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Queens of the Underworld

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Tilda looked ravishing in red, Alma always thought, though she preferred it when the low-cut bodices were for her alone.

No, that was a lie. Alma liked the way everyone was looking at her, as Alma sipped a gin and tonic at the bar and watched; she preferred it when the low-cut bodices were removed for her alone. Page and Sullivan and Bronski were all looking at Tilda like she was Venus right out of the seashell and Alma got a real kick out of that. A real kick.

It had been Bronski who picked up Alma for armed robbery back in '26—big, beefy Bronski—while Tilda was winning a couple hundred off the big boys in a back room game of cards. And sure, she was guilty, but they didn't know that. A half dozen others were guiltier than she was but you didn't see them in lockup. Alma was the only one who was going to go down for it, if Tilda hadn't swooped in and bestowed upon her the Lydecker name and, with it, all the complications and protections it afforded.

It had been a ballsy move, but Tilda's dead father wasn't going to be hurt by the fib now that he was in the ground and the two of them had everything to gain from it. Tilda always had been the real mastermind. Alma moved into the big house after that, after already sleeping there for years, and nobody was the wiser.

They've grown up since '26. They've grown both wiser and more foolish, as lovers do.

The games they played now were dangerous ones, but the dangerous ones were the most fun. Everyone in town could feel the murder on the wind, blowing ash across their lives, but Tilda had always been the one who played with fire. There was always someone dead or dying in this town and Tilda liked the inside track.

"Jimmy," she said, running her fingers lightly over the detective's jawline. "Did you miss me?"

"How can he miss you when you're right there?" said Bronski, and cracked up as only a man with too much whiskey in him could.

"Sure did, doll," said Sullivan. Tilda was older than she used to be, but so were they. She was still as god damn beautiful as she'd ever been and nobody better forget it. "You savin' me a dance?"

"You and your two left feet?" she said, plucking the cherry out of her drink and popping it in her mouth, biting down hard. The bite was for the boys in blue, but the cherry was all for Alma. She knew that move well.

"Aw, don't be like that," he said. "It's been a long day. A real long day. Me and the boys have earned it."

"Earned what, exactly?" she said, raising a perfectly plucked eyebrow at him. "Tell me about your day, boys."

"Damn socialites," said Page, shaking his head. He wouldn't have been talking about Tilda; no matter what her position in Los Angeles society, socialite was never a title that fit her. "They're the ones you got to watch out for, especially when the form packs."

"Like lionesses," said Tilda, smiling at him with sharp teeth. "I take it you're having trouble coming up with leads."

"Trouble ain't the word for it," said Bronski. "But mark my words, someone will crack sooner or later."

"Someone always does," she said, but not for these knuckleheads. The female of the species was always deadlier than the male, and the cops were a species all their own. Tilda lifted her drink and drained the rest of it, leaving ice clinking in the glass. "My poor sister," she said. "She's been waiting for me. I must be off."

"So soon?" said Sullivan. "We were just getting started."

"Don't worry, Jimmy," she said, leaving a lipstick kiss on his cheek. "You know you'll see me again."

Alma finished her drink and let Tilda take her arm, chased by catcalls from the off-duty cops. She wondered if Bronski even remembered what he'd done, once. She wasn't sure whether she ought to hate him or thank him for it.

"You were in fine form," she said as a gentleman opened the door for them and they stepped out onto the dark street. "For all the good they were."

"They did tell us one thing," said Tilda, pressing even closer to her side as they walked down the uneven street towards the waiting vehicle. "They haven't a clue what direction to even look in."

"Louts couldn't find their asses with both hands and a lit-up arrow," said Alma. Her eyes skirted up and down Tilda's body again, already heated from watching other people watch her and impatient for the long drive through the hills and home.

"Never were the sharpest knives," said Tilda, but she was ever-watchful all the same. She'd almost been caught once, and Tilda never made the same mistake twice. "Still, they can get lucky."

"When luck's all you go, you're in some real trouble," said Alma.

Tilda drove. Tilda always drove, immaculately in control and looking like a thousand bucks as she did it. Before she could pull her gloves on Alma grabbed one of her hands and brought the fingertips to her lips, kissing them lightly and licking the tip of just one.

"You know what this does to me," she said.

Tilda smiled at her and lingered for a moment before slowly putting on her other glove and starting for home. Truth was, everything she got out of Bronski and the boys was something she could've got through other means; Tilda had channels all up and down the city. But the fun of it, of stepping right up to that edge and letting Alma watch her as she did it, that was the point. If Tilda was careful in everything else, in this they lived for the risk and the reward.

Their lives were never careless, but they were always dangerous and they wouldn't have it any other way. If you wanted anything in this life, you went out and you got it and you didn't let anyone or anything stand in your way. Least of all the rules.