Steam rose from tattered clothing and formed a tight nebula in the air above the collapsed table. The amorphous cloud reminded Dalton of the television show he had watched the night before.
“It’s amazing really,” Dalton said watching the gasses drift past his head.
“What’s that?” Frankie Benjamin asked. His mother’s maiden name was Ingles, so everyone called him FBI for short.
The cloud mixed with smoke from still burning cigarettes before a chilled wind flowed through the open door, swept everything up into its arms, and dispersed its burden back out into the Philadelphia sky.
“Everything just expands,” He looked at the side of his gun. “Forever.”
“What’re you talking about?”
FBI put his silenced Glock 17 down on the bookshelf just beyond the front door.
“I saw this special last night. About the stars. They’re just expanding. On and on forever.”
FBI toed passed the first dead body, guiding his foot to a dry spot between the man’s bent elbow and expressionless face. Dalton followed, and in this manner, stepping between growing puddles of blood and the ghostly entrails of bullet holes, they traversed the room until coming to the door opposite the entrance.
“No they aren’t. They’re up there. Right now, above our heads. They aren’t going anywhere.”
“You can’t see it. It takes millions of years. Longer maybe. Yea, definitely longer. But they’re moving away from each other, away from us.” Dalton waved his gun for emphasis. FBI placed a gloved hand on the top of the door, and with a gentle push opened the entrance of the apartment’s only other room. On top of the surprisingly well-made bed, a black felt cloth yawned and from its bowels bubbled forth uncountable wealth.
“Diamonds.” FBI finished. “Holy shit. Look at how many.”
“Duncan didn’t say anything about there being a stash here.”
“He couldn’t have known.” FBI took a cautious step into the carpeted room. “My God, there must be a hundred of them.”
A great clump of shimmering facets piled and fell into linked concentric circles radiating outward, almost revolving, long spiral arms against a backdrop dark as pitch.
“What do we do with them?” Dalton asked. “We have to get out of here now. We can’t stay.”
We take what’s ours, FBI said then. We take them and we split them up and we don’t tell a God damned soul. If Duncan hadn’t mentioned jewels, then he didn’t know about them. They could move them later, he assured Dalton, through a fence, or one of the Jews over on Sansom.
With the thoughts of police, or worse yet, more of Tunney’s boys showing up and seeing what had happened to their friends at their weekly poker night, Dalton acquiesced.
FBI snatched the diamonds, compressing all of their beauty, all of those fine points of light into a crushed ball and twisted the pouch closed. They left the way they came, stopping only to retrieve FBI’s gun and close the door over even though the splintered frame refused to hold it shut.
FBI navigated the car back towards the river, bending around Logan Square and taking it slow towards the expressway. The Delaware River rose before them but traffic slowed and he padded the breaks.
“That true, what you said about the stars?”
“That’s what the astrologist guy in the special was saying, so yea, I guess so.”
“He was an astronomer, not an astrologist.”
“You didn’t even see the special. How do you know?”
“Never mind.” FBI tapped the breaks again and the traffic lightened. Flashing lights from somewhere above on the bridge refracted off the hood of their generic silver Honda Civic. Neither of them paid the lights much attention.
“I thought I read somewhere that everything in space goes out but then comes back together,” FBI said.
“Not anymore. Something about there not being enough energy in the universe for that.”
“So what? The stars just keep going on and on.”
“In all directions.”
“But what happens then?”
“They just kinda die out. Each star keeps going until they’re so far away and have so little energy that they freeze.”
“Shit. That’s morbid. Even our sun?”
“Oh no. They said the sun will burn out millions of years before that.”
FBI chuckled. “Well that’s comforting at least.”
Through the easing traffic, FBI turned off the exit and then further around the sweep of the bridge’s arms before pulling into Henry’s Service Station. They left the car and the low hanging clouds above exited with them, parting in the cold air and unveiling a billowy cascade of shining light above.
They ducked beneath the open bay doors and escaping smells of corroded oil and transmission fluid replaced the night’s scent of sycamore. Henry met them inside and they handed over their guns. His dirty hands, dirty even when they were clean, made short work of the weapons, dismantling each piece, breaking them down, smaller and smaller, into their basic elements and placing them like a nearly completed jigsaw puzzle on top of his tool box. He retrieved a pair of pliers from a drawer and proceeded to bend the firing puns and other assorted springs and screws.
“Remember, don’t just throw the bag in,” he said after handing them each a plastic bag with the now rejoined yet useless components of their respective guns. “Sprinkle them in. The current will take care of the rest.”
“Yea, yea, we got it Hank. Ain’t the first time,” FBI said.
“Just see it gets done. I’ll ring Duncan that you guys checked in.”
Before FBI and Dalton bent under the bay doors, Henry hit the auto-close and they had to run to make it in time. The metal crashed closed, shaking the street and breaching the silent night.
“C’mon,” FBI said, “let’s get these into the river before sun up.”
From the pedestrian walk on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the stars above and the city lights below mated on the short horizon and gave birth to crystalline splendor across the sterling water. FBI dipped into his bag and one by one threw the components over the railing, waiting for the first to disappear before casting the next. His fingers parted and each piece accelerated down towards the infinite blackness.
Dalton leaned over the rail and in one orgasmic throw dumped his entire bag. Then he looked up.
“Two hundred billion. That’s how many stars they say are in our galaxy alone.”
“That’s how much cash we’re going to have if we can move those diamonds.”
Dalton turned to his partner, but FBI’s face hid amongst the moonless night and the passing car light’s circuitous travels around the latticework of the bridge’s towers.
“About that. Why don’t we just take them to Duncan? Maybe keep three or four each for ourselves. Put us up a few dozen grand and still not go behind the boss’s back.”
“He doesn’t even know about them.”
“You can’t know that for sure.”
“Can’t I? D, there was no one left alive at that place, and he didn’t say anything about them before we went in. Way I see it; we’re the ones taking the risk every time we make a hit for him, so why shouldn’t we be the ones who get the rewards?”
Dalton squinted but still had no success revealing his partner’s expression. “I guess because it ain’t how it works, that’s why.”
“You said the same thing last time. But no one ever knew about the extra cash we made.”
FBI threw the empty clip into the river, the last piece of his gun from the bag, and walked towards the car. Dalton waited, but his partner kept walking, further and further away, until Dalton stood alone on the middle span of the bridge with no one around him except the fleeing stars above.
Dalton rejoined FBI in the car and he drove him back to his apartment in Pennsport. The lazy rose hue of morning scrubbed the heavens and by the time Dalton ascended his steps, sunlight had banished the night.
He fell asleep a short time later, on the couch, as to not disturb Catherine, who sprawled naked in his bed.
She woke him a few hours later with a pair of kisses to his neck. His eyes split open and he smelled the minty freshness of her toothpaste coupled with the hydrangea infused scent of her body wash.
“You got in late last night.”
“Work,” he said, stifling a yawn.
“I went to the doctor yesterday,” she said around growing happiness that bent the edges of her lips into her splendid smile.
He didn’t know she was sick. She wasn’t, she’d go on to say. It wasn’t that kind of doctor.
“She told me I’m getting a little older, and that if I want to have a kid someday, someday needs to be a lot closer than it currently is.”
He stared at her and thought about smiling back but couldn’t.
“D, it’s not like we haven’t spoken about it.”
“I know but now? Kids now?”
“Who said anything about more than one? I’d be perfectly happy with one.”
“I just don’t know if it’s the right time.”
“It’s never the right time for anything. Tamara thinks it’d be perfect for us.”
“Did she tell FBI that?”
“I’m surprised he didn’t tell you himself.”
“I’m kidding. I know how close you guys are. But I also know how much you value his opinion. And that’s great. And I want you to know, him and his wife can see us with a larger family.”
“They just want someone for the girls to play with.”
“Maybe. But they think it’d be wonderful to share something like that with us.”
“Five years of marriage can make you desperate for change.”
“So can none, D.”
He winced, anger fading as he realized he had inadvertently hurt her. He pulled her in.
“I think it’d be a wonderful thing to share with you, is all.” She kissed him.
“I may get used to the idea.”
She had positioned her body atop his, her arms folded beneath her chin, pressing into his chest. Their legs intermingled and her lips breathlessly carried words the short distance from her lips to his ears. No space existed between them. They became singular, awaiting some force to drive them apart but content in that moment to hurtle through life as one.
She kissed his ear. His hand wandered to her backside, finding a way to pull her even closer. She giggled and it sparked the memory of the first time he had heard her voice, the sometimes nasal, sometimes low-pitched trestle supporting the first of so many unique affectations he loved about her. She used to smoke, and when she had offered him one, leaning against a dirty brick wall on the side of Donatello’s, she seemed so flawless, such an important facet in the universe he imagined it was her holding up the building and not the other way around.
Other than quitting smoking, nothing much had changed about her in their three years together. They had spoken about children. The thought only seemed possible with this one woman, though he fought it, given the way he made money and the people he was indebted to. But now, with her lips cascading around his body, and his hands tugging at her flesh, and their space somehow contracting further, he felt his willpower folding. Now, deep inside her, he yielded to his lust. It lasted longer than any time in the past and when they finished she kept laughing, squeezing her hips and writhing on him until there was no doubt they had both silently agreed to depart on a great journey and had already lost track of the shoreline.
Two weeks fled from their lives before Dalton’s phone rang and the nervous but determined voice of FBI commanded a meet at the bowling alley in Bella Vista, and for Christ’s sake, not to tell anyone about it.
So unique was the sound of a bowling ball striking white wooden pins it was as though God, when he created the heavens and the earth, decreed no other sound in the cosmos should be so distinct. FBI stood at the bar, a red drink with a paper umbrella beside him and a worrisome expression exploring his face.
“Play a round?” Dalton asked as he approached.
“No time for fun and games, D. I got us a buyer.”
The buyer, FBI explained, would only be in town for a night, while working on another deal and would see them afterwards. Dalton asked where had FBI hidden the gemstones in the meantime, but wasn’t privy to a substantial answer. Something about ‘limiting his liability’, but Dalton wasn’t sure who’s liability he was referring to. FBI continued his speech, going on about clarity and color, that the majority of the diamonds were already cut and they’d be worth more but possibly harder to move.
Dalton’s focus wandered and an attractive mother, maybe in her late twenties, excused herself passed the two of them, grabbed a soda off the bar, and retreated amidst a swirl of dissipating scents of lilac and honey. She hurried back to her child, a boy possibly three, and helped him take off his jacket and tie on his bowling shoes. She cradled his face, smiling and kissing his forehead before sitting down and watching with a bit of wonder as the boy attempted to roll the ball down the lane by himself.
“Hey, c’mon man, listen to me here. It’s important.”
“Yea, yea, I got it,” Dalton split his attention between the woman and his partner, “guy won’t be here for two weeks at least, but we gotta move quickly once he’s in town.”
“It’s more than that.”
“How so?” Dalton finally wrenched his eyes free from the woman.
“Duncan is asking questions.”
“What kind of questions?”
The worrisome kind. The kind that made soldiers like Dalton and FBI think something was afoot and they weren’t allowed to know. Duncan, their boss, hadn’t seen anything in the papers about the hit, the rumors said. Because of that, he had begun to wonder about its effectiveness. More than likely, FBI went on to explain, the Tunney family had covered it up and buried their guys in secrecy while suppressing talk about reprisal attacks. Politics, for sure. But that excuse wouldn’t hold up for much longer.
“You think he knows about the diamonds?”
“No, no way. I already told you, no one knows about them but us.”
“I still think we should tell him.”
“And I think you need to shut the hell up. We’ll move ‘em and get the cash. Trust me on this. It’s worth the risk.”
Dalton turned back to the mother. It was her turn now, and the little boy cheered as her arm pulled back and the ball released, spinning yet suspended in the air, even if only momentarily, a sphere submitting its rotation and trajectory to the arbitrary will of gravity. The forces of physics grabbed hold, slamming the ball to the polished floor and escorting it away from the woman and down the lane, crashing in a fury of kinetic energy against the wall of well-ordered pins.
“We can’t tell him D, not now.” FBI softened. “It was weeks ago. He’ll wonder why we held out.”
“He’ll take one look at the bag and know exactly why.”
“All the more reason to hold fast and make a deal.”
Dalton tapped his knuckles against the oaken bar. The ball returned to the woman’s hand, regurgitated from the bowels of nothing to begin the processes anew. The little boy had lost interest and sat quietly awaiting his turn in one of the many hard plastic orange seats.
“I don’t like putting you in this position constantly. I really don’t. But with Tamara and her needs and the kids, it’s just –”
“It’s not just Tamara.”
“It’s just never enough, okay? That’s the hardest thing, D. None of it is ever enough.”
His friend took one long drink from his umbrella-adorned glass and then placed it gently on the bar. Dalton considered him then and sized his life versus all of the life in the world.
“Can I get one?”
“One rock. Any will do.”
“I’m moving the entire lot. You don’t need to sell them individually.”
Dalton waited, and after a bit of eye-wrangling, FBI deciphered his meaning. He laughed and nodded and told him it’d take a day to get them from his hiding spot but he’d make it happen for his partner, his friend. They left shortly after, but not before Dalton saw the woman one more time, attempting and failing to lasso her little boy into the car before a sudden rainstorm eclipsed the sun and cast a bright day down into darkness.
It took FBI the better part of the week to produce the one diamond, but he delivered, and though Dalton hadn’t seen many of the individual gems before FBI had scooped them from that bedspread nearly a month prior, this one was magnificent in its sparkle and intensity.
Getting a setting proved to be easier than he thought, and a week after that, about how long it took him to muster his fleeting courage, he slipped it on Catherine’s finger and watched her mouth form one simple, three-letter word. Until then, he had never understood how strong one could be.
On the same day, FBI called him. The buyer, whoever this mysterious figure from the nether regions of Detroit was, had arrived in Philadelphia. And as the winding events of life unfolded it also happened to be the first time in nearly a month either of them had heard from Duncan, their boss, the man they planned on skimming thousands of dollars from. He called upon them for one more hit on the Tunney family, because, justified or not, they hadn’t been very successful in provoking the response he wanted from that family the first time. Nothing could slow Duncan’s need to expand his territory.
“Do you have to go?” Catherine asked. Her arms bridged below her petite chin, belly down on the bed but knees bent. Her feet crossed above her head.
Dalton looped his tie through the knot. He flattened the black cloth against his white shirt and shrugged into his jacket.
“And you look amazing by the way.”
“I do,” he forced a smile.
She held out her hand, bent at the wrist. “Isn’t it magnificent? I think it’s the most perfect diamond in the world. It shines like the morning.”
He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Or a star.”
“Yes!” She jumped up and hugged him. She pushed him away but pulled his tie. “A star. A bright shining star in the night. The best star.”
“Like the sun.” He smiled naturally now, her happiness replacing doom with hope.
“Just like the sun. Warming everything there is.”
“Well not everything.” He laughed at her, but not unkindly.
“The universe is a much bigger place than our one little star.”
“Yes, but this is the only place where there’s life, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s the center of everything.”
He didn’t disagree. They hugged again, and kissed again, and before he was able to leave, they made love again. And afterwards, as he rushed to put on his pants, looking at his watch and realizing he was already ten minutes late in meeting FBI, she pulled him by the tie again and whispered one last gift into his ear.
They met a few blocks from Henry’s Service Station. Dalton exited his car and walked up to his partner’s car window when he finally rolled up.
“You’re late,” FBI said when Dalton leaned in.
“Got held up.”
“You see Catherine today?”
Dalton startled. “Yes. Yes I did.”
“Tamara told me.” FBI turned and grimaced, but extended his hand through the car window. “She told me not to say anything because she knew before you did. But I figured Catherine would tell you before I saw you again. Congrats.”
Dalton shook his hand but then turned as a Chevy pick-up truck crunched the broken concrete at the entrance of the parking lot. A sullen man in a red bandanna and sunglasses, even though the sun had already set, parked his truck a dozen spots away beneath a streetlight and sat idling.
“I’ll take care of it. You just sit here and stay cool.”
“I’m sure.” FBI stepped out and adjusted the holster under his left arm. He reached back into the car and pulled out a small, cardboard box. Dalton imagined all of those wondrous points of light imprisoned in the darkness with no idea their world began and ended at perfect mathematical right angles.
Despite a pervading sense of dread, Dalton watched the handoff transpire without incident, and minutes later a smiling yet despondent FBI walked back to him with a duffel bag. He placed it in the car and took Dalton by the shoulders. The two men faced each other and the pick-up drove off.
“It’s done,” FBI said, the tips of his fingers tightening against Dalton’s arms as though he were trying to compress him into a ball. “And now that you’re going to be a married man and a father, I wanted to tell you Tamara and I broke up, or I guess you could say we’re getting a divorce.”
For the second time that evening Dalton blinked with incomprehension at his partner.
“You don’t need to say anything. I tried to tell her to stay. I begged her. And when she refused, I thought of you, and of your silly story about how the stars are going to keep going on forever; and that once she left my front door, she’d get released into the night and just travel away from me for all time and I would never feel her warmth again. But suddenly, her leaving didn’t feel all that bad, because I knew there was no way you could be right.”
“Shit, FBI, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s okay. I just need you to tell me that I’m right. I’m right and that’s not how everything ends.”
Dalton balked as two conflicting emotions began pirouetting in his head, until the time he took to answer the question became unbearable for both of them and Dalton’s mouth opened and he confirmed FBI’s supposition. Dalton also knew he knew nothing for certain.
They drove together to the job, as they always did, and arrived earlier than Duncan had requested, again, as they always had. They snuck around the back of the warehouse on Orkney Street in Ludlow, having already fastened their long barreled silencers onto the tips of their guns, and took up positions astride the door FBI was about to kick in. They had been partners for so many years, closer than lovers in many respects, and though they had said little about the execution of the task on the drive there, both men had a tacit understanding of the other’s movements and intentions.
FBI heaved his leg back and crashed through the lock, swinging the door open so Dalton could rush in first, his gloved hands aiming his weapon high. Looking around, he saw nothing except an empty table and tipped over chairs. FBI joined his flank but a breath later red mist peppered Dalton’s hair.
For a passing second, the room burned the crimson of a dying star and Dalton could no longer feel his heart beating, the familiar thump thump replaced by a whine, like the highest note of a violin scraped by an impossibly long bow.
“It’s okay D,” a voice parsed the note. “You’re safe.”
Oxygen refilled his lungs as the red dissipated, color materializing again in tiny blotches.
FBI’s body had fallen on its side, quiet and with his left hand over his heart. A puff of breath escaped his mouth, joined the chilled Philadelphia air, and fled into the cold.
Duncan stepped from behind the broken door, larger than Dalton had remembered him, though in many respects; Duncan had always been the largest man he had even seen.
“Why?” the word struggled to part Dalton’s trembling lower lip.
“Too much skimming. But it’s okay, we know you didn’t have anything to do with all of that.”
“How’d you know?”
“Nothing,” Dalton stopped, unsure what was known and unknown.
“There’s an order, a way things are done, Dalton. And if someone threatens that order too much, they risk unraveling everything.”
“It’s okay. We didn’t want to tell you what was happening. I knew you guys were close. Unfortunately, that’s not going to get you out of helping to bury the body.”
Later, atop a pit scented of fresh earth, Dalton paused to catch his breath, his hand resting his bodyweight against the shovel handle, his back bent to assuage the pain there. Eight feet below him, FBI’s body bent the opposite way, arching, with lifeless eyes staring at the stars above. It was a cool, clear night.
He wanted to apologize to his friend then, apologize for not telling him the truth only a few hours before. Dalton thought he’d feel the world closing in on him, thought the act of burying his friend would symbolize contraction and the pulling in of the universe to a single point, a singularity, the very essence of what he really thought would happen at the end of time. Catherine made him feel that way too when he was with her. Made him feel there was hope, if he were to call it that, hope that though things may end, they really just mash back up and start all over.
But FBI’s vacant eyes disagreed. And somewhere in the roiling depths of his stomach, Dalton knew they were right. Knew he was spinning wildly off into nothing, and there was no stopping him. Just the forever of space and the vacancy of heat.
Steam rose from tattered clothing and formed a tight nebula in the air above the collapsed table. The amorphous cloud reminded Dalton of the television show he had watched the night before.