Cold, bitter cold, like a nail driving into the bone above the bridge of the nose. New York cold, hard angles and wrought iron, like a stoop being swung into your face.
Cold that bit the hands the minute they left their coat pockets, that iced the blood and jammed up the works of a human being. Cold that turned headphone cords into overnight gum. Cold that peeled paint and papered skin, that reached down the back of a man’s hood and grabbed his neck like a mean cop on a long shift. Violent, inexorable, sociopathic cold, carried on the wind like hate.
Cobra O’Connor marched up 4th Avenue, face turned to the wind, hood drawn. The storm was bad, but being late was worse. To him, punctuality was a basic human virtue, an expression of a man’s word proving true to his intentions. He couldn’t stand the late, those people who said a time but meant a half-hour later, their actual time of arrival spreading out from their promise like an angel’s wing. Careless jack-offs who expected you to enjoy a drink alone like some cretin while they dawdled about finding their shoes and planning routes and lackadaisically doing what they should’ve done hours ago. What was a man’s word worth if he couldn’t say something and mean it, be there, make the effort?
But here he was, one of the assholes. His take-out had taken forever to get there, and he’d argued with the Mexican who brought it, trying to explain his building’s intercom system. He’d wolfed down the burger and Coke with his eye on the clock, and barreled out into the cold without layering up properly.
Now he motored up the grey tongue of 4th Avenue, his joints stiffening, his every breath a stab beneath his leather jacket, while the cold ripped through him like a hail of bullets.
He closed his parched eyes and thought of Kara, thought of her soft, quick eyes. Her mouth, that made every smile an inside joke and every laugh an escape. He imagined her face, naturally breath-taking and sly, and her heart, impossibly honest. He thought of the women he knew like her, then remembered there were none. She never said ‘Oh my God’ needlessly or chewed ice in front of him or talked shit about his buddies she didn’t really know.
This was the date, if he could pull it off. The one where he would tell her about the pain he felt without her, pain like the cold.
He glanced at his cell phone—seven sixteen. She’d be there at eight. Two appointments, both local. He could do this.
He cut left at 15th Street and wandered past 3rd Avenue, the roaring intestine of the BQE overhead and alongside. He passed endless flat grey block buildings with no house doors, only garage doors and driveway gates, passed two groups of hoodied Latinos who eyed him, and then reached 2nd Avenue, and the gray door, which was thankfully propped open by a squat man with a square head and a goatee smoking a cigarette.
“What up, man,” said the thick man, opening the door.
“What up,” said O’Connor, walking past him.
He wandered down the bright blue-white hallway. Scuffed grey doors flanked him on either side, each one bearing a heavy padlock. He found Door 6 unlocked, vibrating with bass. He cracked it to the whine of feedback.
The room was dusty, walled with grey beehive foam insulation and humming with gear. Shane and Tim looked up from their tuners and grinned. Elena waved from her perch against her amp. Warp nodded at him from behind the kit at his side. “What up, Cobra.”
“Not a lot, man,” he said, trying to blow the cold out of his hands. “Thanks so much for doing this, by the way.”
“No problem, man,” said Shane. Standing, his guitar hung over his belly and sat atop it like a hat. “Can you hang around a bit, listen to some stuff?”
“Afraid not, man,” said Cobra. “Just need to get the keys and go.”
“How’s the new guitarist working out?” asked Tim.
He didn’t have fucking time for this. “He’s cool, man. Spacey, jammy. Sorry, keys?”
“Yo, Cobra, you got the rent?” called Elena.
“Uh, not right now on me,” he said, reaching for the wallet he knew was empty. “You need it right now?”
She raised a pierced eyebrow. “That’s usually how it works. Keys for rent.”
“That’s the padlock,” said Shane, handing him the keys, “and the small one’s the front door. Careful, it sticks sometimes. There’s an ATM around the block.”
Back out into the cold, the BQE hanging over him like a steel tidal wave. He power-walked over to 14th and back up to 3rd Avenue, where a hotel, of all things, bore a sign reading ‘ATM.’ Why, he wondered, motoring towards it, would anyone stay here if they were in from out of town? Was it because they were so close to the cemetery? Was this hotel, he thought as he smiled at the check-in woman and jabbed his ATM card into the blue-gray pod, entirely filled with foreign mourners who just needed somewhere to watch TV and forget?
His watch caught his eye. 7:31. Forget it. Get moving. He had one more appointment after this, and then Chiara. He could do this. He wouldn’t let her see him late.
Back on the block, his hands were numb by the time he saw the shape coming towards him. He yanked his hood down, flew to the studio door. Fumbled with his keys, dropped them. Picked them back up and tried to force electric sensation through the mushroom of his hand. He had the key in the door, and he twisted it—
“Cobra,” the oily voice said.
And it stuck.
Cobra turned slowly and took in Prestige’s wide toadish mouth smirking down at him. The man’s smile, brilliant white, shone out of his deep black face, while his eyes simmered bloodshot overhead. His goons Pete and Mitchell stood by him, black and Japanese respectively but basically interchangeable.
“Cobra, my man,” oozed Prestige, “I believe you have an appointment with a friend of ours.”
“I just gotta take care of something,” he sighed. Hopelessness seeped through him. The cold felt like it was trying to eat him alive. “I’ll be right back out.”
“Nah, man, you come with me,” said Prestige. He swept a deadly arm over Cobra’s shoulders, bringing him down 2nd Avenue. The arm felt warm compared to the cold by his gut. The goons hung back. “How’ve you been, O’Connor? Seems like you never call us anymore. I almost forgot what you looked like. Almost.”
“I’m trying to get out, man,” he said. “I’m in a band. We’re pretty good.”
“Is that right,” said Prestige, as though rewarding a child. “What kind of music.”
“You wouldn’t like it.”
Cobra walked in perfect step with the gangster, knowing exactly where they were heading. They turned the corner, walked thirty paces back towards 3rd Avenue, and turned into the gate of 725 13th Street. A man smoked by the entrance and nodded to Prestige, who said, “Yeah.”
The building had a small courtyard between the gate and the front door. There were always people there. When the gate locked, the eight stories of concrete that stretched up on all sides of it were set up in such a way that sound virtually disappeared, fired out into space to echo through time.
Cobra O’Connor looked up at the sky, inky with night but starless. The buildings had heard a lot by now, thought Cobra, knowing this courtyard. A lot of shots and screams and childish laughs from curled mouths.
Inside, they walked a long dimly-lit hallway to a small dimly-lit office on the ground floor, where a man in a black collared shirt sat behind a desk, reading something on his laptop. His rat’s eyes took in his two new guests, and his tattooed hand brushed at his stubble. After they entered, he lazily shook a cigarette from the soft pack on his desk and lit it.
“How is it out there?” he said softly.
“Brick as Hell,” said Prestige.
“Yeah,” said the man. He perused the web a moment longer, then looked up at O’Connor.
“Thought we were meeting tonight,” he said.
“I was on my way,” said Cobra. “I texted you I’d be a little late. I swear, Max, I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Max’s brow lowered down over his eyes like a stern dad who’s heard a lie. Then, he nodded. “I believe you, O’Connor. Just didn’t think ‘late’ meant this late.”
“I had to run an errand,” he said.
“Over at the studio,” said Prestige. “Our boy Cobra’s got a band now.”
“That right?” asked Max. “What kind of music?”
“I want to get out,” blurted O’Connor. He felt the cold in his voice, radiating up from his coat. “My band and I, we’re pretty good. We have a chance to get signed, I think. We’ve got some shows lined up and everything.”
“So you were looking out for the band,” said Max. He tugged lightly at his tie. “Doing what at the studio? First month’s rent?”
Cobra nodded, reluctant, unsure of Max’s mood, his direction, what he was on.
After a moment longer, Max shook his head. “And the last month’s rent, I’m afraid. Sorry, Cobra. You know I’d like to help you out. But listen.”
“Max, look, I’ve done everything,” said Cobra. He could feel the thickness of his interrupting Max in the air, the impropriety, the outrage. He didn’t care. “I sold the goods, I met with the guys. I took care of it. Please. I’m not asking you to forget what happened, but please. I can’t keep doing this. I’m done. I wish you all the best—”
“You hear that?” said Max. His voice, low and calm, sliced clean through Cobra’s frantic plea. “He wishes us all the best. He’s a well-wisher.”
“If only that worked,” said Prestige.
“You ever tried it?” laughed Max. “Just wishing me well?”
“Never,” chuckled Prestige. “Never came to mind.”
“I’m a fair guy!” said Max.
“Yeah, okay,” said Prestige.
The gangsters laughed, thick swampy guffaws that they saved for these moments, when their laughter meant something to somebody else. That, Cobra knew, was the only time they laughed. When it was effective, when it got results and made an impression. They weren’t happy, they were working.
“Sorry,” said Max. “Another time, maybe, and we’d let you go. But kid, with this economy, with how much you owe us…I just can’t see it happening.” He siged. “Let’s talk in a year. For now, I have an assignment for you. But before we get to that, I’d like to see this rent money.” Max extended a hand. “Your band will have to wait. I get first pick. You know that.”
Cobra O’Connor felt the dank, dark room bearing down on him, Hell, the whole building, a mile of concrete and steel forcing its way onto his shoulders. Max burned in front of him, an irritant without a cure, while Prestige throbbed at his back, all muscle and orders, unmoving and uncaring. He felt the band outside, somewhere, wondering why he hadn’t brought them the rent. His future was a road block, a wall to the outside world sealed tightly without a top in sight.
“Okay,” he said softly. “Let me get it.” He reached into his coat, and felt cold.
His hand flicked out and pulled the trigger at the same time. Max’s eyes barely went wide before the thunderclap filled the room and his brains shattered across the wall behind him.
Cobra spun on his heel as Prestige began lifting himself from the couch and pulling his Colt Python, but the barrel was too long, made the gun all about the reveal and not the draw. He only had enough time to begin his exlamation—“MOTHER”—before Cobra squeezed the cold twice, sending two red bows whipping out of Prestige’s chest. A white flash of teeth appeared in his confused sneer, and then he sat back on the couch, his body shuddering a surrender.
Breathing heavy, Cobra pocketed the cold lump, now full of stinging heat, and turned to the door, but then he froze, turned back, and approached Max’s slumped body. He pulled open a drawer in the desk and found wad after wad of twenties and hundredss, carefully arranged. He snatched three stacks of hundreds, then went for the door, through the courtyard, and back out into the blade-like cold.
Back in the studio, the band accepted his money, though their greeting was less warm, less welcoming; in fact, they all seemed to understand in some basic animal way that the money being handed to them was gained the bad way. By the time he had handed off the cash, it was 7:54.
“You good?” Elena said.
“I’m fine,” said Cobra, his hands vibrating wildly.
“You hear those shots, man?” said Shane.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s Brooklyn, man. Look, I’ve got somewhere I need to be.”
He motored up to 4th Avenue and held his hand up for a cab as he sped to the 9th Street station, hoping to beat his watch. No taxis appeared, but an R train blew into the station just as he descended the stairs, and he boarded it with a gorge in his throat. He arrived at Pacific Street at 8:02, hoping desperately that he had made it in time, that Kara wasn’t, God forbid, early.
As he reached the sharp forcing cold of the sidewalk, his phone buzzed. She would be late, she professed. She hoped he wouldn’t mind. He paced the sidewalk with a sob in his throat for a few minutes, then headed over the Flatbush to find a place to sit down and have a coffee.