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Starting Over

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"I gotta go, Helen. Look, good luck with everything. Really."

There was a click as Frank hung up, and then the quiet hum of the dial tone. After a moment, Helen put the phone down on the table. She didn't try to call back. Not then. Not later. There was no point, was there? He'd been nice about it—he'd always been nice about everything, even when he'd found out she was acting under Pendler's orders; he hadn't hit her or called her names, the way most guys would've—but it was quite clear he wanted nothing to do with her. She couldn't really blame him.

She almost called her dealer, instead—but, no. She was done with that. Sure, a line or two of coke would help mute the voice inside her that told her she was worthless, that she didn't deserve a man like Frank Connor, that she deserved to have him walk away. But he'd given her a chance to escape from all of that and to make a fresh start. He might despise her with every fiber of his being—she was sure he did—but she owed it to him to at least try to do something with the option he'd given her.

Not that making a fresh start turned out to be easy. She thought of Frank often while she was trying to put her life back together and trying to find a job: he hadn't wanted her—and no one else did either, it seemed.

After a month, two months, three months, she began to understand more clearly why he'd accepted Russ's offer to come work at the club: even without twenty years and more of jail to explain away, her own resume didn't have much appeal for the managers at the places she schlepped it round. Except for the times when she did capture their interest a little, enough for them to ask more. They got plenty interested then. And the offers they made once they found out what it was she'd done at the club had begun to look pretty tempting after a while, even though she knew they were bad bargains—and even though she wasn't sure she could do that any more. Not now she was sober and clean a month, two months....

That was when she'd think about Frank: about how he'd taught her that, no matter if you thought you had no options, there was always another option. Always a way to walk away with your dignity intact. She wasn't sure how easy she would've found it to walk away from Pendler when he was alive, but it had turned out, once he was dead, to be stupidly straightforward to call her mom, even after all the years of silence. Call and be welcomed home: the blazing row, the unforgivable things they'd both said forgiven and forgotten. So at least, at the end of each frustrating, fruitless day, she had a roof over the head. There'd even been a little money saved from that old life—though most had been blown long ago on one substance or another that would allow her to forget for a few hours the names she called herself—for her to help put food on the table for a while.

In the end, through a friend of a friend of a friend of her mother's, she got a job as a chambermaid at a halfway decent motel. Went back to community college to take business classes. Worked her way up to supervisor and then assistant manager. Through honest means and hard work and not a blow job in sight.

She didn't think about Frank so often any more. Just from time to time, when she listened to the tales of woe from girlfriends having man trouble or when she sometimes tried dating herself and discovered what sleazeballs most men could be. Frank had been painfully decent; he'd respected her even when he'd known she was a whore and a drunk and an addict. She'd only lost his respect, lost any chance to be with him, when she'd done him wrong. That was why he 'd turned down her offer and hung up the phone, and she reckoned he'd been right to do it.

It was only later—much later, when she'd learned not to hate herself quite so much for who she'd been—that she realized it wasn't about what she'd done at all. It was about what he'd done. About protecting them both so they could both be free. The cops had questioned her, of course: right after they'd turned up at her apartment and broken the news that Pendler was dead. Her surprise had been genuine enough; she hadn't known who the target was that Frank was supposed to take out, but she was sure as hell it wasn't Pendler himself. And it had been easy enough, when they'd asked her if she had any idea who might have pulled the trigger, to lie. Hadn't Pendler taught her to be convincing, with those backhanders across her face when he didn't believe her after he'd demanded she tell him you like that, baby, don't you?

The cops had been back twice: more questions. She'd been too messed up then to realize that acquiring a new boyfriend would have brought a world of trouble down on both of them. No: Frank had been keeping them both safe when he'd hung up and walked away. And staying safe meant they couldn't be together, not ever. Even if maybe, maybe he'd wanted that too, just a little bit: replaying back his words in her memory after she finally understood what he'd done for her, she thought it sounded like he'd forgiven her for not seeing all her options. That there'd been a touch of regret in his I gotta go.

Perhaps one day, when they were both old and gray and Pendler's murder was buried deep in the police department's files, their paths would cross again....

Until then, she was going to take and make the most of all the options Frank Connor had given her.