Today I got an appointment with my father in the office of his lawyer, Jack Kahn. I’ve known Jack since I was in diapers, so his office is a place I’ve been plenty of times. But lately, whenever I go there, it’s business only.
When I get to Jack’s office, Pop is already waiting there. He’s dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, even though I know this is his only meeting of the day. Like I said, my father takes his clothing very seriously. His hair has thinned out a lot in the last three years, but he’s thinned out too. Ma took the doctor’s orders to heart after Pop’s heart attack and she started cooking healthier. She also made him quit smoking for good—even cigars. Pop grumbles about it, but he looks healthier than he has in a decade.
I take the way I look just as seriously as Pop does. I buy my clothes at the most expensive stores in the city, and get the specially tailored so they fit a guy who is always sitting. There are changes that make a difference, like making the back of the pants waist come up higher or removing the back pockets. I get my hair clipped regularly at a place one of my ex-girlfriends recommended, and even though it’s emasculating as hell to wheel into a salon, it’s worth it. The first thing people see when they look at me is the chair, so everything they see second better be immaculate.
Jack’s office is the size of a pinhole. He’s gotta pull in seven figures a year, but he never upgraded his working space. The overflowing bookcase and splintery desk are all holdovers from when first graduated law school, before he started working for my father. It’s his office and I don’t give a shit, but when I come to see him, it’s a pain in the ass that my chair just barely fits in the meager space in front of Jack’s desk. This is why I usually use my own lawyers, but Jack and Pop both know a lot about the Lombardi family. I want their advice.
“I put in a second, higher bid on that property this morning,” I tell them. “But I just found out that John Lombardi raised his offer too.” I shake my head. “What the hell? Why does he want that shithole so bad? It’s in Jersey.”
Pop gives me a crooked grin. “Why do you want that shithole so bad?”
“That’s completely different,” I say. “We’ve got tons of properties. This is what we do. Lombardi—he does drugs and gambling. What does he need to start up in real estate for? Doesn’t he have any better ways to launder his goddamn money?”
“Whatever his plans are,” Jack says, “it’s obvious he wants it bad. That second offer you told me about, Nico… that’s a solid offer.”
“I know,” I mutter. “He messed up the whole deal.”
I’m pissed off. I’d been hoping Jack or Pop would have some insight into this, but it’s becoming clear they don’t. I came all the way here for nothing. I’m gonna have to deal with this shit on my own. Like I always do. Pop gave me my start, but after that, I’ve built everything on my own. Our company is worth ten times what it was when he put me in charge.
“Never mind,” I say. “I’ll work it out.”
Jack and my father exchange looks. “Nico,” Pop says, “I don’t want you to use Eddie for this. I’m gonna tell him not to help you.”
Eddie. That’s a story we don’t talk about much.
Back when I first started working for Pop, I ran into a jam on building one of our hotels. One of our contractors, a hood named Russo, took our money and wasn’t delivering. I went to see Russo to try to reason with him, but he took one look at me in my wheelchair and it was obvious he didn’t respect one word I had to say. It looked like we had a long legal battle ahead of us and the hotel project would be delayed indefinitely.
I knew from my childhood that Pop used a guy named Eddie when he needed a strong message sent. I found Eddie and sent that message. And surprise, surprise—Russo got right back to work. Nobody else tried to cheat me after that either.
“That’s fine,” I say.
Jack tugs on his tie. “Nico doesn’t use Eddie anymore, Angelo. He’s got his own guys now.”
Pop looks at me with something between surprise and respect. “Oh yeah?”
“They any good?” Pop asks me. “Better than Eddie?”
“Yeah, they’re good,” I say simply.
I’ve got three guys. Three guys that I trust. They do what needs to be done so I don’t ever gotta get my hands dirty.
Tony, on the other hand, does his own dirty work. When a guy needs to be told something or shown reason, Tony shows up packing heat. I don’t know if my brother has ever shot anyone, but if I had to bet, I’d say he has. I don’t know if Tony has ever killed anyone. It’s something I try not to think about.
I’ve said to Tony that he’s a fucking moron for doing this kind of work. He’s the boss, but he’s doing the work of a thug. He could get caught or shot or worse. But I think Tony likes feeling like a tough guy, so that’s why he keeps doing it. I get it. The truth is, I don’t have that option. I can’t bust into some place so easily when I’m in this chair. The guys I hire get me the respect that I lose because I can’t walk.
“Nico,” Pop says quietly, “I know you want this place, but I’m telling you, I think you should let this one go.”
My hands squeeze into fists. “Pop…”
“Listen to your father,” Jack says. “He knows what he’s talking about.”
“The Lombardis are different than the other guys you’ve dealt with,” Pop says. “They’re on a different level. You know that. You don’t want to mess with them, Nico. They’re trouble.”
I hear what he’s saying. My father thinks I can’t handle John Lombardi. But I think he’s wrong. And what really bothers me is that I think if Tony were here, he’d be telling him something different. He doesn’t think I’m tough enough.
“I can handle John Lombardi,” I say through my teeth.
“Nico.” Pop puts his hand on my shoulder. “Listen to me. Your brother is older than you are, but you’re the one I put in charge. You’re the one who’s gonna take my place someday. You know why? It’s not because you’re a tough guy. It’s because you think.” He taps his forehead. “It’s because you don’t get pissed off and do something stupid the way Tony does just to prove a point.” He raises his bushy white eyebrows at me. “Was I wrong?”
I frown at him. I had plans for this property in Jersey and my gut is telling me that I should fight for it. I don’t want to appear weak by backing down so quick. I’ve always made the right decisions in the past—every single one. The only bad decision I ever made in my whole goddamn life was diving in front of that bullet. But if I hadn’t, my brother might be dead now. So maybe it was the best decision I ever made.
But when my father tells me… no, orders me to back away, what else can I do? It’s still his company.
“Okay, Pop,” I say. “I’ll leave it be. Let them have it.”
Pop nods, looking relieved. But I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m making the wrong decision.
I’m sitting on my sofa, and Natalie is on my lap and her tongue is down my throat. I called her an hour ago and she was here in twenty minutes. There are things I don’t like about the girl, but I have to admit, she gets here fast when I want her. She really must want to keep that apartment of hers.
She unbuttons my shirt, her fingers running up and down my chest. The sensation of her hand disappears and reappears as she goes below the line where the bullet severed my spinal cord. When she touches my belly, I feel nothing—she could be touching another person, for all I’d know. I don’t like to be touched there, partially because I can’t feel it and partially because I’m not proud of my gut. Natalie knows this and she doesn’t linger there.
When Natalie and I were first together, I went down on her, thinking that if I could give her sexual pleasure, maybe our relationship could turn into something more. It didn’t work out as I expected—at least not at first. I’ve performed oral sex on enough girls to know when the response I’m getting is real, and I could tell that Natalie was faking it. I finally called her on it.
“You’re not really having orgasm when I go down on you, are you?” I asked her.
“Not really,” she admitted. When she saw the look on my face, she added, “Don’t feel bad about it, Nick. I don’t have orgasms very easily. And I don’t really like oral sex.”
But I was determined to make it happen. For a while, Natalie would just lie there like a lump and it was frustrating as hell. But then I figured out her sweet spots. When I finally got her to come for real, I gave myself a big pat on the back.
I don’t know if she’s expecting oral sex right now. She hasn’t asked for it, but that’s not unusual. She usually waits for me to offer. Instead, she continues kissing and licking my neck.
Natalie’s lips on my neck or nipples is usually enough to get me sweaty and worked up while she’s going at it. But this time, all I can think about is Jessie. I don’t want Natalie kissing me—I only want Jessie. This make-out session is just depressing.
“Hey,” I tell Natalie. “You can stop.”
“Okay,” she says, without questioning my motives. She climbs off my lap, hesitates for a moment, then goes to the bathroom. Natalie can spend an hour in the bathroom without blinking an eye. I don’t know what the hell goes on in there. Sometimes I wonder if she’s doing drugs in there. Maybe I don’t want to know.
I’m still sitting on the sofa, watching some television, when I hear my phone ringing where I left it in the kitchen. I look over at my wheelchair next to me, feeling suddenly exhausted by the effort I’ll have to expend just to answer the damn phone. Anyone else could just hop out off the couch and dart to the kitchen. Sometimes the reality of my situation frustrates the hell out of me.
Still, I’ve got some business deals I’ve been waiting to hear about, so I push myself to get back in my chair. I find my phone in the kitchen and discover the missed call is from Alex Mitchell. The shower is still running, so I call him back.
“Alex? It’s Nick.” I shift in my chair, adjusting my position. “What’s going on?”
“I auditioned your friend Jessica Schultz today,” he tells me.
I grin. “She’s great, right?”
“You gotta be kidding me, Nick,” he snorts. “First of all, she’s thirty-one…”
“Yeah, and I’m not hiring you to sing for the club, am I?” Alex sighs. “Plus she’s fat.”
What the fuck? “Are you out of your mind? She’s not fat. At all.”
“She’s got cellulite,” he says. “I could see it.”
“You know, Alex,” I say, “every girl you have working there has the figure of a pre-pubescent boy with these tacked on fake silicone tits. This girl actually has natural curves. What the hell is wrong with that?”
“It’s just the wrong look,” he insists. “She’s not a Cleopatra girl.”
“She’s got a great voice,” I point out.
“Yeah, she’s decent. So what?”
“Fuck you, Alex,” I say. “Hire Jessie. Give her a job singing twice a week. You got me?”
There’s a pause on the other line. Finally, Alex laughs. “Are you trying to fuck her, Nick?”
Well, yeah. But I don’t think this will get me there. “She’s a friend. It’s my club, Alex. I decide who works there.”
I don’t say it but the implication is obvious: I decide who works there, including you.
“If you want her so bad, she’s in,” Alex says quickly. “You’re the boss, right?”
Natalie emerges from the bathroom, her makeup refreshed. She offers me a thin smile, probably hopeful I’ll tell her she can go home. Natalie’s not one for spending the night—she likes her own place.
I watch her sit down on the sofa and cross one of her long, shapely legs over the other. Natalie has the most perfect legs of any woman I ever met.
“Listen,” I say to her, “you’ve been great, Natalie, but I don’t think this is working out anymore.”
Natalie lifts her big blue eyes, a frown tugging at the corners of her lips. She rarely shows emotion and this is the most upset I’ve ever seen her. “What do you mean?”
I hate breaking up with girls, but I know I gotta do this. Now that I’ve spent some time with Jessie, I know that I can’t be satisfied in this relationship. Not anymore.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “But this is over.”
Her brows furrow together. “Is there something else you’d like me to do for you… sexually?”
She says it with no excitement. It’s like I’m letting one of my employees go, and they’re asking me if it would have helped if they did more filing.
“No, it’s nothing about you,” I say. She looks so upset that I quickly add, “I’ll keep paying your rent for the next three months, okay? Until you can find something else.”
The frown reverses. “You will?”
“Yeah. No problem.”
Christ, I don’t want her to be living on the street.
She hugs me goodbye and it’s not as bad as some of the others. Like I said, we had an understanding. I wish she could have been more to me, but she wasn’t. There was no point in continuing the lie.
When Alex Mitchell calls me, I’m in the middle of dinner with Seth. I see the number on the screen and almost don’t answer—the phone call will just be depressing. I auditioned with him a couple of days ago and it didn’t go well. The first thing he did when I walked in was demand to know my age. When I answered honestly, he looked at me like I was old as Methuselah. Then he started babbling about how he thought I’d be too big to fit into any of the costumes. By the time I started actually singing, he could hardly be bothered to look up from his phone.
So in summary, I don’t think I got the job. But I’m going to find out sooner or later, so it may as well be now, while Seth is here to comfort me.
“Jessica!” Mitchell booms into the phone. “It’s Alex Mitchell.”
I glance up at Seth, who’s giving me a curious look. “Hello, Mr. Mitchell.”
“Please call me Alex,” he says. “After all, we’re going to be working together. You got the job.”
My mouth falls open. “I… I did?”
“Sure you did,” Mitchell says. “I’d like to start you out two nights a week, if that works for you?”
“Uh… of course,” I mumble. “Yes, that would be great.”
I can’t believe he’s hiring me. I thought he hated me during that audition. Maybe I was better than I thought. After all, he did look up from his phone during the chorus. Maybe he doesn’t need to hear much to make a decision. Like those food critics who can write a review after only a couple of bites.
“And you should say a big thank you to Nick Moretti,” Mitchell adds. He says it jovially, but there’s an edge to his voice.
Okay, now I get it. He didn’t like me after all. He hated me, just like every other person who ever auditioned me. He didn’t want me singing at his club. But Nick told him he had to hire me, so here we are.
Seth is staring at me when I get off the phone. Under ordinarily circumstances, I’d be jumping up and down with excitement over this news. But I can’t help but feel bad that I only got the job because of Nick, not on my own merit.
“I, um…” I force a smile. “I got the job at Cleopatra’s.”
Seth’s eyes widen. “Are you serious? How did you manage that?”
I shrug. “I guess they liked me.”
I can see him turning that idea over in his mind. I’m not sure he believes it any more than I did. His eyes darken. “So Nick Moretti got you a job, did he?”
“Seth, it’s not like that,” I say, even though I’m not sure whether or not I mean it.
“The fuck it isn’t.” He slams his fork down on his plate. “That’s exactly how guys like that work. He throws some work your way and now he thinks he gets to fuck you.”
He shoves his plate away from him. “That asshole could have any woman he wants… what the hell is he going after you for?”
“He’s not going after me,” I insist.
“Don’t be naïve.” He snorts. “I bet you like him, don’t you? I saw a picture in the papers of the guy once—he’s really good-looking.”
I can’t argue with that sentiment. Nick is really good-looking. But there’s something else that I bet Seth doesn’t know about him. Still, I refuse to tell him about Nick’s disability just to soothe this irrational jealousy.
“Seth,” I say, “you need to relax. Nothing is ever going to happen between me and Nick Moretti. I swear.”
His jaw twitches.
“Don’t you trust me?” I say.
“It’s not you that I don’t trust,” he mumbles.
If he had any idea that Nick was the guy I’d been in love with when the two of us first met, he’d be livid. I’d never be allowed to work at Cleopatra’s. I just have to keep trying to convince him that this is entirely innocent. Which it is.
I just hope he doesn’t do something stupid before I can convince him.
To be continued...