cards being discarded at what seemed like random to me, the participators subtly but intensely studying each other, Old Paulie's wheezing getting louder and louder with each pass of his finger over my thigh.
Edward remained focused on the game; I didn't know if he could tell what was happening with my geriatric friend or not but if he did, he didn't show it, which was good. I could handle my end and he trusted me to do so.
I thought I knew poker well enough, but as it turns out and is so often the case, I was wrong. Cards were tossed in a two-fingered flick, checks landed in the ever-increasing pile, really disgusting curses were uttered. I had no idea what was going on and therefore could not tell if we were doing well or not.
As it turned out, not so much.
"Fuck," Edward muttered when he lost the first hand. I tried to discern whether his frustration was for show, but I'm pretty sure his "fuck" was sincere.
"Let's have the cash, kid," Reaper said with glee. He'd won the hand. "You do have the cash?" I hated how his voice lingered on the word.
Edward said nothing but reached in his pocket and tossed some folded bills over to the Reaper, who promptly counted his winnings.
"Okay, kids. You've had your fun. Go on, get outta here. Go do more of that innocent baby crime we've been seeing so much of on the television," Aro muttered. He didn't look up as he gathered the cards and began re-shuffling.
"You gotta give us a chance to win our cash back," Jasper said, his voice betraying no emotion.
"You're gonna walk out of here with nothing," Aro replied, a soft warning in his tone.
"Aw, hell. Let the kids stay," ole Paulie grouched.
"Just looking out for them," Aro said, shaking his head.
"We'll stay," Jasper countered, his eyes flicking briefly to Edward, and I couldn't ascertain whether he'd try and count this round or not. "That was just a warm up."
"A five hundred dollar warm up," Aro laughed, mocking, shaking his head. Five hundred? My heart sped up and I wondered whether a lifetime of eating poorly and this moment would lead me to cardiac arrest at the tender age of eighteen.
"Deal the cards," Jasper said tiredly.
Now, I don't know if anyone else would've noticed it- I mean, who stared at Edward like I did? Who would notice the tiny little nuances that I would? No one, I hoped, because the set of his shoulders, the determination in his eyes and the slight tick of his jaw to the left indicated one thing: His game was about to change.
He was going to count those fucking cards.
It just meant I'd have to step up my game, too.
It was hard enough to concentrate on deuce to seven, so I really wasn't surprised when our hosts struck up a conversation, no doubt a tactic to distract Edward and Jasper from the game being played. I wondered if they were aware that my boys were playing their own game.
"What the hell are you kids up to, anyway? You ever plan to turn yourselves in?" the algebra teacher asked, picking up his cards as Reaper dealt them.
"We find it best not to talk shop with outsiders," Jasper said, studying his own cards.
"Fair enough. I can respect a guy who won't run his mouth," Teach said, then he glanced over at Edward. "Of course, too quiet is always reason for suspicion."
Edward looked up and stared back, his face a mask of complete and utter nothingness.
"You're smart enough not to bullshit a bullshitter, right, kid?" Teach asked.
Without looking away, Edward discarded and leaned back in his chair.
Reaper chuckled from his seat and lit a cigarette as pruned fingers shook at my hip.
"Pick a card for Grandpa," he told me.
"Oh. I thought it was 'Uncle', and anyway, I don't know how to—"
"I don't give a good goddamn about the game. Just bend over and pick a card, Perky," he grouched at me.
Jasper grinned, Edward remained stoic, and I pointed to his Queen of Hearts. I was beginning to see that I really had zero clue about the rules of this game. He caught my wrist in his cold, boney fingers before I could pull my hand back.
"I'll give you two hundred bucks to let me look at ya without pants on," he said, and up close, I noticed he had two gold teeth and white nose hair.
"I'm a lady," I said, pouting for effect and hoping that would serve as a good distraction. It worked, because everyone but Edward was looking at me with varying degrees of smile on their faces.
"I've had the erectile dysfunction since 1972, sweetheart. I'm harmless. C'mon and give an old man a thrill. "
"Paulie, how many times do I gotta tell ya- play cards or chase tail, ya old cooch hound," Aro said, good-naturedly.
Gramps wheezed out a laugh and rubbed my elbow with his gnarled, arthritic knuckle.
Reaper folded and got up from his seat, refreshing his drink while the chips continued to clink. Once he was properly Jim Beamed, he started circling Not Alice, who was so non-responsive, it was starting to really kind of freak me out.
"Mind the girl's personal space," Jasper said without even looking behind him to see the non-interaction between Not Alice and Reaper.
Edward's jaw tensed and I shifted on Grampy's knee. He got all excited and I felt his wayward prune finger start to creep again.
"Oh? That right, Pee Wee?" Reaper asked.
Edward's shoulders rolled; Aro and Teach kept on with their heads in the game and Gramps palmed my knee, his cards between his thumb and forefinger.
"Yeah, that's right. We came for cards, not a Matures Swinger party." Reaper was slowly inching away from Alice and toward the table.
"Nice idea, kid, but do you think," Reaper asked, putting both of his hands on Jasper's shoulders, "you can walk into someone else's home and play by your own rules?"
Gramps found my inner thigh again and I clamped my legs so tightly that he'd lose what little circulation he still had.
"My girl, my rules," Jasper said lightly, but his cards were now on the table and his chin was tipped down, his eyes closed. Was I the only one feeling the escalating tension in the room? Aro had his cigarette between his lips and was puffing smoke out the side of his mouth, intently staring at his cards; Teach was leaning so far back in his chair that I thought he'd tip over and I mentally chided him for violating the six-legs-at-all-times chair rule. I mean, he was probably a teacher and really ought to know. He was precariously balanced on the two back legs and was staring at the ceiling, watching the fan slowly spin the drifting smoke in lazy wisps and whirls.
My gaze snapped to Edward, who was staring at the pile of cards already on the table, then looking back at his own hand, no doubt trying to determine Aro's hand.
Edward slid another stack of chips to the center of the table.
"Bullshit, kid," Aro muttered, but Edward only looked up, confirming his move with a small smile.
Aro rubbed his chin and contemplated his next move before sliding his own stack of chips to the center of the table.
Reaper leaned down, his lips grossly close to Jasper's ear. I couldn't tell if he was whispering in it or not, but then I got distracted when Grandpa threw his cards down in disgust. Edward had flipped his cards over in a neat fan right in front of him.
"Holy shit," Edward whispered hoarsely, his chest collapsing when he breathed out a slow, long breath. "I won."
Aro looked up from all the face-up cards, glancing at Edward, his head cocking to the side.
"Congrats, kid," Aro said softly, dangerously, his face guarded, still staring too hard.
The table went quiet for about half a second. Then I realized that Reaper was, in fact, saying things. Only this time, everyone could hear them.
"It's not like she can tell anyone. It's not like she would even open her mouth to say no," Reaper said into Jaspers' ear. "She can't. Even. Say. No."
And that's when the palms of Jasper's hands upended the entire table.