Vincenzo escaped from the bar gripping his chest. He tried to breathe but couldn’t. He tried to calm down but couldn’t. Where had Dominic parked the car? He left, hadn’t he? He ran out quicker than Vincenzo had.
He’d been to parties bigger than that, ones louder than that with more guns in guests’ handbags and cocaine in their breast pockets. Why was today so different? What’d he done wrong?
The crowds. They were bad today, blocking his view of the exit with bodies and noise. Whenever he felt trapped at normal parties, he’d excuse himself to a balcony or run to his car to “grab something he forgot.” He tried to control this side of himself in public, but tonight it overtook him with fear.
He pressed his sweat-stained back against the brick wall. Sylvia. He’d abandoned her. She’d fallen and he was too much of a coward to go back and make sure she was okay. “Claustrophobia,” they were calling it. What kind of man used that as an excuse? What if she’d gotten a concussion? What if she was bleeding?
He grasped at his ugly chest, trying to squeeze his heart into submission. He was outside. He could breathe freely here. Just thirty more seconds, then he’d go back and fix everything.
The door to the Black Kitten squeaked opened.
Vincenzo gasped and took out his gun.
Sylvia stopped in her tracks, and Vincenzo stared into her wide, pleading eyes, hands shaking from the night’s cold. He lowered his gun. “I’m sorry.”
“What happened?” she asked, horrified. “You ran out like someone was targeting you. Are you okay?”
He couldn’t look at her. He didn’t feel worthy. It was the first time he’d seen her without her wig. Normally cropped in a bob, it was now a bloom of brown curls that framed her face too well. Before tonight, he’d never seen her natural hair.
He pulled on his turtleneck. “Are you hurt?”
“No, just confused.”
“Don’t be. Everything’s fine.”
“But are you?”
He shut his eyes to find a lie, to say that he was fine, just angry or impatient at the world he hated, but the more he dug inwards, the more he panicked. “Yes,” he said. “You can go back inside. I’ll be in shortly.”
Two rickety cars sputtered up next to the Black Kitten. Bullet holes indented their doors. When the driver noticed Vincenzo, the car shut down and the back doors opened.
Hannigan and his goons pulled up thirty feet from Vincenzo and Sylvia. His group befouled the streets of Manhattan, slumming through Irish neighborhoods with their guns out and their moods murderous. Sometimes they drove past Campo’s establishments to make fun of his triumphs. Why now had they decided to target the Kitten, Vincenzo would never know. Perhaps his luck was just that bad.
Vincenzo hid his gun behind him. “Sylvia, go back inside. Now.”
She didn’t move.
She wouldn’t, or couldn’t. She saw them, no doubt: Hannigan’s own guns. Pistols, Vincenzo understood. Every man should’ve carried one in this city. But Tommy guns? Not even Campo dealt with those. What could be done with one Tommy gun could be done with five handguns and five loyal men. Hannigan had never worked with any sort of man.
“DiFiore,” Hannigan said, keeping his eyes on Sylvia. “I thought I heard you fucking in this alleyway. Did we interrupt something?”
Two of the men snickered and started making flirty passes at one another, pretending to know what they were making fun of.
Vincenzo counted the men. Six. He could kill at least three of them before he had to worry about dying, but he had Sylvia beside him. For the rest of his life, he’d have her beside him.
Hannigan gestured to Sylvia. “So, is this your new gal now?”
Vincenzo broke eye contact with Hannigan to side-eye Sylvia. She’s turned to stone, piecing together who these men in heavy accents were to Vincenzo. He’d mentioned them before, this gang they pitifully called a “rival,” but he never expected her to meet them. He thought he’d never allow it.
Swallowing down his nerves, Vincenzo asked, “Why’re you here? You found some time to kill, evidently, but you’re not coming into one of the most high-paying bars looking for a good time with men and women who have standards.”
“We wanted to see you. We heard you’ve been spending your nights here doing whatever the hell you wops do in those cellars. We had bets on what ugly broad you managed to nab for yourself, but this sight is even better.” He held out his hand. “Let’s bring her over. Let’s see who this new gal is.”
Vincenzo shackled his hand onto Sylvia’s wrist. “Leave her alone.”
“Oh ho, getting protective now, are we? About time, you emotionless dog. What’s your name, Miss?”
Sylvia went to speak, then looked away. “Sylvia, Sir.”
Half of the men laughed.
“What a pretty name,” Hannigan said. “That garish makeup doesn’t do you any favors, though. You might need to ask those fairies downstairs how to do it better.”
Sylvia, either stupidly or smartly, said nothing. Nothing she could’ve said would’ve saved her from their plans.
Hannigan stepped up into Sylvia’s space. His car’s headlights cast his dirty shadow all over her. With how Sylvia was in nature, she cowered before him, and Vincenzo could do nothing to stop it.
His finger hovered over the trigger. If Sylvia caught his nonverbal cues, he could have her back into the Kitten and have half of these men dead on the asphalt by the time he needed to worry about himself.
Something moved between the parked cars. Vincenzo looked for a fraction of a second to make sure he wasn’t being ambushed more than he already was.
Dominic came up from behind Hannigan. He had his gun raised and was calculating if and when to shoot.
At least he had backup now, but two against six—three against six, if he counted Sylvia, but he wouldn’t let that happen—was still not enough.
A new car drove up the street. It came in steadily so as not to cause suspicion. When Vincenzo read the license plate, he took his chance and pulled Sylvia close to him.
Dominic aimed for Hannigan’s head just as the car door opened. There were five men in the car, including Luis, giving them the numbers to finally be at odds with Hannigan.
One of the people who jumped out was a plump man in a three-piece suit with a thin mustache. He’d just put out his cigarette, for a wall of smoke announced his entrance. He wasn’t armed, and he didn’t need to be. His men had all of their guns trained on Hannigan.
“Good evening, gents,” Campo d’Antonio said. “I’m happy to see you on a Saturday night. Did you fancy a time at my establishment? I must apologize, but I don’t allow in any patrons who threaten my men in any capacity. Might I suggest the Viola Tavern in Manhattan. They give out free drinks to any man who performs on stage. I’m sure you’d be wonderful at it.”
Hannigan frowned. He tried to remain as cool and collected as Campo, but the differences in gang leaders were almost laughable.
“Whatever choice you decide for tonight,” Campo said, “I’m going to ask that you leave as gracefully as you entered. I’d also like to hear an apology for whatever troubles you’ve given my Vincenzo and his company here, though I can’t expect such anomalies like guilt to be practiced in your group.” He grinned. “So please, if you can, kindly fuck off.”
The sound of firecrackers sent Vincenzo up against Sylvia. He used his body as a shield, crushing her so he’d receive a bullet instead of her.
The ear-ringing spray last ten seconds, ten seconds of screaming and cursing and tires screeching into Harlem. Ten seconds of Sylvia whimpering into his ears. Vincenzo, staring into her chest, just held her and prayed that he’d hear her heartbeat tomorrow.
When the gunfire ceased, Vincenzo looked up and saw neither Hannigan nor any of his gang members around. He saw no bodies, none that Hannigan had left behind. His gang had either fled through the back entrance or over the curb. It left Luis shaking and Dominic rubbing his neck to calm down.
Campo fixed his tie and patted off his blazer, like his appearance was his biggest concern for tonight.
Vincenzo wished he could be an ounce of the man Campo was. He was in control of all of them. Luis and Dominic, Vincenzo, his father. He was the titular leader of the d’Antonio Gang of Brooklyn. He was Campo, the world’s best gangster boss, at least according to Vincenzo.
Campo exhaled. “I am very sorry about that, you two. Are you alright?” He air-kissed Sylvia’s shocked face. “I’m sorry you had to see that, but I’m happy you’re still here. You are okay, aren’t you?”
Sylvia, jaw dropped, looked to where Hannigan’s men had been standing a minute prior. “I’m…not dead.”
“Not that I can tell, no. I heard he’d been circling this neighborhood for a few hours. I believe they were looking for someone, so I thought it’d be wise to pop in and investigate the matter. I knew Vincenzo would be preoccupied keeping this bar clean and running. I was worried when I saw him cornered.”
Luis could no longer bear keeping quiet and ran up to Vincenzo. “That scared me right, Sir! I’ve never been involved in a shootout like that before. I was up the street tending to a bookkeeping deal when Campo here took me up and gave me this gun!”
“Hopefully, they don’t come around again,” Campo said. “It’d be best if we relocate for the time being. It’s too dark to be out unprepared. Vincenzo, son, are you alright?”
Realizing he was being spoken to, Vincenzo stuttered, “Y-yes, Sir. Thank you. I was outside talking with Sylvia when they showed up. I didn’t have enough time to get out, and with her with me…” His heart was still pounding between his breasts and, knowing his boss had just witnessed him fail, he lost his train of thought. “This’s, uhm, Sylvia Belmonte, the girl I told you about. Sylvia, this’s Campo d’Antonio III.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Belmonte. I now know what you were talking about, Vincenzo. She is very beautiful.”
Vincenzo couldn’t recollect ever going on about Sylvia’s outer beauty to anybody, but he nodded. “I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused.”
“It’s alright. I know when you’re in love, your brain tends to blur what’s right and what’s wrong. Best to keep your feelings hidden when it’s like that, isn’t it? Our world doesn’t do well with love.”
Vincenzo nodded automatically, not really thinking about what he was agreeing to. Dominic bit his lip and turned to the car.
Luis checked on both of his friends. “Sir, do you wish for us to give chase?”
“We shouldn’t let them limp away too soon.”
As Luis and the rest of the gang members got back into their car, Campo smiled at Vincenzo the way Vincenzo wished his father would. “This’s the first time I get to meet your lucky lady friend, and it seems I’ve made a rather explosive impression. Do accept my apology, Ms. Belmonte, for this rather rude and unserviceable impression you must have about me. I simply wish to keep my men happy and alive.”
“It’s…quite alright,” Sylvia said. “That’s all we can hope for, I assume.”
Campo laughed a deep belly laugh. “True enough. As a token of my apology, let me offer you a personal invitation to my birthday party next month. There’ll be three-course meals and entertainment all throughout the night. You’ll be one of my special guests, along with Vincenzo here, if you do decide to join us. I heard I have a reputation when it comes to hosting marvelous parties.”
She gave a quick bow. “Of course. Thank you, Sir.”
“Fantastic! It’ll be nice to meet you on less chaotic terms.” He got in his car and waved to them through the window. “Will you follow us?”
Vincenzo looked to Sylvia.
“Ah,” Campo said. “I’ll leave you alone to sort yourselves out, then. Be safe tonight, you two, and have a nice night.”
When the car echoed down the street, Sylvia collapsed in heavy breathing. “Oh, my goodness,” she wheezed. “That was awful—that was the worst, I thought—”
Vincenzo latched onto her until his nails broke into her skin. “Why the fuck didn’t you run away when I told you to?”
Sylvia winced at his tone. Dominic, who was locking his gun, looked up in alarm.
The anger from his inability to protect her rose his voice into a shout. “When we’re met with a threat like that and I tell you to go, you go. You don’t think it over. You could’ve been hurt or worse. You could’ve been taken away from me and I wouldn’t have been able to protect you!”
She tried backing away from him. “Don’t yell at me. I did my—”
“I’ll yell as loud as I want until it gets through your head. You can’t act like that in those situations. Just because you don’t value your life doesn’t mean you can throw yourself out in the fucking trash, do you understand me?”
“Vincenzo.” Dominic went to mediate, then balled his hands into fists.
“What? Where the hell were you, anyway? Why did you wait five fucking minutes to—”
Sylvia was pulling harder and harder away for him, twisting her body to get him off.
Her eyes, once wide in fear, were now filled with tears. “I…I don’t…” She covered her mouth in a sob. “I’m sorry.”
Vincenzo blinked. Her tears simmered the blood in his ears enough so that he remembered where he was. In an alley, with Dominic, holding onto Sylvia’s wrist so tightly that he felt her pulse beat on his fingertips.
He looked at the wrist he was holding. Beneath her glove was a faded yet deep scar. It followed her blue veins down to a beauty mark on her forearm. It was an old wound she often hid with her gloves, but because of his grip, he saw it.
Sylvia yanked herself free and ran away.
“Wait.” A thousand apologies followed him around the corner. “You don’t value your life.” Who was he to accuse her of that? He knew what she’d lived through, he was just scared about losing her and finding himself without a reason to become better. And he’d just insulted the very person he aspired to be: gracious, kind, forgiving beyond her means.
He expected her to run back into the bar, but she didn’t. Walking straight past the entrance, she broke into a sprint and ran down the street, her short heels tapping down the sidewalk.
Bobbie, Laurence, and Mitsuko all stopped him from pursuing her. They came out of the bar glaring viciously at him. Mitsuko had one of her knives out. Laurence had his hands on his hips. They looked more intimidating than normal.
“What?” Vincenzo demanded, but Bobbie, grabbing him by the arm with more force than a bar owner should’ve owned, walked him down the stairs.
“What’re you doing?” he asked.
“Showing you something you need to see,” he said, and shut off all the lights to the Black Kitten.