About two minutes after she started looking for it, the limo pulled past Ginger’s building and continued to the market at the end of the street where she met taxis and car services. She grabbed her coat and walked down the steps, exiting on the opposite side of her block, adding a few minutes to the walk. Her knee was almost one hundred percent but appreciated when she eased into activity. If she were wearing an athletic uniform, there would be a brace. But that wouldn’t fly with her evening’s work.
Physically, Ginger was back. But emotionally? Not so much. She wasn’t even enjoying sex. But a woman had to make a living. And this one knew no better way to get out of a funk than to soldier through it and trust that the right path forward would show itself.
The contractor had her flown to Dallas where she had a decision to make: Decimate her savings to have the knee done right, or spend the rest of her life not trusting a critical part of her body. She’d never had to ask “Mr. Charley” for anything. But this was the first time he didn’t find Ginger when she was in need. And nothing he could offer would help her get a grip on her own mind. A cold wind was whipping hair into her face and making her eyes tear. Three minutes on the street and she felt like she’d never be warm again.
Ginger figured her benefactor had let her go—which was fine. And fair. That he might be dead, however, made her sad. They had little direct interaction after she became an adult, but she loved him, and always knew the man was watching. He was like a grandfather, Ginger-style: the kind of guy who could just as easily bounce little kids on his lap as he could slow roast two assholes in an underground furnace. The much-mellowed blond was glad that she’d had enough sense not to bury three bodies in that hole at the bottom of the mountain. The savings she might have to spend was the accumulation of her years of living under the budgets he provided. She felt that it was his.
Still, Ginger had tried to be reachable. And hoped. Finally, an email arrived telling her to fly home to New York and see a specific doctor. Ginger was glad to know that he was still watching over her but promised herself that she would never need his help again.
There wasn’t much to be done about the scarring from Quito. At least that’s what the New York doctor had said. But he was probably under orders not to waste a dime on something as silly as the beautiful woman’s self-esteem. No matter. Like every other bummer in Ginger’s life, she embraced it. It was a sign of vulnerability to a would-be opponent, but having put that dream behind her, she now saw it as a badge of her invincibility.
The driver wished Ginger a good evening and closed the door behind her. It was unusual that she hadn’t vetted this client herself and she was nervous. He didn’t explain how he got her personal cell phone number, but she trusted everyone else who had it. Still, this was breaking one of the rules that had kept her safe in a dangerous line of work. Nevertheless, she accepted the invitation and took her chances. And anyway, as long as she was willing to make it a free meal for a free fuck, the only danger was what might happen behind the hotel room door. To the guy. Ginger’s confidence had returned even if her happy-go-lucky attitude hadn’t.
She arrived at the restaurant and was ushered back to a private room where a handsome man with the kind of hair that could put Just for Men out of business awaited her. He stood to shake her hand. He was a little taller and broader in the shoulders than average but still had to look up to meet her eyes.
“How do you do? I’m Michael Turner.” Now she had a name to go with the moniker—SaltnPeppa—she’d give him in her phone.
“I’m well, thank you…Kelly,” Ginger said.
They had a pleasant meal. Michael was friendly and polite. He kept the conversation moving and got Ginger chatting like she was with an old friend.
She used to have fun on her dates, one way or another. It was usually the romance and passion. Sometimes—when she was younger and an NYPD asset—it was the fun of sending some asshole home with a black eye to explain to the missus. But that was before. Despite her blues, however, Michael Turner managed to get her laughing and flirting like the old Ginger. And looking forward to whatever was to come. They clicked. When he mentioned his wife, it wasn’t with shame. He loved her. Ginger didn’t have any moral objections to screwing married men. She preferred the happily married ones; they tended not to take stupid risks and didn’t object to her strict rules about protection, even on the twentieth date.
It was over a shared cheesecake that the conversation veered into territory that threatened her improved mood.
“Kelly, I hope you won’t be too uncomfortable if I ask you some personal questions.”
“Not if you don’t mind making it an early night…” She laughed. If he was as sharp as she guessed he was, he’d stay on the right side of her line.
“I’ll be careful.” He offered her the last bite. She accepted. “I’ll just come out with it…This isn’t what you want to do, is it, for a living?”
Why do they think that getting paid to have no-strings sex with attractive men—on my fucking terms—is beneath me?
“I don’t know. It has its moments. I was having a good time. And the evening might not be a bust yet…”
“I’m sorry, there was no judgment in that question. I just have a sense that you’re capable of things that few people are. You never have to see me again, Kelly. Tell me, please, do you have any ambitions that this line of work won’t fulfill?”
Ginger thought about it. “I love the fun and flexibility in what I do now. And, the money is great.” She sipped at her remaining wine. Michael might be on his way off the fuck list, but something told her it was worth her time to answer his questions.
“Yes, I have been more fulfilled in the past. I wouldn’t mind a little more…purpose. Don’t laugh, but I’d like for my work to mean something to more than just me and my clients.”
“I understand that. You have to be pretty good at reading people, huh?”
“Pretty good. There are creeps out there. That’s why I rarely meet someone for a date unless I had an opinion of him before he knew what I do.”
“What can you tell about me?”
She’d play along. “Middle-aged guy with money…You love your wife, which is pretty common…and you’re not with me because some need isn’t being filled…Also, not unusual.”
“That’s it? Come on, show off! What do I do for work?”
Challenge accepted. “You’re confident…friendly…Sales maybe. Everyone’s selling something, right?…No, but…management. Former military, definitely…But now?…You’re retired…You don’t work, but you keep busy. I’d need more information to go much deeper.”
“Former military, yes. But more like law enforcement. Not at all like you’d think, though. Or that impressive a guess…” Michael asked her with his eyes and then ordered Ginger another glass of wine from the waiter who arrived and disappeared in an instant. “…Actually, I’m winding down. I will be retiring soon, whether I like it or not.”
“Oh, congratulations…I think.”
“Not my choice.”
“Well, then I’m sorry,” Ginger said.
He gave her a sad grin. “Not as sorry as Jackie, my wife. But she doesn’t know yet.”
Ginger considered this. “The missus going to have a hard time with you around the house all the time?”
“No, nothing like that. I’ll be retiring…permanently.” He emphasized the point by looking straight at her.
What’s your play here, buddy? Sympathy?
“Permanently, permanently?” He nodded. “I’m sorry, Michael. I…”
“It’s not your fault!…But it does bring us to the purpose behind my intrusive questioning…The suddenness of it all means that I’m going to have to put a lot of affairs in order. The business matters won’t be a problem. What I can’t do is make sure Jackie has everything she needs. That’s where you come in.”
Huh? “You lost me there, Michael.”
He imitated Mr. Hale’s 1930’s radio announcer voice:
“Well, I’ll tell you, Kelly. I’ve walked into some pretty dangerous situations in my day, but approaching that wild-eyed girl with the Colt in her hand was up there, Kelly!”
Ginger almost choked on her wine. She stared at him with the same wild eyes Mr. Charley–Mr. Hale–met, minus the meth. The first thought through her mind was, I wish I had that Colt right now.
He smiled at her. “Mr. Hale was like a father to me…Jackie is his daughter.”
The shock was too great to conceal. In just a few words, Ginger learned her benefactor’s last name, understood that the man was dead and that his son-in-law was here to collect on her second life’s debt.
“It’s OK, Ginger. I’m not here to take anything away from you. I’m sorry for the subterfuge…Mr. Hale asked me to continue looking out for you, and I have…How’s the knee?”
“I…I don’t know what to say.”
“From what I understand, that doesn’t happen often.”
“When did he…?” she started to ask.
“Oh, God, that’s horrible…I wish I knew.” Though her heart was broken, she didn’t do grief in public, certainly not on a date. Ginger was still Kelly, and, therefore, not thinking big picture. “…You want me to keep your widow…entertained?”
Michael just looked at her. She interpreted it as, “Use your fuckin’ head.”
“You’re going to need to help me out here…What is it you want from me?” she asked.
Michael had no idea. He’d lost his train of thought. This meeting needed to end soon. Ginger…Charley Hale…Jackie…And then, just as suddenly, he remembered what they were talking about. Ginger didn’t notice the lapse, she was having trouble moving on herself.
“…She is going to be navigating some tricky waters. She’ll need a friend,” he said.
He nodded. “…A friend…with your particular set of skills.”
Her confusion wasn’t lifting. Did he mean her fucking or professional skills? Or both?
To get her back on track, Michael reminded her that he wasn’t asking a favor. The details didn’t matter, he was informing her how her immediate future was going to go.
“You would continue on our payroll, of course.”
Ginger raised an eyebrow. Hell of a way to make an intro, Patrone. His use of the conditional was about as endearing as Rex’s “consent.”
“You want me to work for her?”
“In a nutshell, yes.” He continued to measure his words. “Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Isn’t it always in our world?”
Our world. Our world. She had to give him credit. He knew the right buttons to push. And managed to convey that she’d better be as careful with her words as he was. Michael was a shot caller, just like Mr. Charley, minus the bond that cleaning up someone else’s dead bodies incurs.
“OK, ‘in a nutshell,’ can you explain the need?”
“Jackie’s not one of us…My death is going to be quite a blow. She’ll need time, and guidance, to get back on her feet. And, she’s going to need a friend.”
Repeating it doesn’t clarify your meaning, S&P. But Ginger had enough sense to realize that she was at risk of trying his patience. She also understood that, once again, she didn’t have any choice but to smile and play along. And anyway, he is dying.
In the back of her mind, she cheered. A drastic change was needed and this was it. She asked, “What’s our next step?”
Michael didn’t gloat. His demeanor never changed. He had accomplished his goal, as expected. “You come meet her in DC. You’ll be moving to Boston when I’m gone.”
She liked DC. She loved Boston. “Can you give me a few days?”
“How about a week?”
He reached into an unseen bag on his far side and pulled out a gift wrapped package the size of a brick and slid it across the table.
“I’m headed back tomorrow morning…”
Kelly responded for Ginger, “Can I show you the sights?” Comma, boss?
“I’m not dead yet, beautiful!” he said with a smile. “But…I’ll take what hopefully amounts to a rain check…I think you are going to like Jackie.”
He stood and extended a hand to help Ginger out of her seat. Once on her feet, he said, “Goodnight,” and gestured for her to lead the way out of the room, gift in hand. When they stepped outside into the cold evening air, the same limo was waiting for her. Michael walked away without another word.
Ginger waited until she was back in her tiny studio apartment to open the gift: $20,000 in cash. Not a bad night’s work. But before she could think about that or her new assignment, she needed a good cry. See ya, Mr. Charley.