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Under The Snow

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NYC, 1940

Who were they really when they had no names? She was taxi dancer number five or just Fiver or Blondie (she dyed her hair a bold platinum then). He was one of Mr. O’Hanlon’s sideguys; The Kid, Lashes, or—as some of the girls used to call him right to his face—Face, on account of his good looks.

She never called him anything. If she saw him approaching, she knew to look away. Any man who made your heart race that way had to be no good. He never seemed to notice her anyway. Face was the type of guy who only had the hustle on his mind, not silly girls who used nail polish on their stocking-tears and said no to all the boys looking to make time between shifts.

That all changed one rough-weather night in February. Midtown was whited-out, cars and their dim headlights visible only when a block away, like slow-moving dreams. The sticking snow stopped the IRT cold and buses and taxis were thin on the ground. The Boss was out, the Boss’s second was out, so was O’Hanlon, plus two more senior guys, leaving him in charge—Face. Girls called out sick or just didn’t show, the kitchen staff was down from twenty to five, and the front-of-house staff was a skeleton crew. Amateur night all around.

She lived in Hell’s Kitchen, so she walked up with Lucy and when they got there Face was counting money at the bar. He glanced up at her in the mirror.

“You. Hey. What’s your name again?”

“Dolores.”

His smile went up on one side as fast a switchblade. “Like the movie star? That ain’t your real name.”

She didn't know what possessed her. Maybe she was cold, maybe her feet were wet, maybe she was tired from nearly falling on every icy corner. They were practically the same age; he was a thousand times more beautiful up close.

“Number Five’s fine—stick to that, Face.” She didn't turn to see how he took it, just kept walking, freeing her hair from the cream and gold head scarf she’d used to wrap up and protect her hairdo from the hail.

Around 11:45 p.m., The Tick Tock got an unexpected rush of customers; the snowed-in desperate for a drink, a younger than average crowd looking to dance away their blizzard blues in the night.

The boys came with their own dates, so she and Martha and Lucy barely had to dance with the clientele. Little Tony, who was about 6’5” and 300-something pounds and handled security, told them that Face was gonna pay ‘em double just for showing up. So she drank some on-the-house champagne and let herself relax.

Since the regular acts were mostly out, she and Lucy did their very first spotlight number, singing Yours (Quiereme Mucho) and doing a dance they’d practiced at home every night. Lucy took the English language verses, she took the Spanish, with only Sam, the piano player, for accompaniment and it went off like a dream. It's amazing what a bit of room to move and an audience can do to a number. They brought the house down. Someone threw a white rose at her feet and she put it in her mouth, twirling offstage to the sound of applause.

After that, she sipped some more champagne and only danced with pretty boys who kept their hands to themselves. Who danced to dance, not for sex. And she laughed—her real laugh— and smiled because she meant it. She was a little high from the bubbly, so when new arms went around her an hour or so after midnight, she didn’t catch who it was. It was crowded now, her hair had come unpinned and fallen in front of her eyes. She put her cheek up to this new partner’s face—he was just the right height for it—and breathed in the peppery smell of his aftershave. She let herself be led. And boy, could he lead. She felt like she was a part of him and for the first time in her young life, she wanted to turn her head and kiss the dark stranger, do the dangerous thing, damn the consequences. Not that she would—she knew it was the night and the money and the champagne talking so she hummed along to the new Jimmy Dorsey tune Sam and his rhythm section had learnt the night before instead.

“If you do this with all the fellas, then I’m surprised you ain’t Number One. You have a real nice voice.”

She froze and turned her head to catch the corner of his damned mocking smile.

“Relax, kid. Even I take breaks. This is my break and this is your break.”

He spun her around, effortless, like she was made of nothing, and in seconds she was back in a blissful state of motion.

“You’re a good dancer,” she managed. They moved closer to another corner. “I’ve never danced with anyone who danced as good as you.”

“As well.”

“Listen to Edward R. Murrow over here,” she snapped back at his correction.

He laughed shortly, a single staccato heh. “Stop talking. Let’s enjoy the dance.”

But she couldn’t stop. She had to keep talking or she was going to start kissing him. She told him that she’d walked to work and how she’d walk back home. That she had those newfangled rubber shoes that went on top of her regular shoes, but that she’d brought extra newspaper to stuff in ‘em if she had to. That she loved Fred Astaire and Benny Goodman and the splendor of snow. That she’d had a cold the week before but she’d gotten rid of it with the time tested family remedy of Vicks VapoRub and ironed-warm newspapers and woke up with the story of Australia’s hottest day ever branded on her chest. That her father spoke Spanish but that her mother didn’t and she did a little. That she loved to dance. (Especially with him.)

He didn't say a word.

The song ended; he let her go. “Nice dancing with you, Number Five.” He took off in the direction of the kitchens, leaving her to catch her breath.

She and Lucy trudged home after closing duties, hair and snowflakes blowing into her open, laughing mouth. She threw snowballs until her fingers burned and let the wind swirl her around, a spinning ballerina in the blue to lavender to pink light of dawn. A girl in a magic snowglobe. Someone to be cooed-over, dancing in fixed forever-beauty, lovely and treasured.

When they got to their shitty walk-up on 43rd and Tenth, she saw the car from the club parked across the street and turned her head away, singing the tune of the song she'd danced together with him.

She hung up her stockings and socks over the windowsill heater and drew a heart with an arrow through it on the window. The car was still there, purring in the dark, and she could see it perfectly past the line she’d drawn, right to the blurry, dark figure sitting inside.

And from then on, she was in love.

Face was always polite. Always a gentleman. The only time he touched her was one evening at the club when she’d fallen by accident and she felt his cool, dry hand at her back righting her again. They danced again that night and she imagined that this must be why her mother stayed with her father, despite everything, because of what was happening between their bodies. She’d never understood how anyone could give in to their feelings, but now she could. In his arms, gliding like there was no ground, talking her head off like a nervous parrot, she understood. Her body wasn’t hers anymore, it was his. They were one body.

He asked her her real name and she didn't tell him. “Whatever you make up will be better than the real thing,” she muttered, ignoring his handsomeness, the shine of his insolent eyes.

“I like the real thing,” he said. Then he sat across from her, taking the cold cream handkerchief and wiping it on her cheek. “There they are. Freckles.”

Her breath caught as his eyes took her in.

"You used to live in the sun. I can tell by your skin." He brought his hand up to her face. “I’m going to help you out, Dollface. Get you a solo spot here. You just gotta trust me.”

She lost her mind again. “How sweet of you,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Reaching past him to grab at her stockings—she’d forgotten her feet were bare. The cold floor finally registered, curling her toes.

He laughed. “And blonde doesn’t suit you. Not really. You’re something warmer than that.”

A couple of days later, on a Saturday, she got a small white envelope in the mail. Miss Valence’s Elocution Classes at a place near Gramercy Park. All paid for. She was expected in two weeks and boy howdy, did she go. She was early, she was ready. She practiced. In a month, she’d mastered it, her new voice, pushed down deeper giving her a cool, low tone. A sultry girl should have a sultry voice. It was all in the lip shape. Where her tongue rested inside her mouth.

“Hello. My name is Maria De La Cuesta,” she practiced at home in the mirror. “My name is Maria De La Cuesta, how do you do?” she said to him at the club.

He looked up from his paper.

“Yeah, I know. Tiny told me on my first day.” He brushed his hair back, then lit a cigarette. The smoke-tendrils curled and beckoned around his face. “You don’t like it though.”

“No.”

“Then change it. What’s your middle name? All you Spanish broads have at least five.”

She slapped him. It happened so fast, she didn’t have time to feel sorry. The sound was like a whip crack. He smiled and rubbed his jaw.

“So you do have some Irish in ya. Okay, four.”

She geared up to do it again but he caught her hand.

“Easy, tiger. I might get to like it.”

She glared at him. He let go. Her wrists was warm where his fingers had been.

“So what’s your middle name?”

"Gilda. An aunt, on my mother’s side. I hated her.”

His expression was sardonic. “Gilda. Like a gilded lily. Fragrant and white. I like it. It's wasted on an old broad. Now on a young and pretty one... that’s a different story.” He went back to his paper, licking his thumb and turning the page. “Tell me your name again?”

She smiled because this time she got what he was playing at. “Hello, my name is Gilda de la Cuesta. And who do I have the pleasure… ?” She extended her hand. He stood up and kissed it, his usual cool, amused smile firmly in place.

“Johnny Farrell. You can remember that, can’t ya sweetheart?”

“Yes. I think I can. Mr. Johnny Farrell. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Mr. Johnny Farrell sent her mail—letters written in fine, loopy Catholic script. Lists of things to read. Magazines. Stores to visit. Dresses to buy. He never asked for anything except a dance or two on a quiet night. She longed for those nights. His hands only where they needed to be, dancing like he knew every single move she was capable of. Second guessing her perfectly. The song would end and he’d go back to work. He wouldn’t look at her but she could feel his presence, the exact place where he stood, his profile, the way he held his hands, loose at his sides.

Sometimes he danced with other girls and she was so mad she thought she would set fire to the place. Silly, frigid Maria—now steady, hot Gilda—knew what they wanted because she wanted it too. She longed for the moment he’d get out of that car and ring her doorbell. Every night, she cleaned her room. Tidied up as if she was expecting him. She didn’t care what that made her. What her mother would think. She’d never been so sure in her entire life.

Gilda barely noticed, but suddenly it was summer. She took Johnny to Coney and they swam in the dark blue-gray waters—he’d never been. Johnny asked her to go up to the Glen Island Casino and they danced to the big band. The lights shimmered all over his face and he was so pretty, his eyes the darkest of blues with a ring of yellow around the pupil. Like a cuckoo.

“Would you please…” She swallowed. “Please kiss me, Johnny.”

And he did.

That’s all it was for a while. Kissing. Dancing. Walks home. The atmosphere in the city was electric and nervous, newspaper boys shouting about the Germans, far away fights in places she’d never heard of. There was talk going ‘round the club that they’d be going to war soon and that FDR was gonna have all men between 18 and 40 sign up for the draft. Even Johnny, her Johnny, who told her he’d never get called on account of ulcers. He blew cigarette smoke when he said that and picked off tobacco from the tip of his tongue. She got the feeling he was just saying it to make her feel better.

Gilda dyed her hair red in November and changed her last name too. Mr. O’Hanlon bumped her up to two song and dance spots a night. Not with Lucy, who'd left for California, but a new gal named Maude with a big pair of knockers and a sweetheart face. Maude was gone soon enough, a casualty of that bosom, and Gilda was on her own, a solo spot, making enough money to move out into her own place closer to the club. She and Johnny kept things quiet—he was a manager now, of a cop bar in Queens that the Big Boss owned in addition to the club. Johnny told her he grew up with those guys, knew how they worked and how to handle them, and she never knew if he was talking about the Irish cops or the Irish gangsters who ran half the clubs on 52nd Street. Probably both.

She was his girl, even if all they did was kiss, but a girl gets curious, or maybe just jealous. One day, when she knew he wasn’t working, she called in sick and made her way to the Queens address she managed to finagle out of Tiny. She found Johnny’s place easily enough, it was a modest building in Sunnyside near the Bliss St. stop. She held the door open for a lady with a baby carriage and followed her in.

Gilda must’ve stood outside his doorway for twenty minutes. Long enough to get cold feet and head back to the elevators. As soon as she pressed the button, Johnny came out holding a bag of garbage for the incinerator. He saw her and narrowed his eyes.

“What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be at the club?”

“I just wanted to see you. That’s all.”

“Whatsa matter? You okay?” He took a step towards her. For a second, he looked terrified. Johnny was always so cool, it thrilled her a little to see him like that.

"Yes. I’m fine.” She straightened her back, raised an eyebrow. “I wanted to know why you'd never invited me here.”

Johnny walked back to his doorway and stood at his door. Gilda followed him but he stretched his arm out, blocking the doorway.

“Can’t I come in?”

“What for?”

Gilda narrowed her eyes, tried to look past him. “Is there someone in there with you?”

“Get out of here, you stupid broad.”

She ducked under his arm into the apartment, taking him completely by surprise. It was small. It was tidy. Despite the tidiness the dust motes swirled in the air. She went into the bathroom, then the bedroom. Both small, both clean, both empty. She even went through his drawers. All she found was a set of dice and a photo of herself, a publicity shot from the Tick Tock, kicking up her leg and holding out her arms, like she was waiting for an embrace.

Gilda put the picture down and went into the bathroom. She ran the taps and brought the cool water up to her face, taking a handkerchief she kept in her purse and wetting it. She wiped at the mascara that sweat and tears had smudged around her eyes. She wiped off her lipstick too, and all the foundation and blush. She walked back into the living room. Johnny was standing there, trying to look casual, but she could tell by the slump of his shoulders that he was waiting.

“Not what you expected, huh, sweetheart? There’s no other women. Just me and this dingy little place.”

“Why, Johnny?”

“Why, what?” he growled, his black hair flipping over his eyes. It was getting long.

“Why did you pay for all those things?”

“I wanted to do something nice for you. Wasn’t it nice? You seemed to like it well enough.”

“Where are you getting the money?” She looked around his bare apartment.

“I hit the casinos when I’m not working. I’m lucky.” Johnny shrugged, his mouth curling up at the corner.

Gilda was naive sometimes but she was no dummy. She had a pretty good idea where the money was coming from. “You didn’t have to,” she said finally, unwilling to ask.

“Sure I did. A beautiful girl like you—” He stared out of the window. “Listen, you can go. No hard feelings. I understand, that I gave you—”

“Shut up. Look at me.”

Gilda stood in front of him. She took his hand and brought it up to her face.

“This is me. Plain old me. You told me you liked my face like this. Was that real, or was that a line too?”

His eyes looked all over her face, not settling, just taking her in.

“Not a line.”

“I’m not Gilda. I’m me. I was raised in Williamsburg. Sometimes I don’t talk right and I get lipstick on my teeth.”

“I know.” He brushed the hair back from her face.

Gilda leaned forward to whisper in his ear and his arms came up around her automatically but there was no music.

“Te digo esto en Español para que no me entiendas. Volví a Nueva York de California cuando murió mi papá. Mi madre… bueno, pues ella no se acuerda de mucho, hasta se le olvidó mi nombre.”

He pressed his cheek against hers. She continued. “Escúchame. Soy igual que tú. No tengo a nadie.”

“Shhh.”

Her head fell back like it was too tired to hold up on its own. His hands slid up her arms. She stopped them. “I can’t be some fancy lady if that's what you're trying to turn me into. I’m just me. Don’t wake up and forget.”

“I won’t.” Johnny smiled and it was so happy that it made her want to cry, only she was crying. She hadn’t noticed.

Gilda took a step back from Johnny, slipped off her coat and threw it on the floor, followed by her jacket. Then she turned around and said, “Help me with the zipper. I can’t reach it.” The dress joined the other items on the floor.

 


 

“That wasn’t your first time,” Johnny said, finally, touching her bare shoulder with the back of his hands.

“No.” Gilda frowned, remembering. “My first time wasn’t something I had a choice about. What about you?”

Johnny smirked and lit a cigarette. “It wasn’t my first time either,” he said and laughed when she shoved him. He put his cigarette in her mouth, she pulled on it and exhaled.

“So we’re all even, then?” Gilda said.

“Yeah,” he kissed her. “All fair and even.”

Johnny’s record player played the new Ink Spots. She sang along and stretched out her leg, pointing her toes, and watched her shadow undulate in the candlelight. “Don't you tell it to the trees; For they will tell the birds and bees; And everyone will know; Because you told it to the trees; Yes, you told them once before, And it's no secret any more.”

Johnny smiled, his teeth glistening in the dark. “I like listening to you sing.”

She brought her finger up to the cleft in his chin, careful not to scratch him with her nails. “So then I’ll never stop singing, Johnny.”

“Yes. Never stop.”

He helped her get dressed, like a striptease in reverse, and it was just like dancing with him. They went out, had clam strips and beer, and on the way back to his apartment, a black cat darted out in front of them, and she was foolish enough to laugh it off. She knew who she was, she was Gilda, he was Johnny, and her place in the world was with him.

 


 

Córdoba, 1945

The train ride was usually the same dull slog: uncomfortable cheap leather seats, an underwhelming bar car, the smell of yesterday’s cigars, and nothing interesting to look at from the windows. Just hours of green and brown and gray punctuated by the occasional human face staring at the passing locomotive in wonder. While you sit, legs cramping, and sad, tired old women sell peanuts and other treats from a small, squeaky cart. The barren nothingness between events, the uneasy union of boredom and expectation.

Ballin Mundson didn’t want to think about work. Not yet. But he had nothing else to occupy himself with. He decided to stretch out his legs and walk through the train.

In the next car over, a young woman argued prettily with the conductor in one of the compartments. He couldn't make out the words, they were separated by glass and wood, but the pantomime of their discussion was enough—the man was asking for a ticket and she didn’t have one. Something about her manner, the way she tipped her head, seemed familiar. Ballin could not place it.

“Permiso,” he said, tapping on the window with the brass handle of his cane. “Si le falta dinero ha esta señorita, sería mi placer pagarle su… cómo se dice, su...”

“Billete,” said the conductor.

“Sí. Su billete. Gracias."

Ballin paid the man, and the conductor tipped his hat and moved to the next compartment. Ballin turned to the woman: young, red hair, sunglasses blocking his view of her eyes. She stood there, unmoving, like an animal in a forest waiting for the predator to attack. He stepped back and brought his feet together, bowed crisply, and walked away before she could respond. A gentleman should always grant kindnesses without hope of reward.

Ballin didn’t see her the rest of the ride. He didn’t seek her out, he didn’t even think of her. He got off in Córdoba, walked through the station, and into the waiting car, with no trace of the woman in his mind at all.

 


 

Horseback riding could be quite dreary; he vastly preferred to walk. Pancho Fullerton, a slovenly, rich idiot with ties to the Argentine Navy, grinned at him through crooked, white teeth, swatting at a fly hovering around his temple.

“That is my best horse, Señor Mundson. Do you like it?”

“Yes. It’s a superior animal.”

“You should buy yourself one.”

Ballin did not answer. He had no need of a horse.

The horses clip-clopped; Fullerton cleared his throat. “Have you given any thought to my proposal?”

Ballin nodded noncommittally and pointedly looked past toward the lush green farm fields, lined evenly with rows of irrigation ditches. Further on, a line of Cypress trees stood by the road. Three cars appeared in the distance—the evening’s entertainment no doubt. Fullerton did not have any friends or company who weren’t paid for.

Finally realizing that no reply would be forthcoming from his guest, Fullerton gave a mirthless belly laugh. “But why discuss business? First we eat, eh? There is quite a show at the restaurant tonight, something special in your honor.”

Ballin smiled politely. “As always, your hospitality shames me.”

He let the portly man ride on ahead and followed behind, thinking about his upcoming projects, growing bigger by the day, and the sheer necessity of letting Johnny Farrell into his plans. The young man had proved his worth. Now was the time.

Later that night, he took his place next to Mr. Fullerton and had a typical Argentine dinner—red meat charred on the outside, pink and bloody on the inside, with the usual tangy sauce on the side. He begged off dessert to take a walk around the house and, on the flowery path towards the gate, spied a young woman dressed in a black polka dotted dress that flared out in a burst of white petticoat. She sang softly to herself, something familiar and sad, and spun around slowly, raising her arms over head, the soft click of castanets in her hands. It was her. The one from the train.

Ballin lit a cigarette and the bright sulfurous flare startled her. She stepped back and regarded him, her mouth crimson and wide.

He spoke in English. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

She nodded. “That’s quite alright.”

What a voice—dark and cool, older than her face. American, cultured, but the kind that has been bought, too considered to be anything but manufactured. That interested him.

The young woman walked briskly back towards the house.

Ballin returned to the banquet room some moments later, taking a seat by the door to watch the musicians set up. There were red and black paper garlands hanging from the rafters but the effect was more political rally than festive. It was highly unappealing. His host was ambitious but lazy about details—an essential attribute in the powerful. The ability to consider all the variables and plan accordingly, for either success or failure. And somehow win either way.

Fullerton sat next to him with a loud thump of posterior-on-seat, offering him a cigarette. Ballin shook his head.

“You’re in for a treat, Mr. Mundson. We have a dancer tonight who does Spanish dancing, not the tango from here, but from España—the kind with… how do you say… zapateo?”

“Flamenco.”

“Yes! That is it.”

He was mercifully spared the prospect of additional “cultural” conversation by the loud strumming of a guitar. Ballin did not care for this kind of music—it was too showy, too vulgar—but he was transfixed nonetheless, watching the dancer step on the makeshift platform doubling as a stage, strike a formal pose and take a deep breath he felt in his own lungs.

It was the woman from before, of course. She brought her arms up over her head, then down to her waist, as if she was pushing a great weight, her face the picture of pained passion. She lifted her voluminous skirt up, brought her knee high, then down, and spun slowly, her legs crossed at the ankles, clapping her hands in counterpoint to the guitar, feet doing a fast tap on the floor. Those fingers of hers were like doves flying upwards, her heel stomps and castanets keeping confident time. She vacillated between slow, measured stretches—a sort of wide, deliberate movement—and rapid spins, taps, and leg lifts, her arms going up and down.

What a lovely place it was, the world. A place of auburn hair that burnished under lights, with women, young and beautiful, and music that could make you forget to be sensible. When the song ended, he jumped to his feet and clapped fervently.

“You like this dance very much, Señor,” Fullerton crowed, his rheumy voice smug with implication.

“Yes,” Ballin said. “Yes, I liked it very much. Very much.”

 


 

Once the proper introductions had been made, her manner changed quite markedly. She was charming and gay with the kind of laughter that was soft and enveloping. Conversation was easy and abundant—they spoke about dancing and travel. She'd never been to Spain but her father was from Andalucia and had regaled her with stories of growing up in a small mountain village. Ballin had also grown up in a small mountain village and he told her an edited version of the tale. She rested her face in her hands, eyes shining. Gilda, for that was her name—as gilded as the girl—did not change out of dancing costume, did not put on gloves, and sitting next to her, he felt twenty years younger. Like he did with Johnny, late nights at the casino, drinking cognac and hearing stories of Irish gangsters and their ‘gin joints’. Gilda and Johnny had the same quality, a youthful, dangerous vitality that was beautiful and intoxicating. With people like that around him, he could rewrite his own story, turn it into something benevolent and new. No war, no pleasurable horrors, no desperation. The unknown would only carry the danger of failure rather than the promise of death.

He had his driver drop her off at her hotel, then insisted she switch hotels, at his expense. She refused. He admired her refusal. He asked her to meet him for breakfast. She agreed.

Ballin called on Fullerton afterwards and cooly gave the bewildered night-shirted man a list of demands to be met if he wanted to start doing business with him, starting with finding him a jeweler willing to sell him an engagement ring before ten in the morning.

He presented it to her over breakfast champagne. The glittering diamond-light danced over her lips.

Before she could answer, Ballin covered her hand with his own. “Gilda. Let us have a day. Spend some time with me. Then decide.”

“Ballin… I’m sorry, this is lovely but no.”

“Come, let’s go for a stroll.”

They went to the local cemetery, a popular walking spot, and she was quiet at first—contemplative. Eventually, the laughter returned.

“How did you come to find yourself in Córdoba?”

“Now, Ballin. Why does this feel like an interrogation?”

He smiled, leaning on his walking stick. “I’m just curious how a lovely young lady from New York City found herself so very far from home?”

She took a deep drag of her cigarette. “I have no home.”

“Oh?”

Gilda left the path and walked towards a tombstone with an angel statue draped over it. Her gloved fingers traced the engraved name, the tips of them fitting neatly into the grooves. M-A-R-I-A. A ladybug landed next to her finger and crawled across.

“Here, those are considered good luck.”

She held up her hand and the ladybug took flight. Gilda smiled, “I make my own luck.”

“So do I.”

A family walked by, carrying a picnic basket and pushing a pram between the gravestones.

“No home,” she repeated with a sad smile, watching them pass. “And no past. I was born the night I met you, all I have is future.” She looked at him, shielding her eyes from the sun. “What? You think that’s a funny thing to say?”

“On the contrary. My right-hand man said the same thing to me.”

“Really? And you chose to trust a man who tells you something like that?”

“Yes, with my life.”

“Well, later we should have a toast to him. To your right-hand man. May he continue to be worthy of your trust.”

“That sounds like a fine toast.”

After the cemetery, they went to a church. She lit a candle, then joined him again by the fountain with the holy water. She took some and crossed herself, kissing her thumb, then took his arm to walk out into the sun.

“Where to now?”

“My hotel. And you, to yours.” She eyed him cautiously. “Then we’ll meet for dinner and we’ll dance after, if you like.”

He patted her white-gloved hand, a tiny velvet rose stitched at the wrist. “Ah. I’m not as fine a dancer as you.”

“That’s alright, Mr. Mundson. If you can follow, I’ll lead.”

Ballin bowed and walked towards his waiting car. He nearly got in before remembering that he had wanted to give her the white rose on his lapel, he didn’t usually wear flowers and, impulsively, he wanted her to have it, right away. He didn’t want to wait.

Striding back into the hotel, he found Gilda by a row of telephone booths, Pancho Fullerton holding her wrist at an odd angle as if he were going to crack it. How quickly fat men can go from jolly to vicious.

His sharp little friend poked Fullerton in the back. Fullerton’s flesh was like overstuffed sofa cushions. The bully dropped her arm at once.

“I find that the wrist is rather delicate, Mr. Fullerton.” Ballin sighed. “So many small bones.”

Fullerton and his three greasy chins backed away from Gilda, who held her injured wrist to herself.

“Apologies, Mundson. This woman was overpaid last night. It’s just business. You understand.”

Ballin counted four hundred pesos and threw them at Fullerton’s feet. The rotund man scrambled for the bills as if they were going to take flight. He stood up slowly, one knee at a time, stuffing the pesos in his pocket and grabbing a handkerchief to wipe at his face. He turned and murmured to Gilda in Spanish. Her shoulders tensed.

It was amusing how stupid people were sometimes. How they despaired at their inability to succeed when it was clearly their own ignorance that kept them from ever rising higher. Ballin spoke German, French, Italian, and English fluently. Even a low born man with little education could make the correct assumption. But Fullerton, with his family connections and easy achievements, didn't think it through. Never considered that Ballin would understand every word.

“Adios, Señor Mundson. Please come by to confirm our deal before you leave Córdoba.”

“I will pay you a visit very soon. You have my word.”

Fullerton gave a bow and cast his piggish gaze at Gilda before stomping out of the hotel. She remained impressively poised, her wrist at her side.

“Gilda, are you alright?”

“Why, yes, Mr. Mundson. I’m fine.”

“We’re back to formality, I see. No matter, it took Johnny weeks to stop calling me Mundson.”

“Johnny?” Gilda smiled a frozen sort of smile and she seemed to regret it immediately. It thawed back into a neutral line.

“I’m sorry. You remind me so of him, in a way. Johnny Farrell. My right-hand man. Like you, he makes his own luck.”

The line grew slack and she struggled to control her mouth. The unpleasant encounter with Fullerton seemed to finally be hitting her.

“Ballin,” she said, her voice soft. She trembled.

He offered his arm and she took it, leaning on him. Ballin patted her back soothingly. “There, that’s much better.”

They walked to the bar where he ordered her a scotch and watched her drink it, her teeth chattering a little. Her eyes were enormous and a rich, speckled brown.

“Yes, I’ll marry you,” she said softly.

“Wonderful.”

He took the ring from his pocket and slipped it carefully onto her finger, kissing her hand.

“I insist you go to the hospital.”

Gilda raised an eyebrow. “I don’t need to.” She moved her wrist around slowly. “See? Just fine. Nothing a cold compress can’t fix.”

She rifled through her purse with one hand, and pulled out a cigarette case. The barkeep moved in to light it before she even brought it up to her lips. She took a deep drag and the smoke curled around her face.

“Then let’s find you one. You can go upstairs to get ready so we can continue our evening.”

“But I thought we were getting married tonight?” she smiled.

“Why, yes, of course. Tonight. At say, 10:00? But until then, let’s get to know one another.”

“Oh. I see.” She stubbed out her cigarette and stood up to gather her things.

“No, you don’t, you beautiful child.” He smiled reassuringly. “I meant dinner.”

“That’s all you need, huh?” She raised her eyebrow.

“Of course not. I would like to take more walks with you. Like today. Go to the cinema. And dancing.” He looked at his ring on her finger. “Fine meals.”

“In Buenos Aires?” she said

“Yes, in Buenos Aires. But for now, I’ll settle for dinner with my fiancée, followed by marriage for dessert.”

Gilda laughed shortly. “You know what you want.”

“I do.”

Ballin walked Gilda over to the elevators. “I am here on business for the next four weeks but as soon as that’s taken care of, we can leave for our new home.”

Gilda smiled, bright and terrible. “I never want to return here.”

“You will never have need to.”

“Do you promise?” she asked, clasping her hands together.

“Yes.”

“And shall we always be gay? And never let business or other people interfere?”

“I am a busy man, but perhaps I could learn to take some time for leisure.”

“Oh, I'm good at leisure. You’ll see. I'll be ready in an hour.”

“I'll see you then.”

She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, right on the ragged scar down the right side of his face. Most women avoided it. Not Gilda. She seemed almost drawn. Her perfume was musky, too old for her, he'd find her something more suitable.

After the dinner and the dancing, their driver drove them to a house at the foot of the hills. There, a judge married them with his wife as a witness. Gilda wore a cream suit and fiddled with her cuff, which had a small tear. He would buy her a thousands suits.

“Mrs. Ballin Mundson,” she whispered in the car, tears filling her eyes, seemingly overcome with emotion. “That’ll show—” Gilda covered her mouth and laughed.

They went back to his hotel, he had his things moved to the honeymoon suite. He changed out of his evening clothes into something more casual and packed a bag with some necessary things.

Gilda stood up when he entered the bedroom. She removed her suit slowly, piece by piece, until she stood there in just her slip and heels. He closed the distance between them and kissed her, at last. Her lips were cool, perfectly cool, just right. She touched his face again, ran her finger down his scar. He would like for her to give him another one to match.

Ballin let go of her and stepped back. “Gilda, dearest. I’m afraid I have to take my leave of you.”

“On our honeymoon, Ballin?”

“Yes, there is something I must do and it must be tonight. If anyone asks, I was here all night with you, do you understand?”

A kind of glimmer flared in her eyes. “Yes. I do.”

He kissed her again. She gave a little, a bending flower, and then he left.

 


 

The kerosene was easy to find. He’d noticed it his first time there. Ballin noticed all the little things, which doors were kept unlocked, which guards looked drunk or lazy.

He stood there, playing with the match and smiling. Below one of his feet, Fullerton squirmed, tied up and bleeding, the thick red blood mixing with his own filth. A muddy sort of modern painting, one Ballin would be happy to display.

“Mr. Fullerton,” he said, after his joy had cooled a touch, and he could keep the excitement out of his voice. “As you can see, I will not be going into business with you. But. Since you did me such a kindness by putting together the arrangements for my nuptials so quickly, I didn’t want you to wait too long for an answer.”

Fullerton mewled around the rag stuffed in his mouth. ‘Please’ sounded the same under a rag, no matter what the language. It was probably a ‘please.’

“It was always going to end this way, you see.”

The lighter was put away and the knife came back out. Pancho’s eyes bulged round and terrified. The sputtering p-p-p became a harsh, needling eeeeeee.

“You are a rude man who has never learned to do things for himself. Everything you do is done for you, you only pay for it. Which makes you altogether useless.”

The ‘eeeeeees’ were combined with the wet-wood slap of Fullerton’s feet and mid-section working together to wriggle away. Ballin laughed.

“Believe me, I’m sympathetic. I, too, have to pay for some things. But this… this I can do myself.”

Ballin kneeled down and did it quickly, in the way that had been his style since he was a youth. In and out, right into the lungs. Normally, he would stay—listen to the humorous noises that the body makes as it perishes—but he had to get back. He whispered in the man’s ear. “Goodnight, Mr. Fullerton. The fire will finish the rest.”

 


 

Several delightful weeks went by, and finally it was time to make arrangements to return to Buenos Aires. Ballin came home after a business meeting with a fine Pancho substitute—an industrialist named Herringer—and found his wife waiting for him in the lobby of the hotel. She spoke breathlessly, her voice rising slightly in excitement or panic. “The front desk gave me a telegram. From Johnny Farrell.”

“Ah yes, my right-hand man. From New York City, like you.”

She smiled, her eyes widening. “Johnny. That’s right, your right-hand man. You told me about him. That is a very common name, Johnny.”

“That is true.” Ballin offered her his arm. “I have excellent news; we can leave for Buenos Aires today. Let us pack our things. I can tell you all about Johnny on the train home. I think you will like him very much. Though he does not share your superstition regarding black cats. Apparently, he favors them.”

Gilda tripped slightly. “How curious. I can’t wait to know more.”

On the train, Ballin paid the conductor. Gilda stared out at the passing fields. She spoke to him without turning her head but he could see her expression reflected in the window.

“Does it ever snow in Buenos Aires?”

“I don’t know, Gilda. It hasn’t since I’ve lived here. Perhaps it doesn’t at all.”

“That would be a pity.” Gilda turned to him and smiled, a row of excellent picture-postcard teeth. “So, tell me all about your man Johnny.”

And Ballin did, noting with pride that she hung onto his every word. When a candy seller came by, he bought her a selection of chocolates and laughed delightedly at the stuff smeared all over her chin, a child with sweets. Is there a happier sight?

 


 

San Pedro de Calama, 1950

To him, the story always ended the same way, with both of them dead. Either she got mowed down by a trolley in the Centro, or he got sick from some mysterious Latin American illness—something in the water, like cholera, weaker every day, in a white room with a rusty bed. Gilda holding his hand at his bedside, crying and begging him not to leave her all alone. Her face, so young without make-up, the echo of her younger self. (The girl who used to tap dance in his hallway, a rag tied around her head, singing that song… What was it—“Cuando se quiere de vera, como te quiero yo a ti, es imposible…” and that’s all he could remember. The words never seemed as important as her eyes.) Gilda crying. Dolores. Maria. Number Five. So many sorrows and so many names for one singular girl.

Truck collision. Angry sea. Avalanche.

Johnny still woke up in a panic, most days, Gilda sitting up beside him, rubbing his arm reassuringly. She didn’t understand that it always followed them, this large wave coming. A tall black wall of water. He saw it in his dreams, in the three to five hours of sleep he could get. Gilda would make shushing noises, scratching his scalp with those long fingernails, her face shiny with cold cream. Tired and patient, and still there.

The years after the mess with Ballin Mundson had been complicated. A man doesn’t just wake up to find himself in possession of millions and millions of dollars worth of information, much less back in the arms of a woman who should’ve left him bleeding out good on a casino floor, without knowing that he’d have to pay for it somehow. That’s how things worked. You could only make your luck go so far, even created luck.

While the initial plan had been to go back to New York and let fate deal its hand, a quiet tip from Obregon at the airport changed everything. Some of the Germans arrested for being part of the cartel had stronger ties to the Argentine government than Obregon had thought and he urged Johnny to leave the airport and go straight to the American embassy, armed with the story of the whole affair and the documents he’d been slipped by his police pal.

Johnny had made a quiet deal with Uncle Sam. The goods in exchange for money and a few other favors. He had good lawyers, the best money could buy. That pesky draft dodging charge went poof, for one. His name as a person of interest in the 1941 Hughie Shaugnessy murder case also got nixed. Lastly, protection, should they ever want to go to the United States and New York City in particular. The Germans would never know of his involvement and, once extradited, they would have no allies. Or, none strong enough to fill the power vacuum at least. Most of the ones in Argentina wanted to lay low and keep their real names out of the international papers.

They talked about it, Gilda and himself. What to do, now that things had changed yet again. They’d dreamed of dancing on the Brooklyn Bridge, buying roasted sweet potatoes by City Hall. Going home—their home—hearing the kids yelling out the news and the lights of Times Square. A New Year’s Eve with possible snow. Dancing to the wireless, Frenesi playing softly. Gilda, barefoot, her feet resting on top of his.

“We could do that anywhere, Johnny,” she’d said, her low voice sad and full of tears.

“Not the snow, Gilda. This Christmas-in-summer thing is for the birds.”

She was right. Boss Shaughnessy might be dead but that Catholic son of a bitch had hundreds of brothers and cousins and in-laws and children and god knows what. Any one of them might catch a look at him and Gilda’s dumb mugs one Manhattan morning and decide to pay their respects. Not to mention friends. The man had friends. And all of those people had long memories. The Irish live for past wrongs, he knew that firsthand, knew it all too well.

Obregon had some connections in Chile, a long, skinny country both dull and stable, and set them up with new names, new pasts. Johnny and Gilda took a turbulent plane ride across the mountains and settled in Santiago for a few years, before the old wanderlust took over and he started looking for somewhere quieter on the map.

Gilda packed all of their belongings and left them with an old lady named Maruja and they headed north, instinctively, like migrant birds. Beaches, mountains, woods and dry dirt roads. Gilda humming under her breath, Coca-Cola and cigarettes. A week here, a few months there. A year in one city with trolleys that ran up and down steep hills dotted with colorful houses. Another year living in a big wooden house in the middle of a wild garden, an outhouse over stream. It seemed like the country went on forever, and they would never reach the end of it.

Sometimes, the buses drove along winding ocean-side roads with sudden, vertiginous drops and every time they made a blind turn, Johnny grinned at the fear blooming in the pit of his gut. It calmed him to know that it could all end, at any moment, just like that. One too-sharp turn to avoid an errant four legged creature and bye bye Farrells.

And they would always be The Farrells. No matter what. At least there was that.

 


 

Something that took him years to figure out about Gilda was how little she cared for money or glamour. She wore the stuff so well, that you’d never know how much she reveled in being dusty, her skin peeling from the sun, a smattering of tiny freckles across her reddened cheeks. Just her, the line of her neck, as she leaned over his shoulder to read his book or fall asleep.

Gilda and Johnny found themselves in the desert. They rented a large house in a town that looked like two perfect halves, blue sky and tan everything else. Packs of dusty cats sitting in doorways, bars so dark one needed a flashlight once inside them, women with copper colored skin eyeing newcomers suspiciously until the unexpected afternoon when they decided to start smiling, gold fillings and all. That’s how it was, he’d get nods from the locals whenever he picked up his correspondence, business mail disguised to look personal, not business. Old habits died hard.

It wasn’t the isolation that made them stay, it was the stars. After several weeks of not leaving their house at night, nursing headaches like cement hats, they finally got acclimated to the altitude. A local Aymara guide drove them around to see some geysers, a snow capped volcano in the distance, and a pale, silvery lagoon populated with flamingos. In the evening, they hiked up an enormous sand dune, where they sat and waited for the sun to set.

“Ask him if we have anything to worry about here, deserts rats, wild desert dogs, or snakes,” Johnny whispered to Gilda.

She asked and the man laughed through his answer. Johnny understood a word here and there—culebras, for one, and scorpiones. Neither one appealed.

He lit a cigarette. “You know the nearest hospital is hours away.”

“I know.” Gilda crossed her legs at the ankle. “Oh my god. Johnny. Look.”

The sky was darkening and they weren’t kidding, it was more stars than he knew what to do with. He actually wanted to hide from the sight. Gilda was laughing, loopy and loud, clapping her hands at the sky, as if it had just told her the most fantastic joke.

“Shhhh. You’ll wake up the cool-hey-brass, doll.”

“Oh, Johnny, let’s stay here.”

He eyeballed her, he’d never seen her happier, not even back in New York. “You heard what I said about the hospitals?”

She nodded and kept laughing, wiping her eyes.

“There’s nowhere for you to sing and dance.”

“I can sing and dance in our home. With you. And the stars.”

“Sounds heavenly.”

“Doesn’t it, Johnny?”

Within a week, they bought a house, a new one, and made love in every room. It was freezing at night and the town had no electricity but it was worth it. Her, lying there naked, with her fingers in her mouth as she laughed at him slapping his slippers together, clearing them of scorpions or lizards or whatever creeping thing liked to make its home in warm, dark places.

 


 

They knew no one would come looking for them to get vengeance for Ballin. He’d had no friends except them. Well… him. Gilda had feared Ballin, only Johnny had been his friend. Johnny cried about it once, after drinking too much one night and remembering an old card trick. He’d been kind to him, Ballin had, and Johnny had loved him. A confused love that made no sense. It had something to do with saving his life, something to do with the making of him, and another thing, a pull he hadn’t wanted to name or think about too much. With Ballin he’d felt understood and that was a powerful thing.

He tried to talk with Gilda about it once, but she didn’t understand. She’d looked at him with pity, but covered his hand with hers anyway. She understood what it meant—to be saved. But she didn’t understand that what he’d felt for Ballin had gone deeper. He and Ballin had both come from nothing, had been abandoned by their families, had had to scrape and struggle and fight.

It had been easy to steal from his other bosses. None of them had ever even noticed him until they saw how good he was at the grift. With them, he knew what he was, profit not family, and he skimmed accordingly, until it came back and bit him. Not Ballin, he’d seen him, known what he was, and trusted him anyway. Johnny had tried to live up to that trust. Tried harder at that than anything in his entire life.

He dreamed of him too. And in those dreams, Johnny would remember that the way his old pal made him follow Gilda around, as her keeper. Mind the store, mind the canary, mind the boss. How furious he’d been with the two of them, he could’ve killed them both with his bare hands. For nothing as it turns out, nothing at all.

But still, he’d loved him.

In another version of the story, it’s Ballin who killed them and made his escape with his plans still perfectly in place. Johnny, lying on the ground, reaching out to Gilda, also on the ground, facing him, the light gone out of her eyes. He’d touch her hair, rubbing it in between his fingers, slower and slower, until all that was left was a single word in his head and everything turned to nothing.

Johnny woke up beside her in the morning, her hair dark brown again for the first time in a decade, tickling his cheek.

 


 

After a few months, Gilda started making friends. He still had to fight the urge to sock any guy who went near her but he managed not to assault any of the townsfolk.

Johnny put down one card, face-up, a jack of diamonds, and lined up six cards next to it, quickly and cleanly. He dealt while she told him some stories about this person or that, then took to sweeping. The radio played. Electricity had come to San Pedro courtesy of an anonymous donor’s generous financial backing. It wasn’t New York City—the power shut off at dusk—but progress was progress.

Gilda didn’t sing along, even though she loved that song. Cabinets slammed, utensils clattered. She left the room and came back with his hat in her hands. Gilda threw it on the table.

“I found it on the bed, again.”

“I’m sorry, is that supposed to mean something?”

She glared at him and crossed her arms. He continued his game.

“You should make friends too,” she said after a tense ten or so minutes of silence.

“I was just thinking-” Johnny grabbed the cigarette tucked behind his ear and tapped the tobacco end on the table. “...about how I haven’t socked anybody in years.” He took his time lighting it. He inhaled deeply and exhaled slow. “Wonder why that is?”

Years ago, Gilda would’ve laughed at that. She wasn’t laughing now. Johnny angrily flicked cigarette ash into a chipped saucer. “Oh, come on, Gilda. I can’t get the hang of Spanish. You know that.”

She blinked at him once, so hard he almost heard it. “I wasn’t aware that one could live their entire lives in a country and never attempt to learn the language.”

“I understand it fine. Besides, this isn’t my home.”

Gilda moved towards him with her hand raised to strike but stopped short. She balled it up into a fist and stormed out, slamming the door so hard a picture they’d had leaning against the wall slid down and fell on the floor with a bang.

After a couple of too-quiet hours, he went to look for her. The dust and the stones kicked up clouds under his feet. She hadn’t taken the car so she was out there somewhere, in the starry dark.

Kidnapping. Murder. A fall.

He sat, drinking and watching that milky band of cloudy stars cross the sky. A pickup truck appeared in the distance and drove steadily towards their home. Bad news, notification, an accident. It pulled up to their house and the driver, one of the village women, a tough bird with enormous cheekbones and a nose too large for her face got out, holding a lantern over her head. Gilda stepped down cautiously, taking her hand. The woman kissed Gilda on the cheek and in their lively chatter, he understood that they were playing cards sometime next week.

He stepped towards her and Gilda jumped, she hadn’t seen him sitting there in the dark. She was a little drunk, probably from Pisco Sours, and he could tell she was too tired to fight. Gilda’s friend nodded, got back in her car, and drove away. Without the light from the lantern, it was too dark to make out each other's faces. They were just outlines, cut-outs.

“You wanna sock me? I deserve it,” Johnny said, finally.

“No. I’m going to bed.” She brushed past him, into the house.

In the candlelit kitchen, Gilda poured herself a glass of water and drank it slowly. He followed her into the bedroom, where she slipped on some thick socks.

“Gilda, you know how I feel.”

“Do I?” She turned her head slightly towards him, then looked away.

“Yeah.”

Sometime during the night, their hands found one another.

 


 

“We could open a hotel. For Europeans.”

He put his cigarette down. “Geez Lou-fuckin-ise.”

“Johnny. This is me being sensible.”

“Go ahead, I’m listening.”

“A place for seekers, people looking to get away from the cities and experience the stars right here on earth.”

Gilda cleared the dishes and brought them to the sink. She came back and sat down on his lap. Her dress was green and had little pink flowers on it. He put his arms around her waist, and she laughed into his neck.

“We’ll fix up the place, make it an exclusive four star type of joint. Hire a good chef. I can travel down to Santiago and try and drum up some business.” Gilda bounced a little with excitement. “We could even go to Europe, it’s bound to be safe now.”

“We don’t need the money.”

She slammed her hand down on the table. “It’s not about the money, Johnny.”

Gilda got up to leave but changed her mind and came back to the table, sitting down next to him, her chest rising and falling. She was steamed alright.

Johnny hooked his foot around her chair and dragged it closer. “Then what is it?”

“It’s about you. You need something to run and people to boss around. That’s who you are. You’ve always been the boss and a boss without a place to call his own is insufferable.”

She eased herself forward, her hands at his knees.

“You don’t need to worry about anybody. The only people who are going to come out here are the people who have no pasts.”

“And no future. Like us.”

She pursed her lips. “We have a future, you ain’t been paying attention.”

 


 

The trees in the back of their property were sturdy and bent into perches and sometimes he’d go back there and climb. Gilda would scamper up the next tree over and they’d yell out to each other like eccentric millionaires—which is what they were, after all.

She’d been avoiding him all day but when he went out back so did she, climbing up with a guitar in hand. Her thin fingers strummed and she sang ”Why do you whisper, green grass? Why tell the trees what ain't so? Whispering grass, the trees don't have to know, No, no. Why tell them all your secrets? Who kissed there long ago? Whispering grass, the trees don't need to know.” The wind blew her hair around in soft approval.

What a silly, sentimental fool. “You love nostalgia, Gilda.”

“So do you, Johnny. Don’t kid yourself.”

The birds stopped singing and for a handful of seconds, he and Gilda stared at each other, mirroring one another’s uneasy expressions.

“Gilda—”

There was a groaning sound, a gnawing, devouring sound from somewhere deep below them, and the tree he was in pitched forward, nearly kissing the earth, then back up. Up and down, up and down, with a sickening, gut churning, slowness. Johnny kept expecting it to stop but it went on and on, getting faster, the blue of the sky where it shouldn’t be. He heard the crack of Gilda’s guitar and her screams. He had to get to her. He had to get to her immediately. Johnny screamed at her to hold on tighter, that word in his head, oh no, then everything went black.

They died. Him first, her after. Or both at once.

 


 

Spanish was spoken in the afterworld. Or was it Hell? Either way he’d have no clue what anyone was saying so he advised them to tell him nothing. His head hurt.

More Spanish, then another voice in clear English. “How are you feeling, Mr. Hill? You banged your head pretty good.”

Johnny opened his eyes painfully. “Gilda.”

A blond young man with round, ruddy cheeks stared at him earnestly. “Gilda? Do you mean your wife? Your wife is fine, completely fine. She may have sprained her arm but we got it in a sling. She's in pretty good shape otherwise. We had a very strong earthquake, you know.”

Johnny yawned suddenly, confused. “That was an earthquake? I thought earthquakes made the ground shake, this wasn’t like that.”

“It was an atypical one, or so they say. It was my first. What a doozy!”

Johnny rubbed his jaw. It felt swollen. He squinted suspiciously at the kid. “Who are you and why do you speak English so well?”

“I’m sorry, I’m Jim Snow. I’m from Salt Lake City.”

“Well, ain’t that cute. You got a cigarette?”

“Uh, no. I don't smoke.”

“That's too bad. What brings you to Chile, Doctor Jimmy?”

The boy smiled earnestly. “I'm not a doctor, I'm a volunteer. I’m here doing missionary work.”

“Oh, Jesus Christ. No wonder.”

The young man frowned, then excused himself. Johnny waited for Gilda and eventually she showed, her arm in a splint but in one gorgeous piece. When she got closer, he pulled her in by her jacket, and kissed her fervently. Probably smelled like death but he didn’t care.

She pulled back, tilting her head and wiping at her eyes. “Well, take a look at Mr. Face. Only you could have bandages wrapped around your head and still look pretty.”

“You’re here.”

“Of course. You’re always trying to get rid of me. But you can’t, Johnny. That’s the truth. I’m the bad penny.”

Gilda was good, she could still play the part, but her eyes still had too much shine.

“Nah. You’re the black cat. Keeping me alive.”

“I am, aren’t I?” She was crying openly now.

“For Pete’s sake, don’t cry, you silly dame. I’m trying to tell you I love you and you’re ruining the moment.”

“Oh, Johnny.” Gilda threw herself into his arms and it hurt like hell. At the same time, he’d never felt lighter, more like he had a chance. It had always been men, their bullets, fists and knives trying to pull the plug on old Johnny Farrell. Now the very earth had tried as well. Suckers, all of 'em.

His head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton balls. Gilda shifted and his body ached underneath her weight. They were alive and it was wonderful.

Johnny Farrell didn’t just make his own luck, he wrote his own story, and this was how it ended. With him and his good luck charm, bruised-up, black and blue, but breathing, together. Two gamblers with no need to cheat.