Mrs. Valentine studied Billie’s rosy skin as it soaked in lavender-scented bathwater. Wet strands of brown hair drifted across the young woman’s mouth. Billie blew them off, then smirked drunkenly as she pushed a bar of Ivory soap around on her chest before lifting an arm out of the milky water to lather its pit and biceps.
“How long will you want me?” asked Mrs. Valentine. “How long can we live like this?”
“Depends how much dough you get from your husband,” said Billie. “I can live a long time like this, but I find I want more of everything these days. Especially you.”
Their third-rate apartment had been paid through the month. Then what? Her husband’s lawyer had stopped returning her calls. She’d been thrown out of her own house, shamed into this dump after being caught with Billie in her marital bed, her husband threatening her with a pistol and a vow to never let her see her daughter again.
Mrs. Valentine blushed when she looked up and saw a male face disappear into the darkness of the window across the airshaft. Billie hadn’t drawn the oilskin curtain before her bath. Mrs. Valentine stood naked in an open robe. The view must be spectacular.
“Now you’re not being careful,” said Mrs. Valentine as she leaned over the chipped clawfoot tub to pull the curtain.
“I leave it open for him,” said Billie.
“Why? Do you know the man?”
“He’s a dope peddler. Works that club over on Post Street. He’s harmless. I give him a rise.”
“What do you get out of it?”
“Sometimes he gives me a reefer.”
“Is that all?” asked Mrs. Valentine.
“Sometimes the white stuff.”
“Please don’t ever use that.”
Billie blew her a kiss.
“Please,” said Mrs. Valentine.
“Just once I’d like to fuck you while you fly that high.”
“Please don’t say that word,” said Mrs. Valentine, shoving fingers through her hair at the temples, making her eyes narrow.
“Please. Please. Please,” said Billie. “Stop begging. You’re not a dog.”
“Don’t,” said Mrs. Valentine, turning her back on the girl.
“I’m sorry, but you need to live a little.” Then Billie slapped her wet palms together. “I’ll bet he keeps the dope in his apartment?”
“Shall we steal it? I know how to sell it.”
Mrs. Valentine could see the energy rise in Billie. The girl could make anything happen.
“What would we do?” asked Mrs. Valentine.
“You’ll have to keep him occupied while I search his place.”
“How do I do that? Can’t you keep him occupied?”
“Do you want to get your pretty hands dirty searching a stranger’s place for dope? And what if he locks his door on the way over? Can you pick a lock?”
“Of course not. I don’t know anything about your life. Shall I get dressed?”
“With that body? Don’t be dumb.”
“I’m not letting him put his hands on me.”
“Then use your hands on him. Distract him. Take control for once.”
“You’re a school teacher, not a holy temple,” said Billie. “You’re made of flesh like everybody else.” Standing up in the tub, Billie pushed the curtain aside and gestured across the airshaft with a clownish wink as she grabbed a towel from a wooden chair. Mrs. Valentine could see the face again, nodding, and her nerves caught fire. Billie dressed quickly, fished in the medicine cabinet for a thin metal fingernail file, then trotted to let the man in after his three eager taps at the door.
“I’ve gotta run, hon,” she said to Mrs. Valentine after winking at the man again. “You two don’t stay up all night.” She giggled as she let herself out the door.
After removing his hat, the man walked over to Mrs. Valentine, grinning with narrow crooked teeth. The ugly man lived in a shitty building.
“Wow, Sister, up close you’re even prettier than you look through that sooty window. I was just heading out for a cheap thrill on the street, but hello.” He measured her again. “I’m Buck. Where’s your gaycat off to? She’s a hot number. I see her down at the club.”
“She has a date.”
“Lucky mug.” he said. “Like me.”
Mrs. Valentine took his hand, surprising herself, her heart pounding. He’d better have an apartment full of dope.
In her bedroom, she offered Buck a slug of rye whiskey from the bottle Billie kept on the nightstand. After a long swallow, he startled her by unbuckling his belt and letting his trousers fall to the floor. Did she look like a whore to him? It’s what her husband had called her that day. She sat down on the bed, begging in her mind for Billie to return and kill this awful man. She took a swig from the whiskey bottle. Buck stood in front of her, sneering, ready to go.
“Lose the wrap, Sister. Let me look at you.”
Mrs. Valentine rolled the robe off her shoulders. Her skin burned with embarrassment. Pushing black curls out of her face with her free hand, she began to work on him. Not too fast. Give Billie time. Don’t look at it. She’d never done such a thing even once for her husband.
“Look at me,” he said.
She looked at him. He had blue eyes. They devoured her.
“Jesus,” Buck cried, bending over as he finished. It felt as if a bird had shat upon her heart. He buckled his pants. Tucked in his shirt. After setting the worn fedora on his head, he snapped his fingers and did a little dance of satisfaction. “I’m gonna broom on down to the club. You wanna join me for a drink?”
“I have to work in the morning.”
“What do you do? Teach school?” He laughed, not knowing she’d lost already lost her position. Stripping a dollar from a roll in his pocket, he threw it on the bed.
“I’m not a whore,” she said.
Buck laughed as left the bedroom.
Mrs. Valentine’s hand went to her throat as she thought of him catching Billie coming out of his apartment. But then she heard his shoes clattering on the stairs.
A few seconds passed before she saw Billie slip through the hallway door holding a paper sack. After turning the lock, she skipped to the bedroom, dumping the contents onto the bed.
“At least a hundred bindles of TNT. We’re rich. And a hundred in cash, too. Get your things together. We’ll find a hotel tonight, then a new place across town tomorrow. What a start.” She noticed the mess on Mrs. Valentine’s chest, then tossed her a handkerchief from the pocket of her jeans. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Mrs. Valentine blinked at the wall as she wiped herself. Love wasn’t supposed to be like this.
— Russell Thayer’s work has appeared in The Phoenix, Evening Street Review, Cirque, Close to the Bone, Bristol Noir, Apocalypse Confidential, Hawaii Pacific Review, Shotgun Honey, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, and Tough. He received his BA in English from the University of Washington, worked for decades at large printing companies, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana.