"You want a hard time? I'll give you a hard time."
Another whimpering whine. Ray couldn’t make out the words.
"All right, that’s it. You’re going right home this minute."
The kid was wailing and punching Frannie’s arm as she dragged him across the dance floor of the Palermo Room. Around them, dancers parted like the Red Sea before Moses. Perfect, her brother thought as the glass-shattering screech sliced right through his brain.
“Number Three needs a tune-up. That engine sounds ready to blow.”
Vecchio snorted at Kowalski’s lame comment. “Everything’s cars with you, isn’t it, Stanley?”
When he didn’t get a smart answer back, Vecchio turned to see the other man watching Frannie and her trailing brood disappear with a weird look on his face.
No, not weird. Wistful, maybe.
“Don’t tell me,” he groaned.
Kowalski shot him a look that said shut the fuck up. Then he shrugged, a brief jerk and release.
“I wanted ‘em, sure,” he admitted. “With Stella.” Vecchio tried not to wince at the name. “But she didn’t.”
The DJ, in a futile attempt to drown out the Klaxon Kid, threw on an old James Brown number:
Get on up
Get on up
Stay on the scene
Get on up
Like a sex machine
Ray watched his Aunt Loretta screw up her face as the lyrics hit her, like she’d bitten into a bad piece of calamari.
“Yeah, well,” Ray said, casting a glance at his cousin the blushing bride, who was eight months pregnant and about ready to pop, “some people aren’t cut out to have kids.”
“Fuck you, Vecchio,” Kowalski snarled. Ray turned and grabbed Kowalski’s skinny arm just as the other man was spinning away from him. He was tense, ready to strike, and for a sharp instant Ray remembered how he’d looked the other night in bed, hovering over him, eyes glittering with some unnamed and terrifying emotion.
Christ, this was—too much, he’d thought at the time. More than he signed up for. More than he wanted, or needed.
But he’d invited him to the damned wedding anyway.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he said, low, because his Aunt Loretta had ears like a bat, “I didn’t mean you, okay? I was thinking about—” my old man, he thought, but he wasn’t going to admit that to Stanley, and it was kind of bad juju to mention Pop while he was standing in the bosom of the family, as it were.
Still, Kowalski was looking at him like he got what Ray was thinking, which pissed him off and surprised him at the same time. “Anyway,” Kowalski said finally, “s’not in the cards. And I’m not minding so much any more.”
“How come?” Ray asked, the question escaping him before he could censor it. He was peripherally aware of the Godfather testifying, his band tossing back enthusiastic yeahs:
I’m gonna take it to the bridge
You want me to take it to the bridge?
Fellas, should I take it to the bridge?
Kowalski didn’t answer, and didn’t answer, and the silence reeled out between them like the cable on an electric winch, taking him farther and farther from this man standing beside him. This skinny-ass, Polack, crazy-haired, crazy-making, wardobe-challenged mess, who also happened to be the most amazing cocksucker Vecchio had ever known, the best partner he could ask for who was actually human, and, insanely, the primary reason why he hadn’t blown his own head off after Stella had left him, because the Vegas gig had turned him into something less than human…
“I got a headache,” Vecchio said abruptly. “You wanna…” He made a motion with his hand indicating the door.
“Yeah,” Kowalski said, with a nearly imperceptible nod. “Fine.”
“So you wanna quit doing this?”
It was kind of a strange question considering they’d fucked one another senseless the night before, and they’d just gotten in the door to Kowalski’s apartment, and Ray hadn’t even taken off his jacket yet. But then, it kind of made sense in that usually Ray didn’t wait more than, say, five seconds to start shucking off his clothes once he was inside Kowalski’s apartment, and it’d been a good thirty now and nobody was getting naked.
“Do you?” he asked, shocked when his voice came out sounding a little whiny, like Number Three right before the big blowout. Neither of them was looking at the other, though Ray stole the occasional glance at Stanley’s downturned face, which was expressionless for a change.
Kowalski blew out a breath. “I asked you first.”
“Jesus,” Ray huffed. “What is this, fucking kindergarten?”
And just like that Ray felt his back go up hard against the wall, because Kowalski had spun toward him and shoved him into it with the speed and force of a tornado. He could feel Kowalski breathing on his face, smell the harsh slap of vodka warring with his own labored exhalations of sangria.
“Just say it,” Kowalski snarled, head tilting at a dangerous angle. “Okay? I mean, it’s been fun and all, Vecchio, but these days I’m a big believer in getting out while the getting’s good, you know? So why don’t you quit bullshitting me and we can go back to doing our jobs and staying vertical when we’re around each other.”
Vecchio couldn’t suppress a snort of disbelief. “You really think that’ll happen?” he smirked.
“What, you think you’re so fucking irresistible? Seems like Fraser resisted you just fine—”
Low blow, Stanley, Vecchio thought. “Yeah, well, Stella sure seemed to enjoy my company,” he shot back.
Instead of rising to the bait, Kowalski’s lip uncurled and he stepped back. His hands left Ray’s lapels; Ray tried not to miss their weight. “Yeah. Whatever,” Kowalski said quietly. “I don’t really give a flying fuck about either of them, to tell you the truth.” He rubbed the back of his neck with long fingers, and Ray recalled, inappropriately, the softness of the hairs at Kowalski’s nape.
“Look,” he said, voice low now too, because he suddenly felt tired and very, very old, “I’ll do whatever you want, okay? If you want to quit, we’ll quit. If you want to keep going—” Kowalski’s startled gaze jerked up to meet his “—we’ll keep going. Okay?”
Kowalski studied him for what felt like a decade, and Ray refused to squirm, even though those eyes were like ants crawling over his skin. No, not ants; little, sharp knives, cutting and peeling back the skin, exposing secret after secret as they flayed him alive—
He wanted to run, but he couldn’t move. Couldn’t save himself.
And then, finally, Kowalski grinned with every single tooth he owned, and Vecchio thought, well, fuck, who needs skin anyway?
Kowalski grabbed ahold of his tie and tugged him forward (man, Ray hated that; didn’t he know this was silk?), and murmured, “Door number two.” And the next thing Ray knew, he was being dragged toward the bedroom.
He dug in his heels and complained loudly the whole way, because he had to make it look good.