Mitsuko couldn’t believe many things in her life, but the scene unfolding before her was quite unimaginable.
From Sylvia exposing herself in her booth as she slept. To Laurence kissing Dominic in the booth next door. To Vincenzo singing I’m Nobody’s Baby to his crowd of six. Almost everyone had left after to his erotic performance, and it wasn’t because it was bad. In reality, he sang it better than the woman who recorded it, and he obviously had the skill that most people would kill for. It was just that it was two in the morning and people had places to be tomorrow.
Had he been drugged? Should she have been checking his drinks like she had been with her friends’? She almost didn’t want to intervene. He looked too happy to be himself on stage.
But whatever had slipped through his mind, she’d seen enough. One more song and Sylvia would be naked on the ground and Dominic and Laurence would need to be hosed down.
She went to Bobbie, the only sober man still standing. “What are we going to do about this?”
He shook his head. “Did you know Vincenzo could sing?”
“Did you know that Laurence’s soulmate would happen to be a gangster boy with a mustache?”
Across the bar, Laurence moaned into Dominic’s hairy upper lip and pinned him down. Mitsuko could only take so much before gagging. Do it upstairs in the attic, where Bobbie had a few extra mattresses stored up there for this specific reason. She had to listen to these noises through her apartment floors. Now she had to deal with it at work?
“Okay,” Mitsuko said. “Here, I’ll…I’ll sandwich them in the back of my car and drive them home. I don’t trust any of them getting back to their quarters, let alone getting behind the wheel. I’m not insane.”
“And I have to clean up.” He looked at Luis’ champagne bottles and the mess Vincenzo had made on stage. He’d somehow ripped off the curtain and was kicking it to the beat of the song.
From the shadows, two men got up and walked towards the stage. With their black coats, black hair, and black bowler hats hiding their shadowy faces, they looked as superior as Vincenzo dressed. Well, not right now. Right now, Vincenzo looked like a deer among two hungry coyotes.
When they reached for something in their coats, Mitsuko lunged for an empty bottle and ran up on stage. It was just her and her friends here, there wasn’t anyone to protect them. Nobody but her.
To assert her dominance, she flung her arm around Vincenzo and pulled him back like they were friends. “Hey, Vinny, your wife’s getting a little loose back there. Think it’s time you bring her in for the night, otherwise these two handsome men are gonna swipe her from you.”
Vincenzo tried focusing on her face, then on the hand around his shoulder. Before he put two and two together, Mitsuko grabbed his wrist and placed herself between him and the men. They definitely looked like they had weapons on them, but whether or not they had knives or guns would make her rethink how much Vincenzo and Sylvia’s happiness meant to her.
The two men stopped, hands dropping to their sides.
She played up her act, slurring her words and swinging around her bottle, trying to remember how to act drunk. “Did you handsome gents wanna come up and have a little fun? I can find a nice little thing to play with. You can watch.”
“Having a little bit too much fun, are we?” one of the men asked Vincenzo, completely ignoring her. His subordinate looked behind them to Dominic and Laurence. They’d successfully uncoupled, but while Laurence was fixing his top, Dominic had recognized the two men and pretended he hadn’t. He hid his face from men he must’ve recognized and was afraid of.
Mitsuko cleared her throat. “Come on, boys, come up on stage. We’ll get another round going. Boys, boys!” She got the musicians’ attention, who seemed ready to play throughout the night. “What do you like the most? Something slow and sultry? Something big and powerful?” She swayed her hips, inching closer to them. “I’ll take the lead, if that’s what you’re into.”
“Lady, I don’t know how much English you understand, but we don’t need any of the crude services you offer.”
Mitsuko’s nose twitched. She hadn’t taught herself English in two years just to be downplayed by fools who spit-shined their shoes. She tightened her grip around her bottle. “Then you should keep searching for a pansy bar to root at tonight, being that none of us here actually speak a language you two would ever understand.”
The men snarled and took their first step up the stage stairs, but Mitsuko blocked them with her body. “If either of you actually wanna indulge in the sweet comforts of a pansy bar and suck a fat cock or fuck a wet girl’s pussy that’s willing to lay down their perfect bodies for you sorry folk for an hour, I’m sure we can find someone desperate enough for you to fuck. Now, if you can just tell me what sex position you’re more well versed in and what kind of leather you prefer to cum in, we can start this night off right.”
They reacted how most men would after hearing a woman speak as vulgarly as they thought. Articulating it into words—being direct about how you wanted it—and suddenly you were a disgusting whore who needed to be calmed down for your own desires.
“How filthy,” the larger man said and, after scowling at her, tipped his hat and exited up the stairs.
“Tell Vincenzo that we’re watching him, little thing,” the other said. “More intently than ever.”
She went to curse them out and tell them that she wasn’t their delivery boy but held back. She hadn’t seen their weapons.
She watched them until they disappeared around the corner. Bobbie, who’d taken his gun from behind the counter, followed them up the steps.
Keeping alert, Mitsuko dropped her bottle and went to pick up Vincenzo.
He was asleep standing up, head sagged, spit on his shoes.
She pushed back her bangs. She really hated how much she loved Sylvia. “Hey, wake up.”
He didn’t. It took three more shoves and a clap to startle him. The way his hair tossed over his red eyes made him look more vulnerable than ever.
“Come on, you…” She hooked her arm around his waist. “Come on, you dumb whore. Find your feet.”
“We’re leaving. Everyone!” she shouted. “Wake up. Stop being drunk. We’re going home.”
“Am I driving?” Luis asked.
“Oh, sure.” Battling Vincenzo’s need to sleep, she picked Sylvia up by her arm and got her standing. Laurence was already up and ready to leave. Dominic was staring at the staircase, waiting for the men to return.
“Who were they?” she asked him.
“Men,” he said. “Bad men. They work with Severo.”
She didn’t know what a “Severo” was, but she figured a serpentine-like man was someone to be avoided.
With her entourage of drunks, she led her friends through the back doors and piled them into her car. She sat Vincenzo in the passenger seat and everyone else in the back. She didn’t know why, but she felt protective over him tonight, like those men would eat him if she wasn’t careful. Men in the military had been that, eaten. Rarely did they die on their own terms. Most of them had been swallowed alive, fighting to come back to the living.
She drove somewhat chaotically out to the main road. She saw neither Bobbie nor Severo’s men anywhere. Hopefully, they disappeared as quickly as they appeared, leaving Bobbie to lock up his Kitten safely. She hoped nothing bad would happen to him alone, but she knew keeping these idiots there would only make things worse for everyone.
“Where’re we going?” Sylvia asked, leaning over to pet Mitsuko’s head.
“I’m driving you home. You lot lost your drinking privileges for tonight.”
“What about my car?” Vincenzo asked.
“Relax, you own three. I’m sure it’ll be there when you come back.”
“I’m sorry,” Dominic said. “I don’t usually get like this.”
“I’m sure Laurence didn’t mind it.”
“Hey, I-I’m not drunk,” Laurence said. “I can hear you. I’ll remember this.”
“Good, because I have some questions about you and your revelations tonight.”
“On your grave.”
Laurence’s house was a few blocks down from the Kitten. Thankfully, he and his new friend didn’t kiss each other goodbye. They acted like strangers as neither of them wished the other goodnight or looked at one another.
But as Mitsuko said her goodbyes and drove off, Dominic asked, “Can you drop me off with him?”
“And why would I do that?” she asked.
“I…need to make sure he gets home safe.”
“He’s already home.”
“No…” He strained his brain for a reason to stay. “The stairs. He might trip.”
“I don’t think I can do that, for I don’t think you two would forgive me if I did.”
“But…” Like a dog, he stuck his head out the window and watched the clustered group of apartments fade into New York.
“Window up,” Mitsuko said, and he complied with a tiny pout.
She stared at his upset face through the window. “Dominic.”
He looked up.
“Why’re you doing this? Don’t you think you’d be happier pursuing someone else? Is this pain really something you want to endure for the rest of your life? Vincenzo deals with it okay, and Sylvia, even though she’s Spanish, most people don’t recognize it, and if she’s particularly dressed for the night, many men don’t notice. Vincenzo didn’t when he first met her.”
Vincenzo snored. Sylvia watched him sleep.
“But Laurence is different. You know that. He’s a man, who dresses like a woman for fun, and he’s a black man. Don’t take any of that lightly, and don’t play with his heart.”
She thought it was sensible advice, as he wasn’t as drunk as Sylvia and Vincenzo was. He could take what she was saying and apply it to this newly budding relationship.
Dominic rolled his thumbs in circles. His babyish face had gone harder, more serious like usual. “I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“Yes, you did. I know this’s a bad idea. I know I’m better off dead than doing this, but you don’t get to decide how I ruin my life.”
“And how is it ruined?”
He demonstrated that by gesturing to himself. “Everything is wrong with me. I’m not tough, I’m not forward. I…am, with men, and I wished I wasn’t. I wish I was strong enough to keep from doing this, but I…don’t…care anymore,” he forced out, knowing it wasn’t true. “If I’m going to ruin my life, let it be by my choice, not the choice of someone who hasn’t bothered to ask a single thing about me since meeting me.”
“That’s my man!” Luis said too loudly into a car that’d decided to go silent for the rest of the ride.
She hadn’t meant her questions to invoke guilt about their love choices. She wanted to make sure that he knew that involving yourself with the same sex or someone which society didn’t favor—both, in his case—was going to be hard and that you should prepare for the worst.
It sounded like he thought that what he wanted with Laurence was both his choice and the wrong one. She’d have to talk with him about that, and to Laurence, too. Make sure her friends weren’t engraving their tombstones too early.
She changed the subject. “So, since you’re drunk and not bothering to play up your knighthood status, how do you feel about Laurence?”
“I’m not that drunk.”
“Lovely. So? Your thoughts?”
He hid his face. “No comment.”
“That tells me everything I need to know.” She turned off of Park Ave. “By the way, his favorite drink is rum, his favorite flower’s lavender, and he loves jazz records, Earl Hines specifically, and he hates Parmesan.”
“Nonna can make that,” Vincenzo said, now awake. “Nonna and Ana. They’re great cooks.”
Luis said something about his wife, but it was fully in Italian, so Mitsuko ignored him.
She must’ve gotten drunk on the atmosphere and that’s why she wasn’t disapproving of any of this as harshly as she usually would. She thought she hated these gangsters. Maybe she only liked them if they were drunk and helpless. Then they could owe her favors.
It brought her back to France, dealing with stupid men and love-crazed women. Her driving through the countryside with a bottle of Burgundy, with Émeline, her blond hair catching the summer air as she laughed away the worries of war…
She slammed on the brakes, skidding the car onto the sidewalk. Vincenzo’s head was thrown forwards, Sylvia’s nose crashed into the seat.
She clutched her throat, trying to breathe in her car’s fumes. She didn’t normally invade her headspace like that. She controlled it better, meditated her into the back of her head until she was a dream. If she couldn’t shake her out, then she’d stay at home with the lights off, contemplating all the wrong she’d done in her life until she went crazy.
She slapped her cheeks. Worrying about that woman was less important than taking care of the loved ones she still had.
She wondered if she really believed that.
Prying these men’s addresses out of them was torture. Chaotic and loud, vague directions being shouted at her that she couldn’t physically complete. She stopped listening when each man told her to take three different bridges to get to Brooklyn.
“Take the back roads.”
“No, take the Parkway.”
“Back roads are quicker.”
“But Parkway’s more picturesque.”
“Okay, one drunkard at a time,” Mitsuko said. “Vincenzo, go.”
“Into the Harbor.”
She found Dominic’s house by chance, as everyone was shouting at her on where to go. When she passed by the two-story house, Dominic called for her to stop and Luis shrieked.
Like he said, Dominic was a lot more sober than he acted and got inside just fine. Luis left with him, but before she could call him back, Dominic said, “He lives right next door. It’s fine.”
“I’m fine,” Luis sang. “My wife is going to murder me.”
Trusting that neither of them would actually get murdered, she let them struggle to open their doors and pulled into Vincenzo’s driveway.
These men weren’t worth the hassle. None of them would remember this, this kind gesture she was doing for them, all the gas and sleeping/waking hours she was wasting on them. Christmas was coming up and what was she doing with her holy time? She’d make them pay, especially Vincenzo. She could do with a new coat for the holidays.
The air on this side of New York was salty and especially freezing tonight, and there was this oppressive atmosphere in the cramped cul-de-sac that had her hair standing on edge. She hadn’t felt this way when she’d come up to comfort Sylvia into not hating herself. As she helped them out of the car, she scanned the street for any idling cars or figures. She saw neither.
“Do you have your house keys?” she asked Vincenzo.
He tried fishing them out from his pants pocket, then slowly stopped what he was doing and watched the bushes. “I don’t feel good.”
“Because you got plowed silly and writhed on stage for almost two hours.”
“I wanna sleep here tonight.” Sylvia got down on her hands and knees, in the snow, and started crawling into the bushes. “I’m sleeping outside.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Sylvia, no.” Mitsuko pulled her back. “Your stockings, Sylvia. Your dress. Vincenzo, help me—”
He staggered up the steps and, as he found a hold of his keys, he leaned over the railing and vomited into the snowy hedge.
She was surprised to see him retch so unceremoniously. As if he couldn’t become any more pathetic in front of two women. He got a splotch on his shirt.
Hearing the movements wash over him in waves, Sylvia did what she could do and pushed back his curly hair to keep it from getting nasty. She was bolder than Mitsuko.
“Give me your house key,” Mitsuko said.
He wiped his mouth and threw them behind him. She jumped to catch them.
She didn’t know much about his home life. Something about a “Nonna,” which she surmised was “grandmother.” He rarely talked about his parents, so they were obviously out of the picture, and she didn’t see him with any siblings or cousins he wasn’t in business with. His home was a mix of riches and grandmother oddities, but all the lights were off. The only light came from the winter Moon streaming through the patio porch.
“Is here fine?” she whispered, bringing them to the couch.
“Yeah,” Sylvia said.
“No,” Vincenzo said. “My Nonna’s sleeping. We’ll wake her.”
“Oh, right. Nonna means grandma, Mitsuko.”
“Thank you, Sylvia.” She guided them upstairs to where she recalled Vincenzo’s room was. That black cat was sleeping in the center of the bed. She hissed and hid before Mitsuko closed the door.
Sylvia face-planted into her preferred indent of the bed while Vincenzo tried his best to tuck himself in. He kept making sure Sylvia had more of the blankets.
She looked over her friends’ sleepy states, then pulled out the blankets from underneath them and properly tucked them in.
“Thank you,” Vincenzo said.
“If you remember anything about tonight, don’t bring this up again.”
He sniffed through a clogged nose. She feared he was crying—maybe he was an emotional drinker like all of them were—but he said quite soberly, “I’m sorry for this.”
She said nothing. She’d helped him to bed, she wasn’t going to nurse him tonight.
“I know…I know you hate me, that you wouldn’t have done this if you didn’t have to. But I appreciate it.”
“I’m not a monster.”
“I am,” he said, “a monster.”
“I wouldn’t discount it. Who were those two men who were trying to get at you, anyway? More monsters?”
“The bowler-hat men.”
He squinted his eyes. “I don’t remember seeing any bowlers. When was this?”
Not caring to argue, Mitsuko turned around and gave him a low bow. “Goodnight.”
Sleep stirred up his final, “G’night.”
With intent to give them back, she took his house keys and made sure to relock his door. She didn’t want the poor grandmother to get up and take care of her adult grandson’s drunken mistakes.
She kept her back to the street as she figured out which key locked the door and not his car. The house had a vintage door handle and lock that made putting the key in difficult.
A twig cracked behind her. The cold wind, blowing through the bushes around her.
She froze on the top step, back against the street. She kicked up her boot to her hand and gripped the handle on her switchblade.
Through the front door window, she saw two figures standing across the street near a parked car.
“Fuck,” she whispered, and reopened the door as fast as she could. Time worked against her as she fought to relock the door. Then, with her nightmares twisting into reality, she took one of the kitchen chairs and wedged it between the lock and the floor. She did the same with the back door and checked that all the windows were also locked. Why did he have so many windows in this stupid place, so many access points? She never let go of her knife.
Back upstairs, Sylvia was open-mouth snoring and Vincenzo was staring at her profile, silent. When Mitsuko came in and locked the door, he looked up in confusion.
“Move over,” she whispered. “Your stupid bed’s big enough for three.”
“I’m sleeping here tonight. I’m not getting followed to my house by monsters.”
“Who’re the monsters?”
She uncovered a handmade quilt stuffed inside their shared closet and crawled into bed next to Sylvia. “Goodnight, Vincenzo.”
“…Goodnight,” he whispered, and passed out seconds later.