[Author's note: Half of part 3 and part 4 combined. Two new characters introduced. Really hard to do when an emergency situation interrupts the introduction process, but there it is. Enjoy.]
"You'd be in danger, and I'd be liable...."
As she preens her whiskers in front of the mirror nearest to the door, Winter makes her way behind her. When Tivoli turns around, she sees an angry wolf looking at her, bearing her fangs, and snarling loudly. The ocelot is startled and moves as far back as the sink would let her. Now she's trying to sidestep away, except Winter has her hands on either side of the sink, trapping her prey in an ominous loop.
Tivoli chuckles nervously. The wolf towers over her, making her look smaller than she really is. Cautiously, and rather thoughtlessly, she gently caresses one of Winter's canines with her left index finger. "Oh wow."
"Do you know what I could do to you right now?" Her voice is low and smooth. He leans her face forward; her muzzle inches closer to the ocelot's nose. "Do you have any idea how much trouble you are in?"
Tivoli swallows. She stops smiling and starts breathing heavily. "Please...don't do anything. I mean, you can really do much anyway."
"We're pretty much the only women in the whole bar. If...if you do anything to me, everyone will know that it was you." She nervously continues to stare at her assailant's teeth.
Winter closes her mouth, looking at the ocelot silently. They remain like that for the next couple of minutes. Tivoli still looks scared. She is in no way safe, even though the wolf has stopped growling. It looks like Winter is deep in thought about what to do next, but still looks ready to strike her opponent down. Suddenly, after a long time spent without making a sound, she exhales loudly. "You're right. I can't do anything to you here." She lowers her arms. "I shouldn't risk my future on a nobody like you." She moves backwards, giving the ocelot some welcome space.
Tivoli swallows again, then looks down at her feet which the wolf had been stepping on in order to get close to her.
"I've thought better of hurting you. If you go away now, nothing bad will happen. I'll forget that you exist, and you can go back to working at a food pantry, hauling garbage and whatnot. I was in an area that I don't normally go when I shot that guy, and I'll probably never go back there. So we never have to worry about meeting ever again." She turns to leave the restroom. "Have a nice life."
Tivoli sighs with relief. "Thanks. Thank you for...not killing me. I really appreciate that, but I'm afraid you're mistaken." The wolf has already turned the corner and left her sight. She stands there, probably hoping for a response.
Sure enough, Winter reappears. "What's that?"
"We...um, we still have an issue." Panic returns to her face. "There's something I just gotta tell you that could help me improve my situation and...." She stops talking and quickly backs away as Winter moves toward her. She moves back to the sink where Winter first held her in place.
"Listen! We have nothing else to talk about! Just get out of my bar, and don't ever let me see your face again! You'll be safe then." She starts to walk away again.
"I followed you!"
Winter stops in her tracks and turns to face the ocelot again. Now she looks more nervous than angry.
"I followed you. After you killed the homeless guy, I didn't even go back to work. I ran away, back to the motel. My first thought...was to pack up and leave the city. I get nervous around authority, so I couldn't go back to work and risk being questioned by police. But I didn't have any money, so I couldn't escape anywhere." Winter moves closer to her. This time, however, Tivoli decides to walk forward instead of back down. "I stayed in my room, listening to the news about the homeless John Doe, until the sun started to go down. I decided to get something to eat, so I took a cab and came here. I saw you in here while I was looking for a table. When I saw you, I ran out."
"And you decided to follow me?"
"I weighed my options and I thought...." Tivoli clears her throat and looks into Winter's eyes. "I followed you to find out where you lived. If the cops ever got to me, I'd be ready to take them to you and get the heat off me. I followed you to the bus stop you went to. I followed you on the bus, then I followed you off. You went to this...loan building I think it was. I hid behind some trees and kept my eyes on you. You were in the parking lot talking to a couple of people, then this big gray wolf came out. I saw you hug and kiss him, then you guys went into this black car and left."
Winter mouths "Oh my God" under her breath.
With even more determination, Tivoli continues. "That Shiloh of yours has a really nice car. Anyway, you guys sped away, so I couldn't follow you anymore. But I did see some more guys come out of the building. A fox, a couple of wolves, a couple of dogs...a lot of people. They were laughing and singing and...just having a good time. Then I saw the money. Lots of it. Literally hundreds of bills were changing hands. One of the dogs was handing out wads of cash to the others. A lot of money in one place. For the first time that day, I felt good. I wanted some. I was so close, I could taste it."
The long answer softens Winter's stance a bit. She puts her arms down to her sides. "Those assholes," she whispers. After a heavy breath, she lets her anger disappear. She looks like she has given up fight. "So what do you want?"
"I want in."
Before Tivoli can answer, the door opens. A lynx, wearing a skimpy "nurse" uniform, hat included, enters the room. She stops to stare at the wolf and the ocelot, ekes a smile and waves at them shyly. Scared, she runs into the nearest stall and closes the door.
Tivoli whispers, "I want in. That loan place is obviously more than meets the eye. Whatever is going on there, you are involved. And from what I saw in that parking lot, there's money involved too. That's what I want. I want a piece of whatever is happening. Don't even try to talk me out of all that money."
"It's not gonna happen!" Winter covers her mouth, remembering that they are not alone anymore. She leads them toward the restroom door. "I can't just walk in there and introduce you."
"What do you do there, anyway?"
The wolf leans against the door, looking as trapped and exposed as she probably feels right now.
Tivoli dips her head repentantly. "Don't be upset. It's really not all that bad."
"Of course it is! You saw something that you weren't meant to see. And if you were right about seeing money change hands, then...." She shakes her head. "It means some rules have just been violated."
"What are you talking about? What goes on over there?"
Winter readies herself. She walks toward the ocelot. "The homeless guy was a mark. I was supposed to kill him." She puts her hands on her hips, confident now that she has waded in. "It was a job that was worth money."
Tivoli gasps. "Wow. A hit. Just like in the movies. Complete with a mob boss I bet."
"No, not like in the movies. There is no mob. This is a career. Shiloh does it; I'm doing it too. In fact, I just started a week ago. I mean...we had been a couple for about three years. After months of asking how he made his living, one day he finally relented and told me. Shiloh thought I'd be shocked and would leave him, so he was totally surprised when I told him I was interested. I spent a month learning the ropes until I knew everything." She suddenly bears her fangs. "That's why I can't believe I allowed myself to be seen. I thought I did everything right."
The ocelot looks on, nodding with interest the entire time.
"And you say you want in. Well, forget it. I can't just go and bring in some stranger to that location. My boss is very particular about that."
Tivoli nods vigorously. "Sure you can. You can totally introduce me. I get along well with people. Also, I can do what you're doing. No problem."
"Don't be a dumbass. Why would you want to kill people for a living? You look too pretty to do it on a near-daily basis. You're really short, so you wouldn't fit in. You'd stick out like a sore thumb. And would you even have the courage to actually pull the trigger? Could you look yourself in the mirror knowing that you killed someone? And could you stand the carnage even if you did?"
The ocelot, looking overpowered, drops her hands to her sides. Her body is less confident than before. "I guess you're right. I guess it's useless to try. You could be right about all those things. I've never actually killed anyone. I've never had to ask myself loaded moral questions. And as for 'short,' I'm five feet, three inches. That's not short. That's tiny. So I guess I'm disqualified. Except...."
They look at each other for a few seconds before Winter asks, "Except for what?"
"I'm really desperate." For some reason, Tivoli hikes up her plaid skirt, exposing a pair of pink panties. Winter stutters and backs away slowly. She is too busy looking at the ocelot's underwear to notice the holster on her right thigh.
Without warning, Tivoli reaches in and pulls out a knife, sticking it in Winter's face. The wolf scampers backwards, hitting her back against the restroom door. Tivoli holds up the knife for a couple of seconds before hanging her hands at her sides again. "Sorry. I haven't had to use it for a long time, but I have used it. I don't go anywhere without it, so I...really don't get around much." She scoffs.
"You're crazy!" Winter peels herself away from the door, breathing hard with shock. "What the hell were you trying to do?!"
"If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done so already. I had my hand on my knife while you had me pinned down at the sink over there. So I would have fought back...but I really don't want to. Um...you okay?"
Still shocked, Winter puts a hand to her chest. "That was fast."
Tivoli puts the knife back in its holster. "In my life, I've had to be."
"You know, I still can't bring you in. I just can't introduce you."
"Why not? Just do it slowly."
"It doesn't matter. I just can't bring in somebody new. The only way someone new can come in is if he can be vouched for by someone trustworthy. You can't--"
"How did you join?"
Winter lowers her voice. "Shiloh introduced me. He had been working there for almost three years. They trust him enough that my joining them wasn't a matter of if, but when."
"Well, then get Shiloh to vouch for me."
The wolf scoffs. "Now that's even more stupid than...." She suddenly hears something that perks her ears. "Shiloh's in the bar. I gotta go."
"Just like that?"
"Look, I've only been on the job for a week. Nobody's going to think I'm honorable enough to bring in strangers. Even if I wanted to get you involved, you'd be rejected. What's worse, you would have seen their faces. You'd be in danger, and I'd be liable, so just forget it." She opens the restroom door.
Tivoli follows. She grabs Winter's left arm. "Well, introduce me to Shiloh at least. I'll tell him to vouch for me."
The wolf stops and looks up at the ceiling. "All right. You stay here. I mean it--stay in here. I'll tell him about you. If he says yes, then I'll have you meet him. If he says no, then you just go home."
"If he says no, then I'll just go to the police. 'I know this white wolf. She killed the homeless John Doe.' The case will be solved in no time."
Winter angrily turns to her. "I don't like being blackmailed!"
"Nevertheless!" She releases the wolf and tries to relax. "Like I said, I'm desperate. So...what're you gonna do?"
They look at each other with disdain. Winter points at her. "Just wait here." She scampers out of the room. Tivoli watches the door swing closed.
A toilet flushes and the lynx exits the stall she entered. Without washing, she saunters toward the door, looking at the ocelot. She smiles and waves again.
Tivoli sheepishly returns the smile. "There were...um...probably some things that you heard that you shouldn't have." She puts her hands behind her back. "Don't worry, I won't--"
"Shh." The lynx opens the door and takes a peek outside. Nobody is coming. She turns to Tivoli. "Don't sweat it." Her accent is British. "Listen, I know the place you're talking about. I don't go there myself, but one of the workers is my current escort. He likes it when I dress up for him, and he tells me everything. He kills people for a living. So does everyone who works in that loan building. Most nights, they come here after work. Almost every night, this bar is half-filled with those killers." She stops smiling, observing Tivoli's open-mouthed stare. "Are you absolutely sure you want to join that lot?"
The spotted feline does not answer. She looks like she is having second thoughts.
"You better think about it." The lynx opens the door to leave. "It might not be good for you...."
[I wake up with a start. I'm looking at ceiling lights pass over me. I'm still in the hospital bed. The nurse above me says "Good evening." I'm being rolled out of the operating room into another waiting room. They say my room will be ready in an hour. With that, I close my eyes.]
Imbroglio is a nice, rustic-looking restaurant in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It lies just in front of a strip mall and next to a major road. It looks like a one-story bungalow with a patio in the back. There is a lot of traffic in the summertime, but eating there is, for the most part, a pleasant experience. This afternoon, there is a moderately sized crowd eating on the patio. That can only mean that the inside of the restaurant is filled to capacity.
Their theme is a fusion of Italian and American cuisine. It has become a favorite of many important and influential people in the area. It is not unusual for the restaurant to be swamped with customers on business lunches and other formal get-togethers. Paid killers apparently also visit on occasion.
Sitting just inside the patio, with the street right in front of them, sit three female anthros of different species, sharing a table. On the left side of the table, facing the street, is a red fox. Her face is obscured by the menu she is holding, but her black hands give her away. Sitting to her left is a cat whose ears can be seen popping up above her menu. Satisfied with her choice, she places it on the table. Now her face can be seen. She is silver-colored. Her short-sleeved cotton shirt exposes her arms--silver with black spots. She is about as tall as the fox. Sitting across from them is a white mouse, looking around excitedly.
(I don't see them as much as I see Winter, but they do what she does. The fox's name is Pamila. She is down-to-earth and very serious. Every time I have seen her, she's been working, so I can't tell much about her social life at the moment. That said, since she is at a restaurant, she probably is taking an off day. She always has a sour look on her face; I haven't yet seen her smile. The cat is named Camille. She is high-maintenance and continually optimistic. When she is not killing people, she has a bubbly, high-spirited personality. She has a rather overblown sense of entitlement that tends to anger other people. This makes her a target of hate-mongers and gossip hounds. Still, Pamila defends her honorably; they are good friends. The mouse's name is Beth. This is not her story.)
"What are you having?" Pamila asks. The other two look up to answer, though it is not clear who the fox was talking to.
Beth shrugs and puts down her menu. "I think I'll have the hot Italian beef."
Before she can answer, Camille spots a well-dressed man with a buzz cut, a blue blazer, and black slacks walking up to the table. He is probably fresh out of the army (or out of prison). He spots the cat and gives her a wave. Scanning the gentleman, she waves back, and watches him intently as he passes. Without looking at her friends, she giggles, "So would I!"
Beth laughs. "That's disgusting. And how'd you know he's Italian?"
"His shoes say he is."
Pamila shakes her head with embarrassment. "Knock it off."
Beth turns serious. She hooks her tail over the back of her seat. "What is wrong with you? You've been tense since we got here."
"Don't mind her," says Camille, still giggling. "This place is fine. You chose a good place for our lunch. Pam's just wants to go."
"She could just have an appetizer and relax."
The fox lowers her menu. "I don't want an appetizer. When I say I don't want to go somewhere, it doesn't mean you get to drag me out of bed and force me to go out sightseeing. This is my first day off in weeks and--"
"And we haven't seen our friends in a long time!" Camille pats Pamila's back. "Either we're travelling or they are. Now, Beth just got into town from Harvard, and you're not gonna see her?"
"Is there something wrong with staying home and taking a twelve-hour long nap? I mean, after twenty straight days of work, don't you think I deserve it?"
Before the cat can answer, they spot one of the waiters coming towards them. Anxiously, Beth bounces in her seat. "Please order something."
"All right. Don't get offended."
"You can get the toasted ravioli, or maybe some breadsticks. We won't stay too long if one of us doesn't order an entrée."
The waiter comes up from behind them, startling Pamila for a moment. She orders ravioli while the others decide on heavier, sauce-laden forms of pasta. Camille then asks for the dessert menu. Despite the fox's wishes, they plan to be there for a while.
As the waiter leaves, Beth stands. "I'm going to wash my hands. Try to enjoy yourself, Pam." The mouse pats her on the shoulder as she leaves.
Camille whispers, "What is the matter with you?"
"Don't yell. Beth has been in LA since the fourth of July. She is going back to school at the end of the month. This is the only time we can see her before she leaves. Our work is taking us away from our social lives. We need breaks like this. Besides, I thought you liked her."
"I do like Beth. I just...." She releases a guilty sigh. "I just wanted to get some sleep. That's all. Like, more than four hours sleep for once. I can't do my job if I'm tired all the time. I thought you'd understand that."
"Don't do that to me, okay? We work together. I know your marks and you know mine. Your problems are my problems. But our friends are few and far between, so we have to...." She stops to notice someone behind her, following a waitress as they search for an empty table. "Look behind you."
Pamila obeys, looking at the man, who now takes a seat about twenty feet away from her. He is a typical businessman with the suit and tie to match. He is middle-aged and balding. He is joined, seconds later, by a couple of more nobodies in business suits.
"Isn't that your next mark?"
"Morris." Pam shakes her head as her memory fails her. "Dan...or Stan...Morris. I don't know, but that's him. What's he doing here?"
Camille scoffs. "Is that a real question?"
"He's gonna make me antsy."
"Remember, don't keep looking at him when Beth gets here. We don't need her to know what we do."
"Did you do it? Is it taken care of?"
"I delivered the package to his office myself. He'll take it home, open it, and we'll get paid six grand the next day."
Camille smiles. "Don't get nervous. He's just eating with clients."
They sit there, waiting for Beth to return. Pamila just cannot help taking quick glances behind her. After about a minute, Mr. Morris stands, leaving his companions at the table. He walks to the other side of the patio's steel barrier to hug a woman standing on the other side. Pamila points this out to Camille. "Who's the lady?"
The cat nods after getting a look at the woman. "Mr. Morris' secretary. I recognize that red dress anywhere. I've been scouting her all week, and she was the only way I could even get a peek at that office building. I told her I was a friend of her boss' wife. She wouldn't believe me for a long time, and I had to leave the package with her."
As they look on, the secretary hands the businessman a packaged box. As she leaves, Mr. Morris reads the tag attached to the top.
"That's the parcel I sent. I got the wrapping paper from Vivian. That's the same box. I thought she was gonna just leave it in his office."
The girls nervously watch as their mark moves among the crowd, straining to carry the heavy object without dropping it. Eventually, he sits down with his guests, gently placing the box on the table. For some reason, he angrily tears up the tag that went with it.
Pamila quickly faces front. "He's gonna open it."
"No he's not. He's too busy. He'll just...take it home. He's not gonna let it get in the way of his business lunch."
"Forget it. I'm getting out of here." She quickly stands, faster than Camille is ready for. "Come on, move your ass!"
The cat stands, stepping in front of her friend. "He's not going to open the box in front of company. I wrote 'Happy Birthday, Mr. Morris' on the card attached. It's personal. He'll wait 'til he gets home, then...."
Mr. Morris is now removing the packaging.
Crossly, Pamila steps by Camille. "Lunch is over." She quickly runs to the edge of the patio and steps over the banister, her tail knocking down a ketchup bottle on a nearby table.
Ignoring the stares of a few onlookers, Camille follows her over the banister. They quickly cross the street and head toward the strip mall, presumably where their car is parked.
"Wait!" Camille stops abruptly. "What about Beth?"
Pamila doesn't stop. "Forget her! Just run!"
"We can't do that!" She turns back, as if she knows the first thing to do once she gets there.
The fox chases her down and grabs her around the waist. "Don't be stupid! The whole place'll light up as soon as the box is open! Let's just go!"
Camille tries to resist her friend pulling her by the hand, and fails. "Beth!"