i. the thing that could save you explained away
The crowd at Harlem’s Paradise was tightly packed, the hum of conversation only barely muffled by the music. Mariah leaned close to the cool of the window, careful not to place her fingertips against the glass. She heard Alex, his hand tapping against his leather portfolio, a few moments before he announced himself.
“Is it done?” she asked as she turned. Since they’d taken over the club, Alex’s wardrobe had grown slightly nattier--his tie that evening was finely woven satin with a teal and gunmetal pattern, rather than the understated primary colors a political aide might bear.
Alex nodded. “I conveyed your condolences to the family. They were...appreciative.”
“Good.” Mariah strode across the room to her desk. “I did promise Candace, after all.” She flipped open her calendar, double-checking a date before writing out another check. She held it out to Alex. “Flowers for the memorial service,” she said. “And not one of those tacky wreaths with the big ribbons.”
Alex took the check. “Yes, ma’am.” He paused. “And Mr., ah, Shades is downstairs now. I think he’ll be on his way up shortly.”
Mariah settled her hip against her desk. “Thank you, Alex.”
“Good evening, ma’am,” he said, sketching a quick salute--Mariah smiled--before he headed out. She paged through her calendar idly, noting the way the shape of her days had changed, now that she was out--temporarily--of politics. Fewer afternoon meetings and more evening events, and she reveled in the luxury of not having to return constituents’ calls. No more begging and borrowing for her, and if she managed the next year well, never again.
“This suits you,” Shades said, standing in the doorway. She considered how she must appear to him--the pulse of blue and red lights through the glass, the way her paintings glowed behind her. The length of her legs as she leaned on her desk, and the gaze she cast towards him, which always made her feel a bit wolfish.
“The light?” she asked.
He smirked. “The power.” He pulled the door of her office shut, and she slid back onto the desk, in the one corner of the office that couldn’t be seen from the floor below. She caught the lapels of his jacket as he drew closer. “And the satisfaction,” he said.
Mariah ran her left hand across his chest and up, tracing his throat and the faint bruise, almost gone. “Ain’t satisfied yet,” she replied, and he nodded. His breath was heavy as he slid his hand up her thigh, under her skirt. She smiled, cool, because that always made him hotter, shook him out of that admirable, detached control he usually wielded.
He stepped closer to her, hardness pressed against her hip, and she shook her head. “No,” she whispered, “just this,” and his fingers against her, “just this for now.” His laugh was a puff of warm air against the side of her neck, and she shifted her hips back farther, twisted one leg higher. She slipped the sunglasses from his face and they clattered on the desk where she tossed them.
When she came, she came quietly, her eyes locked on his.
“Satisfaction looks good on you, too,” she said as he slid his fingers from her, and she shivered as he licked them clean.
ii. the thrust of an accusative world
She inherited the remnants of Cornell’s protection racket and a sizable chunk of Diamondback’s weapons trade. Shades was reluctant to pull her into arms dealing, but it was her town and her legacy. “Diamondback got rid of the competition,” she said, scanning over cargo manifests and Cornell’s arcane method of bookkeeping. “I’m not going to sit back and watch some other sociopath with delusions of power sweep in and take over my city.”
It turned out, between having Alex map out the organization’s work flow and interviewing accountants as to their ethical flexibility, that weapons trading was remarkably bureaucratic. Weeks of staffing enforcers, lobbyists, and informants passed by, then months of infrastructural work, as Mariah made certain she had a clear impression of the strengths of her people, of the transactions they oversaw, and their right and proper loyalty to her. Only then, after she felt certain, felt confident, did she send out word that they were open for business.
She went in person, that first time, so that people would know she was serious, and real. It was mid-afternoon by the river, and she dressed up in her councilwoman’s best, flashing it up with a mink collar and thrice the number of rings she usually wore. “I will say,” Shades murmured, as the connect handed the payment over to Alex for review, “you make this work. You’ve got the steely thing going.”
Alex looked at her with a nod, and she dismissed the connect with a slow blink. Once he was gone, she gestured to the briefcases in Alex’s hands. “Take that one to the bank,” she said, taking the second briefcase herself. Alex drove off with two of the enforcers, leaving Mariah and Shades alone by the river.
She popped the briefcase open and extracted a stack of hundreds. “Want to count it again?” Shades asked.
She ran her thumb through the stack, listening to the whir-whisper of it before setting it back in its space. “I love that sound,” she murmured. She tossed the briefcase into the trunk of the car.
“Now what?” Shades asked.
Mariah pulled close to him, touched her lips to his throat, then the underside of his chin. Then she yanked Shades into the backseat of the car, rode him and wrung him out.
Afterwards, she touched up her make-up, tilting her face left, then right as she peered into the mirror of the passenger seat. She ran her fingers through her hair, adjusting the curls, then looked over at Shades in the driver’s seat. The collar of his shirt was crooked, and there was a bite mark low on his neck.
“Did that hurt?” she asked, idly.
Shades smiled and reached over, tracing her jaw with his finger. “Yeah,” he said, then he pulled her close, then closer, for a kiss.