Stacy Pinks—he had never been a friend of mine, but we had grown up on the same slot in a chancy westside neighborhood and you might call him a worthy bastard. So the frown was honest even though I had gone in at risk of worse. A bandaid, a bruise, knots of gut above an eye—these were the question. And “in” meant to the back of a joint, dark at noon, where his guys were on the ears of the usual booth. Three meaty men in team nylon—racketeer business casual—and him the centerpiece. 

“I’m going to be late on the vigorish,” I said.

“Nobody real calls it that.” None could have grudged me that I was the better read, even as a kid. Least him, with a hold on my neck down in the urinal. “But what’s with the mouse ick setra?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, touching at the welt. “Sorry about the cash. End of the week I’ll—”

“How’m I supposed to smack you around, you looking like that? No, no, out with it. You’re no pushover.” True. I was tough enough and had to have been, as the boy who had lived nearest to Stacy Pinks. “Not as smart as you think but no punk neither. So Rye, c’mon, who did the do?”

“No one who counted, not after the ten.” Kidding might spare me the worst, I thought.“Been broadening myself, see. Couldn’t tell you the name, but I do know where his wife lives.”

“Whoa!” Shep said, to the left of the smalltime warlord. A former con, inky from crack to wrist and worst of the three when it came to all the likelihoods.

“‘Broaden,’” tried Rickity, a gym pup to the right. He did the hitting most often since he knew how not to. Where hitting got delegated, that was. “Get it? Because broads. Eh? Wha?”

“There’s that shelter on West Forty-eighth,” I went on. “The lady owns the building, she’s been giving me cash to mind the door. Those women in there, well, they have reason to be. Got married to some real pieces of work.”

The math of it, of what I thought was clear, brought up a squint. “How do you mean ‘shelter’?”

“You know,” I told Stacy Pinks, “a women’s shelter.”

“What’s a women’s shelter?”

Off his beats. I had to start from zero. He took it pretty well, news of evil in the world so unlike his own. “So these women,” said Stacy Pinks, “their husbands or boyfriends got handsy, more than just like a swat on the rear, say, and their families, their men, didn’t do nothing about it?”

“That’s right.”

“And this lady, she let them stay at her house?”

“More like a fort, but yeah, she lives there too.”

Rickity said something like “butch college.” Stacy Pinks gave him a look and, with it, first thoughts. “And those dings on you?” he asked. “You can’t handle some mince who hits girls?”

“Four minces,” I said. “Or a mince and three lollipops. They took the curb in a junker LTD and came out with bats. It wasn’t just me there. Scamp—you know Scampi—he was working same as me, and there’s this volunteer who’s there the whole time.” Speaking of butch college. “Some kind of libber, you’d say. She likes a weapon but doesn’t seem to need any.”

“Mike Scampi? That jamoke? He couldn’t cut a birthday cake.”

“He did all right.” Though I figured he wouldn’t be back for more, since a bat had swung low for the bleachers. And it would have found his head, too, if Peg hadn’t yanked it from the grip and put the knob into the slugger’s mouth. A knee took time to mend, but teeth, they never did.

Stacy shook his head with a tut-tut grin. “So there you are in the street making war with braves from the numbnuts nation. All for what was right. Like a knight in armor and his band of merry men.” Thrown wide, but his fun was a relief. “Hey, let’s get a toast in. Vince Ryan’s day on the grass. A bottle and four, Rickity, and one in the balls on the way up to the bar.” Soon glasses were aligned and Stacy did the honors, pouring off brown ounces. “Come on, Rye, stand up for your drink already. Don’t you puke on that floor. I can’t take the smell of a mop.”

Watches began at eight p.m. Scamp out, for two days it was just me and Peg, in foldout chairs and knit caps at the top of the stoop. There was always coffee in a thermos to keep us warmish, alert, and stale of breath. A row house street—no walk-ups, no lots, even some trees thriving curbside. I brought an ice pack that first night after, and it never drew a curiosity, not out of Peg, even with where I set it. More often than we spoke we played cards—cribbage, or poker when we had the loose change. She was taller by a hop, and a pale head of hair had been dyed to a rich black. Power in the thigh and shoulder, and not far from cute. I could tell the nose had been broken, but without more to go on that was any story. “You make me nervous,” I admitted once, a ten-high straight in hand.

“Why, do I shit different? Do I drop it lengthwise like a boat?” Full house.

Since Peg handled the front—including my hire and payment—I had never even met the saint in charge, Maggie Phelan. While I’d been there no women had been brought up, not at night, and none inside had ventured out. Now and then the wired glass in the door showed a silhouette, and this was all that let me know anyone was home—that and the men who wanted to see more than a shadow. Two days, and no one made attempt to force entry, but a couple had made the usual reconnoiter, trying not to look and easy to spot. They liked to pull a ball cap low and walk with hands in pockets, all but screaming incognito. The ones who did stop were a model of gallantry, the slappy fucking cads, asking to see their wives by full name as if we ran a velvet rope and had a clipboard to check. On the refusal, no less polite but firm, they would walk off in a hunch with pity on loan from an imaginary friend. But sometimes there was a show, like from an ape with a branch and some dust to raise. I was out strictly for the cash, so only Peg lit up when chimps put on a display. She was content to lead a rich inner life and wait for the chance. When she did speak to me at any length, it was a riff from nowhere. “I got it in my head today,” she said once, “that all the British are Jarvis Cocker.”

“That singer from Pulp? What about Elton John?”

“Jarvis Cocker.”

“Prince Harry?”

“Jarvis Cocker.”

“Benjamin Disraeli?”

“Jarvis Cocker.”

“Well, okay, but what about Dame Diana Rigg?”

“She’s Candida Doyle.”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Keyboards. Pulp.”

“Oh, the one from Ireland. Some theory.”

“You knew she was Irish but not her name?”

“Can-dee-duh Doyle? Should the middle name be Blarney Stone before I take a guess?”

The month took on an autumn bite, and counts to sunup grew long. A dumb joke helped pass the time almost as well as any card game. Scamp had come up light that way, except maybe as a punch line. But neither had he been replaced by Wednesday. A dread had grown. Black-and-whites had crept past, both officers on board ready with a stare through the roll.

“Guessing one was a cop,” Peg had said on the second pass. “A cop’s first cousin at the least.”

“Who,” I had asked, though I had known.

“The Baseball Furies,” on a pop of gum. No remand, then. Out and about.

Mrs. Phelan was up on things, Peg said, which might have put hustle on the look for a new third. Either that or a candidate had leapt like a bull for an open lap. Imagine my relief that Wednesday evening as Peg led the introduction at the foot of the stairs.

“You look like you got the pepper,” he said, team nylon swapped out for fleece.

“The two of you are friends?”

“Wh,” I most of asked.

“Oh we know each other all right,” he said to her. “See, he mentioned that mess the other evening, and I just thought,” sniff, “hey, Stacy Pinks, why not lend a hand?”

“Sure, why not. Vincent, anything I should know, since you seem all shook up?”

Just out with the question. I was about to answer, or not to, when a ball cap came into view up the walk. The glance from the bill caught Stacy Pinks and stopped the looker cold. The pockets gave up the hands nice and slow. A step back, then a veer between bumpers at the curb.

“You’ll work out for now,” Peg said to Stacy Pinks.

Even as the amazon in charge and I took chairs—not to say settled down, not for me—he stood below and waited with a prowling eye. That interest was unsparing, given out with a snap-turn above the neck and a slow matchup of the body underneath. My ribcage drew tight whenever anyone got close. Not many went out so late, but people did use a walk to walk. Even a homeless with a cart got the scrutiny. Stacy Pinks looked ready to glove up and set a penlight in his mouth as the cans and bottles rattled by. Like a TSA agent going through a divorce.

“Your friend’s in his strides,” Peg said, and dealt for cribbage.

“Strides,” I said. “Us too. Maybe you should ask him to, dunno, take it easier.”

“Any reason he shouldn’t be here, educate me.”

That voice of hers waltzed right on down. Stacy Pinks said, back yet to us and vigilant of eye, “What worries Rye is I’m in collection. It’s how he knows me these days. Jeebies aside, that just makes me a valuable add-on to the team.”

“So you’re not a nice person,” Peg said down to him, same volume.

“Not to people who owe and get late. And these sorts of guys, they owe big. Rye, he’s short, too, but with him it’s just money. ’S not so bad, though it does embarrass him. It’s why he don’t want you to know I’m his shark.” Blush here, and from Peg a throaty laugh—the first I’d heard.

“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s those connections you have. No disrespect.”

“Community outreach,” he said, and even I found it funny. Not that the guard went down. Someone unfamiliar with that calm, that reluctance to shout or curse, might take him for a breeze.

“I like to hit,” Peg said. “So I’m not nice either. There are better reasons to, and worse.”

“Maybe you’re one for the boxing ring.”

“Yeah, maybe. But you ever want to stand off, Mister Pinks—show them what they are, and you—try being a chaperone at a clinic protest.”

“Oh, Pinks—that’s not a family name, Peg. Miz Peg. ’Scuze. I don’t know yours neither.”

“Never gave it,” she said.

“Eustace Rosetti,” I threw in, just to take part.

That made him turn. “He is correct on that, though I’ll talk for myself. Think about having that any time you had to get past a stoop, and you a boy whose nonna put the bow tie on. Seems I recall Rye here giving me grief about all that, too, right ’fore he learned up. We was, I don’t know, eleven?”

“That doesn’t sound like me. Eleven or not.”

Peg said, “Our man Ryan, he’s more, like, in touch with a nurturing side.”

Thus distracted, we took no hint of trouble. The time had got near four a.m., which thanks to last call got sticky, Peg had warned. A beer bottle had missed Stacy Pinks, slung for his head to guess from where it struck. Our eyes snapped to the bright froth and shards, then to the street. There stood the drunk, posed in follow-through like something on a trophy. Lamplight showed the face at work. The slack of many angry pints gave way to doubt—that he could miss so large a target—and then horror as large began to read. Two more had been with him, but on the cast they had fled like fish.

“Just when I thought it might be slow,” Stacy Pinks said.

The drunk took off, tripped on himself, cartwheeled upright with shitfaced gymnastics, and kept on keeping on. Stacy Pinks stood in place. “You’re not going after?” I asked.

“And catch up too fast?” To Peg, “What’s that rule? A hundred yards?” Before a word came back he launched into a sprint. I had never seen him move so quick, though that didn’t count times in boy years when I had been facing in the wrong direction and thought I had a lead.

“Not sure what he meant with the yards,” she said. “But it’s the thought that counts.”

“We’re just going to stand here?”

“Did you want to see?”

The state of the sportswear when he got back understruck the no. Like he had walked through a mist at the slaughterhouse. On the one damp spot a stray tooth clung. He was in a happy amble and whistling hard rock from the seventies, and I never meant to notice—led by the whiteness of the tooth—but he had a championship bone going on.

“Feel like I should say something maybe,” he said, shaking out a fist.

“What,” Peg asked, “a one-liner?”


“That little joke,” she said, “just the moment after.”

“Like ‘The dry cleaning is a bitch,’” I said.

“Dry—?” The fleece took a glance, then a baleful stare. “Why that—” Up the block he ran again, past the count of yards. I figured out that he had been thinking of the crime report. By law a venue with booze that was too near a fight got cited for review by the liquor board. No one could mistake our post for a night spot, but never mind. Usury, sports, hurt, and bars were the corners of his square one, and everything outward of those was hopscotch.

Stacy Pinks never came back from the second heat, not by morning. I hoped whatever had gone on in the dark had cured him of the valiant itch. I did have a part-time gig—after-school tutoring—which left an hour for a tilt at the a.m. dollar menu and six to chase dreams in my rattrap apartment. A quilt of past due notices kept me warm, and the bedsprings were in a slump of shapes that long predated mine. Not a lot of shuteye to be had in that uncanny valley—but more out of trouble with what was on my mind than under my back. I went out loopy, which made talking binomials to a fifteen-year-old sound like riddles from a sphinx, even to me.

Twenty-two blocks on foot, another dollar item, this one with some lettuce on it in a nod to health, and around the corner onto West Forty-eighth again. Only twenty minutes past sundown—enough twilight to make out every fine gold link and speck of chin stubble on Shep. He was positioned for an ambush, with a kick sole up on the wall.

“Hey Rye,” he said.

I took one hand off my nape and the other off my precious two and got up from the concrete. But he had never done more than speak and was gauging my cowardice like a mud puddle. Looking around to see who had seen, I spotted Rickity up and across the road. “Wh,” I most of asked.

“You and me, we’re besties now? You mind your piece up ahead, and I’ll mind mine.” A chin stuck out toward the shelter, which was where the question led anyway.

“They stepped up,” she said from the folding chair. “Or got volunteered by your loan professional. He came by first, said he had a meet.” Same tone my mom used for a skittish cat. 

“Thing is, Peg, he’s not here for the right reason, so that goes double for them. Whatever upright streak he’s got, on them it’s flat out sideways. You might not want guys like that on the payroll.”

“The what? One, it’s cash out of pocket, as in my own damn. You won’t get forms and no one will garnish your wages. Two, he never asked for a rate. He even turned money down.”

“Of course he did. They think it’s for fun.”

“Let ’em.”

“They don’t care about those women inside.”

“You do?” A sting must have shown. “I am glad you’re here. But you’re here because of the listing and because you’re broke and for no other reason. Once your problems get solved, this one doesn’t, and there’s nothing so wrong about that. Job’s a job.”

“They better not make trouble.” A glance to the nearer showed me sidewalk pushups.

Peg said, “Christ, Vincent. It’s war.”

That word, loaded already, had brought a bag along. My second week—so I dropped one two on the next. “You knew,” I said. “You knew they’d come. That brawl wasn’t just the ordinary here. You heard something about the husband—that he was the sort who showed up with numbers.”

“Speaking of numbers, want a raise?” Half again, no wrangle. That was when I should have seen that the boss was in truth Peg herself. Ms. Phelan, that is. Peg, Maggie—Margarets both. Peg sure didn’t look the saintly part, much less flush. But she had ponied up for my stitches, so duh.

An upgrade from the dollar menu should have felt more like a win. But here came the first ball cap of the night. I recognized him: the one who took a detour on sight of Stacy Pinks. Tonight with nerves, but a more deliberate step. Great, I thought. Here comes the headline news. One of those pockets was going to hold more than a sweaty hand. He had missed seeing Shep and Rickity or associating them with us. Each was in motion—a swagger, no hurry.

Yet here the ball cap did something unexpected: come off. He mashed it between his hands. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said to Peg and me, hardly more than an undernourished kid. “My name’s William, William Lee Pollack, P-O-L-L-A-C-K, and, uh, my lady’s in that house.”

“Nice to meet you, William,” Peg said with sleet.

“I know what I look like,” he said. “I know I … but I’m not … I just ….” A glisten on the look to me. His remorse got less thought than Shep and Rickity. He saw them, too, and set the whelp eye a bit lower. “Could you … could you tell Angie, Angela Pollack, that Billy Lee says he’s sorry? A-N-G-E-L—”

“No,” Peg said.

The look, the heft to the pause, let her know that she just didn’t see. But now the stage was too full for the drama. Shep gave a once-over. To Rickity he said, “You was just at the gym earlier?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Quad work? Lats?”

“Ripped and ready.”

“Got your bag with you?”

“Up there by the sidewalk tree.”

“Bring the baby oil?”

A duck out of the vise, and the steps were quick. But Peg came down into the very spot. “I’ll let it go this once, but don’t think you get to make threats out here. Not even fun-time comedy threats.”

“Whoa!” Shep said. “Threats? What am I, a ruffian?”

Rickity turned to me. “What’s she mean by that? Shep was just feeling ashy, I bet.”

Before I could find a way to suggest that a leg breaker shut up, Peg said it straight, and she said it cutting. “You think you get to play with the work I do, push me, you just take your best or get lost. Want to lend a hand, don’t give out ammunition.” Both of them brightened at the opening. “Shut up. You’re not cute, you’re not smart, and you’re not pretty, but I know how to make you a carnival draw.” A hand hand gone into a pocket. “People will pay to look at you motherfuckers.”

Rickity had fallen into the trance of a well-shamed kid. Shep just stared. Not as I thought he might, that deadpan of the prison yard, but in bloom. On him a simper was a horror show. “Yes’m,” he said, like an all-night florist. “Won’t happen again.” To Rickity, “Step down the block, dumbass.”

“Jesus, Peg,” I said, once they were off.

“Hope he doesn’t ask me on a date.”

“Don’t you like women?”

“Good thinking, Vince.”

Two cars, lux but bruiser, pulled up—a Caddy CTS and a Benz E, both tinted out. At first no door swung and no glass came down. Rickity and Shep had not yet made it back to third and first, and each had turned for a stare. Smiles and a trot for home.

“Uh-oh,” I said.

Several doors opened at once. Two guys, one from each car, came out for a sidewalk cordon—thick-necks like the nearby crew but much better dressed. Rickity and Shep stopped short with silly grins and a show of hands. Then the drivers, keeping at their doors with an eye across the street. Same style—blazers, good for a carry, better than a string waistband anyway. Next was Stacy Pinks, with slick hair and in dinner dress—the kind of suit that got buried and might have been already. Last and most, two middle-aged men with silk polo shirts and good watches. Polo shirts and watches are the fedoras and spats of the modern-day underboss.

“Uh-oh.” Me again.

No lengths of attention for Peg and my figurative piddle. The two were looking at the building as Stacy Pinks spoke and gestured at length. Oratory—veni vidi vici stuff. Both hands toward the shelter, to himself, shrug, head shake, to heart. I couldn’t make it out the voice, but the audience was nodding along with pious frowns. Hands got shook at last, a four-layer clasp each time, studded out with jeweled pinky rings. He stood with proud attention as the uncles slipped into their cars. The whole color guard followed fast, and the fleet went back to the netherworld.

“So,” Peg said, in a long hold on the vowel, “what just happened?”

“Got to small talk over drinks,” said Stacy Pinks, answering for me, “and, you know, they took an interest.” From the smirk you’d think he’d pulled a second rabbit from the first one’s ass.

“Who and in what?”

I stepped in, and on my own foot. “The syndicate?”

“Nobody real calls it that. Also, shut up, Rye.”

“You brought … you brought them … in on this?”

“Me? Them? Bring? Tonight’s talk was, like, other matters. Sorting out this and that, and how much. And those guys you saw, and maybe who you shouldn’t have, they’re not in, whatever in means, just curious. Fellas from the neighborhood, same as anybody. And the neighborhood story, you know, it’s where they like to look back. To rougher corners. Even if nowadays it’s all pillows and tits for them.” With a start he looked to Peg. “’Scuse the, uh, salty talk there.”

“Pillows and tits,” she said, but her mind was outbound. No chitchat left. Peg looked to the soles of her boots one at a time. “I’ll take it,” she said at last. Back she went, to the top of the stoop.

He leaned in. “Say what you want about the Knights of Columbus,” wink, “but it is a chivalrous organization.” No chance that was his, so now I knew how a murder racket liked to name itself.

An uneventful night thereafter, save the fear of Ragnarok. The two underlings stuck it out even as the bossman took up his watch. They liked the task, same as him. Not so much as an unauthenticated pizza was making it through, and I could have put up heels. But the ramrod in my back said no. Peg kept distant, so a hand of cards was out. Her thoughts and dimes were equally her own. 

Hours crept like glass, and by sunup all the brittle holding still had given me a limp. I skipped the eggy griddle and went to bed cold and hungry. There I weighted the dip. Pour batter into that concavity and you could make a cookie man, and he was beginning to look more and more like me.

Shane Kinsler wasn’t stoked on gerunds, would much rather grief faggots over TeamSpeak, and didn’t know why everyone had to be such a dick about it. I hear you, kid, I said to nobody at all. End of the week, so his mom, a paralegal, was there with the cash and some thorough apologies, close to tears. “That’s okay,” I told her. “That’s okay.”

“Tonight,” Peg said once I got there.


“A cop came by earlier. Off duty and in her clothes.”

“A lady cop?”

“Cop, jackass. She heard something at the station house. Somebody knows somebody knows somebody. Does it make a difference? Tonight.”

I glanced around. “Where is—?”

“Got me.”

“And those other—?” No muscleman, no toothbrush shiv. And no Stacy Pinks. Just an empty block lined with no less empty cars. Foot traffic was gone, too, there on a residential street in a borough of one million with enough plus to round upward. You might think people had grown uneasy to take a stroll past our door.

“Hey, uh, here. Careful, all right?”

She had given me a hankie bundle that I didn’t even need to unwrap. The feel spoke through. “Are you out of your goddam mind?”

“Flaunting it will do the work. Anyway, it’s been filed clean. If you have to cut and run just drop it down a grate. Not under a car. Kids live here.”

“Felony possession? When somebody on the other side is PD’s pet?”

“I’m giving you a better option. Anyway, it’s nothing new to me.” A pat at her coat—shorthand. What she hid was not just in that one spot but at the waist and in the boot and maybe in her hair.

“Better option than what?”

“Leaving me to fend for myself. I can handle a lot but not more than three at once—not on my lonesome. Better for me, I should have said.” Those eyes were new, raw.

I handed back the trouble. “There’s coffee, right?”

“Jesus, Vincent, and a box of doughnuts.”

“Any custards?”

“Run a classified ad.”

We’ll skip the suspense because it just looked like sitting pat on two to three maple bars apiece. Come they did, tennish at night, and it wasn’t just the LTD. There was also a Rabbit in a dusty shade of baby poop and behind it the saddest race mod ever—spoiler and lo-pros and ground effect lights on a Subaru BRAT. I counted a dozen once they cleared the doors, all of the same mustache varmint sort thrown our way before. This time they had pulled up slow and got out at leisure. No bandaids, no bats, no need. Twelve au pairs from the avenues could land on us and it would hurt. And say what you like about a block hick—he did know how to do more than just form a pile.

“One foot on my steps,” Peg said, not even up from her chair, “and it’s trespassing.” I had leaned forward in mine, forearms to knees, going for nonchalance and tensed to leap. Her last word got muttered back, to no snigger. I still wasn’t sure who in all that clannishness was the husband, though a guy in sleeveless denim led the rack. She went on. “Trespassing means I shoot—one of you, three, five if I’m quick—I don’t get time.” This could have been a bluff. The sentencing part I mean.

The one-pin said, “Try nine-one-one why don’t yas,” and this got a cackle. Teamwork.

“Women from money,” Peg said to me, “might get us a better class of spousal abuse.”

No counterwit, not here. My eye kept to the war party.

“Sending for her or what?” The leader had cued up to the bottommost step. “I’m talking to my lady and there ain’t shit-all you got to do about it. No matter what filth you put in her head.”

“Boring,” Peg said, hand to coat.

A six-inch reach: mayhem was that close. What we got instead, at first, was a nine-pound terrier skating its leash. Like most dogs of that breed he liked to get acquainted, and he zipped between the legs of those convened below. Forepaws on a shin, a wagging tail, a searching gaze—over and again, all of it done crazy fast. The front man shied from the little pet like his friends had. Kicking dogs would have been a fit, but he was too slow, which was how he got through the next minute intact.

“Sotta,” called an old man in a lemon cashmere sweater, white on top but spry. He had chased the dog, and someone else was rushing after him from farther down the block. The steps made ricochets on all the row house brick. Busy echo—a sound of dozens. “Sottaceto, come.”

The lead said to the old man, “Get out of here, goddam it.” By then the dog-meet had come up to me and Peg. To keep the terrier clear I scratched and petted like I had a mind to. But the old man looked up to us, or to his best friend. We both saw the face.

That dog was safe—as safe as a federal witness in a block of lucite. “The old man” was right, deadweight on the article. Foremost in an open secret, known on sight like no one else from that life. We stood up without a thought, but not too fast. Peg’s hand kept well back from any draw. The twelve were slower to stand down, but even they knew what looked familiar. Dumbfounded stares, no mind paid to due and proper.

Those who had been chasing after the old man were caught up at last, and they shoved through the knucklewalker posse comitatus to step up close. Five silk polo shirts with good watches, two already seen, and a more white-collar type in a worsted suit whom I knew was the gang lawyer.

No sooner were the caporegimes and advisor among us than the underlit street was crowded and alive. Every strip club across the river had broken like a dam. Smaller players, four dozen at least, some in jacket and tie, some in warmups, Stacy Pinks and friends among the last. Tough guys every one, and quick as a hex. The thug I knew best snuck me a look that said, I know, right?

The dog had gone down into the thick for a light scold. “Sottaceto, you bad pickle, you went and ruined it.” Wizened hands took up the dog. In no way did the old man note the human presence, much less whatever you call twelve mooks from voucher housing. No way but a spare smile, like he found a threat of rain ticklish. I looked to the many faces, those at his call, and saw more of the same. Fun—and more open down the ranks. At the bottom, the pledges like Stacy Pinks, it was all one sloppy beam.

“What the hell is this?” first-among-dirtbags thought to ask. And it was no sooner spoke than a connect put him onto his cheeks. The nearest gold watch had flashed in the lamplight. The old man didn’t react at all, no more to the blood than to the crack. Nor did the mustache friends except to count out rosaries in their shoelaces. The smiles all around them ratcheted up a little tighter.

“My wife,” the wife beater cried through his nosebleed. “My wife.” No swagger left, just a lonely grief. Pity a rabid animal, but never let it in. “My wife.”

Peg and I glanced to each other to make sure we were there. I might have got a chance to see that wonderment of hers shift over—to victory, or just to relief. It would have felt good either way, no doubt. But I never did. The door clicked open—the door behind us, which I had never once seen ajar.

What came out was a small-framed blonde in a hoodie, Disney on her chest and pink daypack in hand. Two other women I had never met were on her heels. Not tough like Peg, but I rightly took them for volunteers. Strangers to me, the three of them, yet I knew no less quickly who the small one was, and that the other two had been pleading with her as she came down the inside stairway.

Peg had turned full about. Whatever song had been about to show sighed out of her. “You can’t,” she said. She took a step in front of the woman but kept both hands to herself. “You can’t.”

The small woman looked up, right into her eyes. You could almost call it strength, what showed as she gave back the stare, with never a flinch. Strength, but like a knot.

“Margaret, let me by.”

I looked out to the mob as we made way on the stoop. Every last game face had been struck blank. But the sense of defeat ran no deeper. You saw that look among a sports bar crowd on a home loss. Stacy Pinks took more pride—he was hurt but not rattled. A player, not a fan. He glanced among his own, to the underbosses, to the old man, to me. A shrug said it for the both of us.

Peg had sat down on the stairs in a hard slump. Her two friends from inside knelt close. But no hand went to the shoulder. So I knew to keep my own two right where they hung, good to nobody.

The husband had wormed up from ass to knees, drippy tears and kitten eyes. The wife put a hand to his cheek, and he hugged her at the waist. Friends, mob—they all looked away.

He led her to the LTD, and the cronies filed like sheep into their discount rides. I had a sly look at the old man when I was sure there was no risk. The dog had gone to the lawyer. His face was grim but managerial. He leaned toward an underboss, one of the familiar pair, the local. And though the voice was low, and though I make no claim to sight read any mouth, I understood with no trouble at all the three words that took shape at that trusted ear. Get the name.

Next a relay, the same phrase uttered close three times over, until at last it got down to where it had begun. The old man was already off, so the pimp reserve was thinning out fast. An empty street once again, and no harm done. I watched Stacy Pinks take a knee in front of Peg. He shook his head at me. There was no dare in it, no ultimatum. Only a reminder that here, we were in confessional.

And she gave. I would have wondered if she might, thinking on tests of conscience, bad weighed against worse, but she spoke the name with no hesitation.

A lame goodnight was all I had left, said in a mutter. The shift was not done, but I turned for the short journey to what I was calling home. Not forever, but for now.

“Wait,” she said behind me, in a hoarse voice. “I owe you six hundred for the week.”

“Keep it,” I said back.

“No, no, give it right here,” Stacy Pinks said. “He owes me.”