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All characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
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Belle waited a moment as she closed the door behind her. The interior of the theater seemed dark compared to the brightness of the sidewalk outside. It looked different in the light of day, less magical. The seats were scratched, the carpet worn and dust motes swam in the afternoon light like fireflies. In a few hours it would be transformed to a place of beauty, color and wonder. But for now Belle stood in the back, an interloper, uneasy as she searched for Sina.
She had been to a vaudeville show once during her student days. The acts had seemed so effortless, so natural onstage but now she watched as the performers labored and rehearsed. Half a dozen chorus girls practiced their steps on one end of the stage while a pianist at an upright played the same melody over and over again. A team of acrobats was arguing with the trainer of a dog act, unhappy to be following animals onstage and questioning the definition of the term trained. Otto was upstage, showing Sofia the dozens of secret pockets hidden in the formal clothes he wore. Somewhere a singer was practicing scales and the sound of it clashed with the curses of Fred as he tested the ropes that worked the curtain and found them wanting.
Finally she spotted her friend sitting on the edge of the orchestra pit, talking to a young teenaged boy who held his violin tightly under his arm. Belle almost laughed as she watched them. Sina was stern, laying down the law, and the boy stood nodding his head and taking in every word as he had heeded no sermon before in his life.
"...on time every night. No excuses. Everyone is depending on you, the performers, the other musicians, and you'd better not let them down. Especially the people in the audience. They spend their hard earned money to see this show. Don't disappoint them. Remember, no matter how many times you play a song, someone out there will be hearing it for the first time. You play for that one person and then you'll do all right."
He nodded vigorously and stared at her, dumbstruck.
"And another thing. I don't want to see you in those kid knickers again. If you're going to earn a man's pay, you'd better dress like one. Go see Mabel the wardrobe mistress downstairs and tell her I sent you. She's got a pair of long pants for you and you wear those when you come to work."
His eyes widened with wonder. It was too good to be true - his first job and his first pair of honest to god long pants. He struggled to keep from smiling but his face shone with the joy of it.
Sina spotted Belle and got to her feet. "All right, Lenny. Anyone gives you trouble, you come see me. And remember, if your schoolwork goes downhill, they'll be getting themselves another fiddle player. No booze, no cards and you stay away from those chorus girls."
He started to thank her and he grabbed her hand and shook it with such excitement that Sina's head bobbed up and down. "All right, Lenny. You're welcome. Now go see Mabel." Sina turned to Belle with a smile as Lenny scurried away. "Hello Belle. What brings you here?"
"That's the kid who lives across the street, isn't it? You got him a job?"
Sina shrugged. "I got him in the door. Whether he keeps the job is up to him. He's a good kid. And he's talented. He can use the experience and the money won't hurt. Right now his family doesn't have a pot to..." Sina's words faded as she sat down in one of the seats and gestured to Belle to join her.
"I didn't know that the theater provided clothes for the musicians. I thought that was just for certain performers." Belle sat back against the velvet cushions.
Sina shrugged again. "You'd be surprised what you can find just lying around backstage. Anyhow, what's going on?"
Belle began. "I was in Little Italy today. There's a measles epidemic and I went to help out. Anyhow, I found out some things, some things about Ari."
Sina's eyes narrowed and she nodded for Belle to continue.
"He's found himself a partner. Eduardo Gambini."
Sina sat up suddenly. "Gambini? Ari is involved with The Black Hand?"
Belle nodded. "The woman who told me called it the Mafia but I guess it's the same thing. Ari got thirty thousand dollars in insurance money after the charges were dropped. He'd already bought another old sweatshop not far from the one that burned down. And word on the street is he's using the rest to go into business with Gambini. What do you think?"
Sina pursed her lips and leaned against the back of the seat. "Ari's a fool. Gambini doesn't need a partner and if he did, it wouldn't be a Greek. The Black Hand likes to keep it all in the family. It sounds more like they want into the neighborhood. Ari's just the front man. They must want to spread out."
Belle was heartsick. "So Ari will buy more sweatshops."
Sina shook her head. "No. That's not enough to keep them happy. Gambini controls the rackets, prostitution, money lenders. That's what's heading our way. Ari's just a greedy opportunist who's going to hand it all over to him." She got up. "He's got to be stopped. And this time I do it my way."
Belle looked at her and her expression was set, almost detached as it had been in the darkened corridor when Anton and she had fought. Belle was suddenly afraid. She knew that Sina was capable of violence, maybe capable of killing. She had been puzzled by Sina's silence when Sofia had proclaimed her relief that Anton was dead. Sina had denied killing him and Belle wanted to believe, had to believe her.
But Ari was another story. He had the power to do greater harm than Anton ever had. And he had been her lover once. Under it all, surely there was an undercurrent of pain and resentment there that Belle could only guess at. She had seen enough of the world to know that the deepest hurts always come from those who first say I love you.
Belle had stopped her once before when Anton had lain on the hallway floor seconds from death. When the rage had overcome her Sina had paused at the sound of her voice and turned away. Perhaps Belle could help her contain that rage once again. "Count me in."
"No, I don't want to involve you. The less you know the better." Sina was adamant.
Belle stood up beside her. "You can't do it all by yourself. We're in this together. Tell me what your plan is."
"No, Belle. Please. You may not like some of the things I have to do. The courts couldn't handle him before. The laws can't touch him."
Belle looked into Sina's eyes and smiled. "If you recall, I've broken the law before without any help from you. And I'm ready to do it again. Some of those girls died in my arms, Sina. And for what? We have to do what's right. He has to be stopped. In my heart I know it's the right thing to do."
For a moment Sina's blue eyes looked into her own but Belle's green eyes were steady and unflinching. Finally Sina's face broke into a smile and she nodded. "All right, my friend. We're in this together." She looked up to the top of the spiral staircase as there was a flurry of footsteps above the stage. "But let's go back to the apartment and talk about it there."
And as she opened the door to the street, they heard Otto muttering as he stormed out of his dressing room. Sina quickly pulled Belle by the arm and out of the theater as Otto leaned over the banister and shouted, "Sina, come back here! Where the hell are my pants?"
It's my first party, Belle thought. When she had arrived in New York she had been truly alone for the first time in her life and now, a year later, she was surrounded by friends, good friends. There were not nearly enough chairs and instead they good naturedly sat on the floor and laughed and talked with one another as the smell of fresh brewed coffee filled the room.
Sven and Simon had been the first to arrive. Sven had taken one look at her couch and plopped himself down on the floor, more confident of its support. Simon bustled around the kitchen, in search of a knife to cut the bagels he had brought from "the best deli in New York." Otto and Sofia had arrived shortly after them and sat with their heads together in one corner of the room. Only Mel stood apart, standing at the window, waiting until he saw the big black Buick pull up to the curb.
And within minutes she stood beside him and began to lay out her plan. There was a hush as she finished until finally Simon spoke.
"You're going to take on the Black Hand? I don't know Sina. That's pretty risky, even for you." He looked nervous, unsure.
"No, Simon, I'm not taking on the Black Hand. We're going to stop Ari and we're just going to use the Black Hand to do it. Ari's made a lot of money taking advantage of innocent children and helpless immigrants. Well, he's a piker compared to Gambini and his crew. He's in over his head and he doesn't even know it yet. Well, we're going to make sure that he finds out. It's Gambini he's going to have to worry about, not us. And that would have happened sooner or later anyhow. We're just making it happen sooner." She looked around at their faces and prayed it would be as safe as she planned. "But it won't be easy to do. If anyone wants to pull out now, I won't blame you. Things could go wrong, there's always the chance there could be trouble."
Otto waved his cup in the air in a theatrical salute. "I for one wouldn't miss it for the world. Time for a little excitement before we get too old and settled."
Sven looked at Sina and nodded his support. "I'm in."
Simon shrugged. "You need a good booking agent, I'm your man."
Mel stood by the window silently and then smiled at Sina. "Just tell me what you want me to do. That's all I have to know."
She smiled. "It's Ari's greed that got him into this. It's money we'll use to break him." She turned to Simon first. "You spend a lot of time at that moving picture studio in Jersey. How well do you know this Mack Sennett?"
"Well enough for him to owe me twenty bucks. He had me pick up a truckload of cream pies last week and he still owes me. Must have been a party or something. What do you do with a truckload of cream pies?"
"Think he'd lend you a few costumes one night?" Sina was smiling now, sure of herself. "We need cop uniforms. Mabel only has two."
Belle's was smiling, fidgety like a little child with a secret. "Sina and I have been checking out some leads. You know the Szabo Printshop? Well, he's pretty prosperous considering no one ever goes in there. Brand new delivery truck, spiffy dresser, little pinky ring. Well, that's because he's printing more than wedding invitations. He's making twenty dollar bills in the back room. Sina got some handbills run off for the theater and sure enough he palmed one off on her with the change." Belle's face was impish, mischievous. "He doesn't know it yet but the police are about to end his life of crime."
Sina smiled at Simon. "You, Otto, Sven and Mel are going on a raid," Sina said and her eyes danced with amusement.
Mel fingered the collar of the scratchy woolen uniform as he sat on the settee in Sina's apartment. They were never going to get away with this. Sennett's police uniforms were of a style at least ten years earlier than that worn by New York policemen. In addition, Sven's was too tight and Otto's was too big. Simon's fit pretty well but he was so nervous that he looked more like a criminal that a law officer. As luck would have it, Mel had been a perfect fit for the sergeant's uniform.
"Get rid of the belts." Sina eyed them critically. "And the hats. They're a dead giveaway." She walked around them, like a cautious shopper examining the wares at an open air bazaar. "There. That's better." She walked around a little more. "What do you think, Sofia?"
"Will be okay. I use a pair of Anton's pants. The color is right. Just try them on." She opened up a cotton sack and produced four policemen's caps that looked more authentic than the stiff old fashioned ones Simon had brought. " I make this afternoon. Was Anton's favorite pair of pants." She made snipping motions with her fingers and giggled girlishly.
"All you need now are the finishing touches." Belle handed each of them a pair of handcuffs. "Courtesy of Otto." Then she brought out the heavy nightsticks from the box Simon had brought and stepped back to see the final effect. "It'll have to do."
Mel held the stick in his hand, felt the weight of it and shook his head remembering how Sina's body had bent under the force of one just like it. He was glad she would not be a warrior tonight but rather a general sending volunteers out on a raid to the enemy camp. He was lost in thought when he felt Sina at his arm. "What did you say?"
"I said, be careful. I don't want anything happening to you." She looked at him and then added, almost as an afterthought, "Any of you." She turned to address the others. "Don't take any chances. I'm more afraid of you bumping into real policemen than I'm afraid of Lorenz Szabo. Just make it short and sweet, all right?"
And so it was that well after midnight they found themselves at the rear door of the Szabo Printshop. They huddled behind Mel as he pounded on the door. "Police. Open up."
There was no response and they looked at one another nervously.
Mel pounded again. "Police. Open up now!" He was about to kick the door when he heard the scuffle of feet and Lorenz Szabo opened it.
He was a thin man and his Adam's apple bobbed nervously in his throat as he let them in. "What do you want with me?" He was fully dressed, as if he had just come in from a night on the town. Belle's description had been accurate , for he was clothed in the height of fashion and there was a trace of the dandy about him. He wore a tailored suit and shining white spats. His hair was slicked down with brilliantine and Mel knew that no moustache on earth would hold that shape without the aid of wax and plenty of it.
"What's going on?" He watched nervously as Sven, Simon and Otto began to ransack the small room behind the store. It was only a matter of moments before Otto shouted "Got it!" and produced a cardboard box filled with counterfeit money. "There must be ten grand in here."
"My life savings," Szabo said. "It's not against the law to keep your own money safe at home, is it?" He eyed the box in Otto's hands and his face began to turn red.
"I see you only save new twenty dollar bills. Why is that, Szabo? Are they just easier to count?" Mel was beginning to enjoy himself. Maybe Sina and Otto were not the only ones with theatrical flair around here. "Charge is counterfeiting and this goes with us as evidence." He pulled out a pair of Otto's cuffs and motioned to Sven to guard the door.
Then there was a commotion on the stairs leading from the shop to the Szabo home. "I knew it! I told you!" Mrs. Szabo stood at the foot of the stairs. She was short and solid and furious. "I told you you wouldn't get away with it for long. I told him." She turned and shook her finger in Mel's face and he stepped back in surprise. "How did you find out?"
Mel looked at Simon, Simon looked at Otto, Otto looked Sven and Sven just crossed his arms across his chest. Mel tried to look authoritative as his mind raced.
"It was your cousin. It was his cousin, wasn't it?" She looked at Simon for confirmation. He nodded. "He wants a player piano. The damned fool can't play a real one but he wants to impress his fancy girlfriend. I told you not to give him anything. He can't be trusted. We should only spend one or two bills at a time and never in the same place, I said. But no, you have to go give him money. You should have listened to me. That fancy girlfriend of his. The three of you, worthless. You and your damn family. I've had to put up with them all these years. And now look. He gets the piano and you face the music."
Szabo hissed out of the side of his mouth, "Gertrude, shut up."
"Don't you tell me to shut up, Lorenz. This was all your idea in the first place." She looked at the four of them and decided that Mel was the man in charge. "Look, let's talk this over. My Lorenz is not a vicious criminal. Stupid maybe but not vicious. He prints a little money, nobody gets hurt. You put him in jail and what good does it do anybody? Me and the babies end up in the poorhouse is all. You want that on your conscience? What do you say we see if we can work something out?"
Szabo hissed again, "Gertrude, shut up. You're going to get me in worse trouble."
But Mel inwardly sighed with relief. Sina had told him to demand a bribe so that they wouldn't have to make an arrest but this was even better. "What did you have in mind, Mrs. Szabo?"
"Policemen don't get paid much. Maybe we can show our appreciation for how you protect the neighborhood so good." She scanned their faces and sighed with relief when she saw Otto smile.
"Give us the plates." Mel was stern, commanding. "Then we talk."
Szabo handed them over and glared at his wife. "How much?" he asked. "What do you want?"
Now Otto took over. "Do we look as stupid as your cousin? We're not taking any money from you. The ink is probably still wet. Empty out your pockets."
Szabo hesitated, puzzled and then started to place his belongings on the table.
"That's better," Otto said. There was a gold cigarette case, a matching lighter and a number of silver dollars. "Now take off those cuff links. And the watch. And the watch fob."
Lorenz Szabo looked like he was going to cry. One by one he placed each item on the table and fingered its gold plating as he left it there.
"Now the ring." Otto was relentless. Almost. "No, not your wedding ring. The other one."
Szabo added his pinkie ring to the pile. "That's all I have."
Otto was putting the jewelry into his pocket while Mel motioned for Simon and Sven to head for the door.
"Not quite. That's gabardine, isn't it? Take off your pants." Otto sat on the edge of the table.
"My pants? You're joking." Lorenz Szabo was aghast.
"Shut up, Lorenz," his wife said. "Take off the damned pants and let them get out of here."
"All right, all right." He slipped off the trousers and stood there, resplendent in starched white shirt, natty white spats, white cotton drawers and black braces. "Satisfied?"
Otto folded the trousers over his arm. "Yes."
Mel cautioned Szabo. "You mention this to anyone and we'll be back. And we'll be back angry, understand?"
Szabo looked at Sven and nodded. It seemed the danger was past. They would leave now and all would be peaceful again.
Then he caught the look in his wife's eyes.
Mel maneuvered the Buick through the deserted streets back to Sina's apartment and laughed in triumph. Otto and Simon were whooping like schoolboys and even Sven chuckled as they sped along.
"What do you think, Simon? This would probably fit Sofia." Otto held up the pinkie ring and examined it in the glow of the streetlights.
"Forget it, Otto." Simon shook his head and admired the cuff links that he held in his own hand. "It's as good as stolen. If I know Sina, she's not going to let you keep it."
Otto sighed. "I love Sina but her honesty is a little irritating sometimes." He put the ring back in his pocket. "But I'm keeping the pants." His tone was resolute, determined.
"She owes me."
Sina had broken out the brandy as Otto and Simon took turns telling the tale of the Great Szabo Raid. Simon did a passable portrayal of Mrs. Szabo and when Otto described how they had left Lorenz shivering in his underwear, Belle laughed until the tears came. Mel sat on the floor by Sina's chair, drinking in her laughter along with the brandy.
"All right, Otto. If ever a man deserved a pair of gabardine pants, it's you." She finished counting the money and sat back in wonder. "You know, Szabo is pretty good. It's hard to tell these are bogus. It's a wonder he doesn't get more legitimate work. Maybe he should be an engraver instead of a printer."
"How much, Sina?"
"Ten thousand dollars, give or take a twenty or two. More than enough." She looked pleased and nodded her head as she spoke.
"Now what?" Otto was sitting on the edge of his chair, as excited as a boy about to skip school for a day.
"Then comes the hard part." Sina sipped her brandy and settled down in her seat. "I know Ari. He's bound to throw a party to celebrate this new venture. Ari loves parties, he's famous for them. He likes to rub elbows with rich people and he's going to want to impress Gambini. That means plenty of food and after that, some kind of entertainment. That's where you come in, Simon. You're going to get us all into that party, one way or another. Entertainers, waitresses, bartenders, any way we can get into his home. Think you can do that?"
"Sure. Once I tell him you're willing to perform, Ari will jump at the chance."
"Then it'll be Otto's turn. Ari's wall safe is hidden behind a mirror in his bedroom. That insurance money is there, I'm sure of it. Ari doesn't trust banks. He likes his money where he can see it. So Otto breaks in and swaps our phony bills for the real thing."
Mel shook his head. "Ari knows Otto. He can't just saunter upstairs in the middle of a party. Somebody will notice."
"We'll keep him out of sight until the very last minute. He goes in through the window. No ladder, no ropes. We just need somebody who can climb to the first floor windowsill and then give Otto a boost up to the second floor." Sven smiled and made a circle with his thumb and forefinger. "And I'll take care of Ari. I just have to keep him distracted, that's all. Once we've made the swap, it's only a matter of time before Ari hands over the cash to Gambini and it won't take long for him to discover the money is no good." Sina's eyes were cold and her voice low as she added. "Nobody welshes on Eduardo Gambini. Count on it."
Sofia was speechless. She stood in the kitchen dressed in her black maid's uniform and looked around her in wonder. Belle tugged at her arm and led her to a relatively quiet corner.
"You'll be fine. There's nothing to be nervous about. Just pass the tray around and let them take what they want. When it's empty come back here for another."
"I'm not nervous. Is okay. Just I never see so much food in all my life. In my whole village back home is not so much food, even on holy days." She shook her head in wonder. "What you call this?"
"It's an éclair. That goes out later. With the coffee. It's for dessert." Belle sliced more roast beef and watched as Sofia eyed the trays.
"It is too pretty to eat. You think maybe I can take one home for Otto? Maybe I take one for Mrs. Murphy and her little boy too. Too much food for them to eat at one time. It's a sin to waste food, yes?" She smiled at Belle, pleased at the prospect of sharing her loot.
Belle sighed. "Sofia, we're here to work, not to go shopping. Otto is waiting outside with Sven. You can feed him later. Just keep your eye on Ari. If it looks like he's heading upstairs, let one of us know. Mel is opening champagne bottles at the bar and Simon is helping the musicians set up. Tell me if you see Sina arrive, all right?"
Sofia hefted a tray and with a wink disappeared through the kitchen doors.
Sina had been right. Ari was famous for his parties and deservedly so. There were at least forty guests and almost as many servants and hired help to assure that they had enough to eat and drink. A string quartet played softly as they dined on roast beef, quail and sole and the champagne flowed into crystal glasses that sparkled as the guests lifted them in the soft glow of the candles that graced each table.
Ari sat at the head table beside the guest of honor, Eduardo Gambini. Belle peeked outside the kitchen door for a look at the pair of them. Ironic that two men who had caused such pain and misery should be so polished, so attractive. Ari was dressed in a stylish black suit, his dark hair and moustache in stark contrast to the stunning whiteness of his shirt. He seemed relaxed, the gracious host, but Belle watched and noted that his eyes traveled the room, anxious that there be no mistakes, no awkwardness to mar the impression he wished to make on his new partner.
And Gambini seemed impressed. He was a small slight Sicilian, as impeccably clothed as Ari. He looked more like a businessman or a successful lawyer than the boss of a dangerous crime syndicate but Belle reminded herself that he did not wield the weapons but merely gave orders to those who did. There were a number of his henchmen mingling with the guests now, keeping a watchful eye on their padrone. Belle was uneasy as she saw them milling about in the crowded dining room. She did not know if Sina had anticipated their presence and wondered what effect this would have on their plan.
She retreated into the kitchen as she heard someone whisper her name. Sina had entered, wrapped in a dark cloak and she beckoned to her now. She seemed keyed up and Belle could not tell if she shared her nervousness or if she were just anxious for the game to begin.
"Sina, Gambini has at least four bodyguards with him." She leaned against a table and felt herself relax as Sina smiled at her.
"I figured as much. There are two more outside. But it's freezing cold out there. I told Simon to have Mel work the bar and as soon as the music starts, Mel will go outside with a flask to warm them up. That'll keep them on this side of the house for a few minutes while Sven and Otto go to work. It shouldn't take much longer than that. Sven's parking cars for the guests and he's got the Buick right where we can get at it. Once we're done with the switch, we'll be out of here in minutes. The other bodyguards will stay here in the house where they can keep an eye on their boss. I don't think they'll be a problem."
"I know, We've gone over it a hundred times. " Belle helped Sina remove her cloak. " It sounds all right but Ari is watching everyone like a hawk out there. If he becomes the slightest bit suspicious or decides to go upstairs for something, we're cooked."
Sina shook her head. "Well, I just hope to God I can keep his mind off business for a little while. Just long enough for us to pull this off."
Belle looked at her for a moment. Sina's hair was pulled back in a chignon at the nape of her neck, held secure by a golden hairpin that matched the golden hoops that dangled from her ears. Her dress was red, a silken fabric that clung to her body, low cut in the back and slit up the side to afford her movement. She was exotic, elegant. Anton had called her "gypsy woman" and Belle thought how apt the name was now. She smiled. "Oh, I think you'll distract him all right."
They could hear the first strains of music as the band began to play. Sina headed for the door and looked back over her shoulder. "Wish me luck."
"Good luck, Sina."
But when her friend disappeared through the door, curiosity got the better of her. The dessert trays were ready and there was little left to do until they were needed. So Belle placed a stool next to the door to hold it ajar so she could see what was happening in the next room.
The guests had taken their seats and Sina now stood alone before the musicians. She acknowledged them with a nod of her head and gestured for the band leader to begin. She sang "Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine" and the spirited lilt of the melody was a perfect choice as the guests sat back with their cognacs. Belle had only heard Sina sing the moody, sad song at Marcus' place in Harlem and she had been impressed. Now she saw an entirely different performer, heard a startlingly different singing style. Sina was charming, flirtatious, and her facial expressions and gestures were as much a part of the delivery as her song. Her gaze traveled from one guest to another, singing to each man for a few bars until with a nod or lingering look, she turned to the next. There was some laughter as one elderly man close to the band stood up and reached out his hand to her. Without missing a beat she ran her fingertips along his jawline and winked before turning away.
As the song ended, she faced Ari and his guest at the head table. She bent her head and smiled at Eduardo Gambini and it was clear that she intended that the next song be in his honor. The music began and Belle was astonished to hear a melody not usually associated with the vaudeville stage. The room was hushed as Sina began to sing Puccini's "Un Bel Di." Though not operatic, her voice was rich and full and Gambini sat up and focussed on Sina as she sang in Italian, sang the signature song of Madame Butterfly.
Belle wondered at her choice but one look at Gambini and she smiled to herself. The man who could and did order the deaths of others with a snap of his fingers was moved by his compatriot's music and the gypsy woman's voice. His eyes never left Sina's face and he nodded in pleasure as the music swelled and her voice filled the room. When she was done, Gambini rose to his feet and applauded as she bowed.
Ari sat beside him and looked at Sina with satisfaction. He had been surprised when she had agreed to sing but this was more of a success than he had hoped. She had played Gambini like a violin and once again he thought what an unbeatable force they could be together. With her by his side, there was no telling what he could accomplish. For years they had not spoken and now she stood in his house, sang for his guests. Perhaps she had finally come to her senses.
Now she had begun her final number. From Puccini's music she segued easily into the simple but moving melody of Irving Berlin's "Since I Lost You." Everyone knew the story, how Berlin's wife had become ill on their honeymoon and had died shortly after. The song rose from his grief but it came to be the song of all those who had loved and lost, not just through death, but all those who knew emptiness now where passion had been. Sina sang the lyrics and held the crowd in her thrall. But at the closing bars it was Ari's gaze she held, it was to him she sang.
And then she was through and the sound of their applause filled the room. She bowed gracefully, first to Ari and his guest and then to the others. Then she disappeared into the crowd and a dozen servants appeared out of nowhere as the floor was cleared for dancing. Sina looked towards the bar and saw Mel standing there, his face pink from the cold outside. She caught his eye and he nodded. All was proceeding as planned and even as she stood there, Sven and Otto would be clambering up the windows to Ari's room and the safe. Mel poured her a glass of champagne and she was about to reach for it when she felt Ari's hand at her waist.
"You always could play the crowd, Sina." He smiled at her and gestured to Mel to pour another. "It's been a long time. I've missed you." He cast his eyes over the guests. "Tonight is very important to me. I think it's good luck that you're here. And you were good. Very good. My business partner was impressed and when he's happy, I'm happy." He sipped his champagne as his eyes searched the crowd for Gambini.
Sina put her hand on his cheek and turned his face until she looked directly into his eyes. "Make me happy, Ari. Dance with me." And then she put her arm in his and with a quick glance at Mel, she turned away as Ari led her to the floor.
The band was just finishing a waltz but at a signal from Simon, the musicians broke into a Latin rhythm just as Ari and Sina stood, their arms around one another. It was a tango and a number of other couples joined them. For a few moments the dancers swirled with the abrupt turns and fast moves that Vernon and Irene Castle had popularized but slowly, one by one, the other dancers withdrew to stand back and leave the floor to Ari and Sina.
Small wonder that they had been a sensation on the stage. They looked like they had been created to dance with one another. Tall, striking, extraordinarily attractive people, they were a match in looks and fire. For their tango was not the ballroom dance of the Castles. It was slow, sensuous, intimate. It was the tango as it had been born in the bars and brothels of the Argentine, before it had been civilized, sanitized for North American dancers.
It was seductive and every eye in the room was riveted on the pair. He held her in his arms and smiled with pleasure and many a woman in the room longed to be in her place. Their bodies were close, swaying slowly, her back against his chest, his hand resting on her hip, pressing her to him. Then she spun around, facing him this time and when he put his hand to her back, he slid his palm upward until it left the blood red cloth of her dress and rested on the warmth of her body. Instead of drawing away, she leaned into his hand and swayed to the music so that the gesture became a caress.
The room was silent but for the music. Ari was graceful, forceful, and held her body in his hands like the former lover that he was. He knew every curve and plane of her and his hands slid slowly over her waist, her back, her hips. Their feet moved in time to the intricate tango steps but it was their bodies that held everyone's rapt gaze. They would twirl, break away from one another, connected only by the tips of their fingers but then they would be drawn together once again, like a natural force, inexorable, undeniable.
She was a flash of red, the color parting now and then to reveal the movements of her legs, her arms. Her hands flowed like satin over his neck, his chest and shoulders. And then suddenly, in rhythm to the music, she spun and wrapped her long leg around his body and as he leaned forward, she pressed her hips to his and moved to the music. Then just as suddenly she pulled away. But he held her hand in his own and drew her to him until they were only inches apart. Their lips were parted as they looked into one another's eyes and to those who watched it seemed more like foreplay than dance.
Mel followed their every movement with his eyes, glad that the bar he tended was at the back of the room. For he felt his face grow hot and knew that he could not conceal the emotions that flooded him while he watched them dance. It was not jealousy that moved him. He knew that the dance was part of her strategy, that she would use Ari's vanity and arrogance to distract him, to destroy him. But nonetheless, he was aroused by the sight of her and he realized that he wanted her more than anyone, anything. He wanted to feel her body pressed against his, wrapped around his. He wanted to hear her breath come fast and catch in her throat as they made love, wanted to hear her call out his name in the darkness, wanted her to want him just as much as he wanted her, just like...like...
Like he was a ham sandwich and she hadn't et for a week.
He laughed out loud and turned away as the guests closest to him stared.
Damn that Fred.
The last notes of the song faded as Sina stroked Ari's cheek with her fingers and silently turned from him. Ari followed her into the kitchen, intrigued by her silence, anxious to be alone with her. He put his hand on her shoulder and leaned forward so that his lips were close to her ear. His voice was low, deep.
"I always knew you'd come back to me, Sina. It felt good, didn't it, dancing like that. And it can feel even better. You know that. You remember how it was. We were always so good together."
He bent his head and she could feel his moustache brush against her neck, feel his lips just below her ear. He kissed her lightly, softly and she closed her eyes, remembering. He rested his hands on her hips and leaned his body against hers but she pulled away from his embrace and turned to face him instead.
He was smiling now, his eyes shining with excitement. "Better than good. We're different from the rest, you and I. Stronger, smarter. We can be anything we want, do anything we want. Power, Sina, that's what it's all about. That's what the others don't understand. That's why there's never been anyone else, no other lover who can satisfy either one of us."
There was a ghost of a smile on her face as she felt his hands on her back, pressing her to him. Reluctantly, she nodded. There had always been a need, a hunger that they seemed to share, that no one else could match.
"Stay with me tonight, Sina. It'll be just like it was."
She buried her fingers in the softness of his hair and pulled his head forward until their lips met. And then they kissed. Two years of anger, resentment, need and desire - the kiss was long, deep, almost fierce. Belle watched from the back of the kitchen and turned away, embarrassed and uncomfortable. She had had little doubt that Ari would succumb to Sina. But now she was dismayed as she saw Sina's response. She had seemed so angry, so sure in her will to bring Ari to ruin. But now as Belle saw them together, she wondered.
And then they pulled apart, breathless. Ari was smiling, confident, arrogant. She would stay, he was certain of it. "You won't be sorry, Sina. It'll be a new beginning for the both of us." Then he drew a silver case from his pocket, opened it and offered her a cigarette. She shook her head and he placed it between his lips instead.
Belle was unable to move, unwilling to call attention to herself. She watched as Sina pulled out her silver lighter and Ari smiled in recognition.
"Remember the night I bought that for you? I thought it was the perfect gift. Cool and classy on the outside but always a fire inside, just waiting, ready for the right touch." He clicked it and watched the flame leap to life. "Even after all this time it burns as hot as ever. Like you, Sina."
She took the lighter from his hand, holding his fingers in her own for a moment. Its metal surface felt cold, lifeless. It was an object, a possession, ready to do his bidding on command - as she had been. She had felt it when she left, was certain of it now. He had never loved her. He had pleasured her because it was in his power to do so and for no other reason. He saw the rush of her excitement as a testament to his skill and it flattered him that she hungered for him so. And she admitted that she had been a willing partner because, for a while, it had seemed like enough.
But that was then and she had grown wiser since. For it was more than their past that grieved her, more than anger that set them apart tonight. His self satisfaction needed more fuel than the smiles of eager women now. And the cost was greater. She flicked the lighter into life and felt its heat in her hand, on her face. Its flame was so beautiful, so deadly. He loved to play with words, with metaphors but she closed her eyes and smelled real smoke and heard the cries of young girls as they ran in terror from flames that took their lives.
"No, Ari. I won't stay." She started to walk away, then turned and tossed the lighter to Ari. "And you might as well keep that. I've given up smoking cigarettes. It was satisfying once but the pleasure was temporary and it left a bad taste in my mouth afterward."
And she turned away to see Mel pass the kitchen doorway. Ari would never understand a man like him. He would scorn the books, the compassion, the quiet confidences they had shared. He would not understand how she could be so drawn to a man that she had never even kissed.
But she had seen a fire in Mel's eyes that promised so much more than Ari could ever offer. He was a man who could love as tenderly as Viktor and, she suspected, with a passion that could well equal her own. Her eyes followed him across the room as Ari stood silently behind her.
"I won't need that anymore, Ari. If I want to light a fire, I'll just get myself a good match."
And in the shadows Belle smiled as she saw her walk away.
Belle waited for Ari to leave so she could emerge from her place in the shadows. But Ari poured himself a drink when Sina had left him alone and in minutes he was joined by one of his guards. "What the hell do you want?"
"We found one of the hired help trying to break into your bedroom, sir. Franco was looking for a bathroom up there and caught him at the door. Want us to call the cops?"
"No," Ari was incensed. "Are you crazy? That's the last thing I want. Gambini doesn't like cops. I'll handle it. Where is he now?"
"We tied him up and took him down to the winecellar. Some of Gambini's men are watching him. He's just a skinny little guy. I figure he thought he might pick something up to hock for a few bucks. He doesn't look like a pro to me."
Ari shook his head, more irritated than anything else. " Did he get anything? We'd better check the safe."
"Nah, he was on his way in when we nabbed him. Everything is fine."
Ari looked out of the doorway and caught a glimpse of red. He slammed his drink down on the table. He was angry, frustrated. "Well, then I can't be bothered with this. Just wait till everyone goes home, then teach him a lesson. Beat the shit out of him and toss his ass out." And muttering to himself, Ari ran his fingers through his hair and tugged at his vest, ready to return to the party. Gambini was waiting. It was far too important a night to be ruined by Sina or a two bit second story man.
Belle waited till he was gone and then grabbed a tray. She made a beeline for Sina at the bar and warned her of Otto's dilemma.
"What'll we do now?" She was frightened, uncertain. The plan had seemed so good. She had never really believed that they could fail.
"First we get Otto and then we hightail it out of here. We'll think of something later once we know he's safe. Where's Sofia? Does she know about this?"
Belle shook her head. "No, just you, me and Mel."
Sina nodded. "Okay. Good. You three just stick to your original plan. Wait till the party is over and then Simon can bring you back to the apartment. Sven and I will get Otto, so don't worry. And don't tell Sofia until it's all over. She's liable to go charging into the winecellar all by herself if she hears Otto is in trouble. I don't want her getting hurt. Or getting in the way."
Mel stepped from behind the bar. "I'm coming with you."
"No, you're not. I don't want you getting in the way either." Sina shook her head. "No. You stay with Belle and Sofia."
"Look, he's being guarded by Gambini's men. You'll need all the muscle you can get. I thought we were all in this together. I'm coming with you."
She shook her head. "They could be armed."
Mel shrugged. "So, a fire, a riot and now a brawl. We'll just add it to the list."
"You know something? You're as crazy as I am." Her blue eyes flashed with amusement.
He crossed his arms in front of him and raised his chin coyly. "Flatterer."
They found Sven waiting at the Buick and within minutes the three of them were circling the building heading for the stairway to the cellar. But Gambini's bodyguards had retreated there with the flasks that Mel had provided. They huddled in their coats, out of the wind, warmed by the whisky and it was unlikely they would leave any time soon.
"Damn." Sina cursed and drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders. "We'll just have to go in through a window."
But it had been a long time since Sina had shared Ari's home. The winecellar held fine vintages now, all the better to impress important clients and its windows were barred against entry. Sina cursed anew.
Sven knelt before the bars and rose to his feet. He flexed his fingers and knelt again. Finally he stroked his chin and nodded as if he had come to a decision. "All right Sina. Don't worry about it. It's going to be all right. Just give me a minute here."
He took off his coat and knelt one more time but now he grasped the iron bars in his fists. Sina watched the play of muscles in his arms and shoulders, heard his breath as he strained to bend the bars to his will and slowly the bars gave way and there was an opening where none had been before. She stood amazed.
"Don't look so surprised," Sven said. "That's why they call me Hercules."
"It's not that," said Sina. "It's all this chatter. I didn't know you had it in you." And she smiled. "But you'll never get through that. You keep an eye on Gambini's men and Mel and I will take it from here."
And in seconds she had swung open the window and lowered herself through the bars into Ari's cellar. Mel had a harder time but with a little help from Sven he joined her and the two of them were soon feeling their way along the darkened walls of the cellar. It was pitch black but the three men who guarded Otto's makeshift cell had opened a bottle and were having a celebration of their own. Sina and Mel followed the sound of their voices and soon their eyes adjusted to the light that dangled from the ceiling in front of the winecellar door.
Sina leaned until her lips were inches away from Mel's ear. She whispered, "There are three of them. Good. We're not outnumbered after all."
Mel whispered, "What are you talking about? Otto is locked up. He can't help us."
Sina grinned. "There's not a lock in the world that can keep Otto prisoner. He's just waiting for us to get here. Are you ready?"
And before Mel could reply, Sina stepped into the light. The guards stared at her for a moment, unbelieving.
"You'd better let my friend go 'cause I don't want to hurt you." Her voice was soft, sincere in her concern.
The three stood shoulder to shoulder and any one of them would have been a worthy opponent for the gargantuan Sven. They were men used to making their way with their fists, used to having their way. To hear such a threat from a woman, even a beautiful woman, was so unexpected as to be insane and they were taken off their guard.
So for a moment they were unprepared as the dim corridor was suddenly filled with bodies. As if on command, the winecellar door swung open and Otto ran from the room and leapt onto the back of the man nearest him. At the same time Mel stood by Sina and lunged for the midsection of the guard on the other side. His fist connected with solid flesh but it was as if he had missed and hit the cellar wall. He ducked as the man's fist sailed through the air in retaliation.
The third guard stood before Sina and reached out to grab her but she moved quickly and he snatched at the empty air. He turned and tried again but this time he swung and careened against the cellar wall. Still she eluded his every move. He felt his anger mounting as she smiled at him. It was as if it were a game with her and he was losing patience. He determined to end this foolishness and with a curse he pulled a knife from the sheath at his belt.
But now she smiled wider than ever. "Oh, good. For a minute there, I thought I was in trouble." She laughed now and he shouted as the blade cut through the air just an inch away from her throat. And then she was behind him and he almost toppled over as she jabbed her elbow into his back. He spun around, the knife blade glinting in the electric light, searching for her. And then he felt the pain in his wrist as she bent his hand backward and the knife fell into her own hand.
He was frightened now. He had never been frightened of a woman before but she was insane, that was clear. She smiled at him, laughed as she examined the knife and held it in front of his face. He was ready for her, sure she would lunge forward to drive its blade into his chest. But instead she kicked forward and the breath left his body as she rammed her foot between his legs He doubled over in pain and felt only the darkness cover him as the hilt of the knife struck the back of his head and he landed on the floor, unconscious.
She turned now, ready to aid the others. Otto's guard lay face down on the floor and cursed mightily as Otto sat on his legs and cuffed his wrists behind his back.
But Mel was having trouble. He and the third guard circled one another in the narrow confines of the corridor. They had been evenly matched at the start but now Mel was on the defensive. His opponent had smashed the bottle from which they had been drinking and the jagged edges of the broken bottleneck whipped through the air with a whooshing sound.
Mel watched in horror as his opponent raised his arm in the air and light glinted off the bottle shards just above his head. He held his breath waiting for the cut, the taste of blood that would mark his own death. But instead the guard stood, his arm still upraised. For his sleeve was pinned to the wall and Sina's knife held him there immobile, its blade half buried in the wooden partition. The guard was stunned and with a force and speed born of his days on the streets, Mel swung with all his might at the big man's jaw and watched his body sag as he lost consciousness, still held to the wall by Sina's blade .
Belle, Simon and Sofia were already waiting for them at Belle's apartment when they parked the Buick at the curb. News of the botched burglary had spread among Ari's staff and Sofia had run to Belle with such fear in her eyes that they had sought out Simon and come home. And when Otto had walked through the door, she had shouted his name and thrown her arms around him in an embrace that almost knocked him off his feet.
So now they all sat together drinking strong coffee and munching on fancy eclairs. Someone had accidentally covered the tray with a dishcloth and they had never been served, Sofia confided. Ari's servants were going to throw them out. Such a waste it would have been.
Sina looked at the faces of her friends and shook her head. "Well, we tried and almost pulled it off. Thank God no one was hurt." She was subdued, disappointed that her plan had failed and that her friends had come so close to harm because of it. "I'm sorry. You all worked so hard and I can't tell you how grateful I am. It was my fault. I should have thought it out more carefully."
Otto licked the cream from his fingertips. "What are you talking about, Sina?" He rose, brushing crumbs from his pants offhandedly. He tugged at his cuff and suddenly dropped a sheaf of twenty dollar bills in Sofia's lap. He tugged at the other and more bills appeared. He reached up and plucked some from the very air above his head. One after another the wads of bills landed in Sofia's lap until she seemed covered with them.
"That," he said dramatically, " is the good stuff." He bowed and casually buffed his nails on his shirtfront. "I was on my way out, not in when Franco heard nature's call."
Sina rose from her seat, threw her arms around Otto and ruffled his hair like a small boy. Then she put her hands on the sides of his head and kissed him full on the lips. "Otto, you're absolutely wonderful."
He patted his hair back into place and stroked his moustache. Then he shrugged. "Of course. I've been telling you that for years."
It was almost dawn when Belle dried the last dish and hung the dishcloth over the side of the sink. "Sina, when do you think Ari will give the money to Gambini?" Her voice was quiet in stark contrast to the laughter that had rung out earlier. She and Sina were alone now, the others gone, their jobs done.
"It won't be long now. They were ironing out the details over cognac, I'd swear to it." Sina stretched out on the settee and wiggled her bare toes. Easy to remember the steps but she'd forgotten how her feet would feel afterward. "He probably handed over the dough after the party."
Belle was silent. She sat beside Sina and leaned back against the pillows. "It won't take him long to find out most of it is counterfeit. What do you think he'll do to him? He won't kill him, will he? We can't just let him die."
Sina shrugged. "He let those girls die."
"That was him. This is us." She sat up and her green eyes met Sina's and held them there. She was ready for an argument or worse, Sina's silence.
But instead Sina smiled and wiggled her toes once more. "You look like a woman with a plan."
Belle nodded. "As a matter of fact, I was thinking...."
It was only days later when Sina drove the Buick to Little Italy and knocked on the door of Gambini and Sons, Importers and Exporters of Fine Wines. The barrel chested clerk would have denied her admittance but Gambini himself heard her voice and rose from his desk to lean against the door jamb to welcome her. "Vito, show the lady some respect. I always have time to talk to a beautiful woman. You have brightened my day, cara."
Gambini's led her into his office in the back room. It was modest, not unlike any other business on the street in Little Italy. Sina sat across from him and sipped the wine he had poured for her. His expression never changed as she spoke and his eyes never left her face.
"I'm sorry. The matter is settled. He must be made an example of. He's a greedy little man and a cheat. I'm a businessman. What would it do to my reputation if my competitors thought I was so easily fooled?" Gambini was scornful. "And he's a coward. I would have respected him more if he had sent you away out of danger instead of sending you to me. What kind of man sends his lover to plead for his life?"
Sina smiled at him. "I'm not his lover anymore."
Gambini was wary, unsure of her intent. He had envied Ari at the party, certain that their dance had been only a prelude to further intimacies. But now she sat in his office and claimed the affair was over. He wondered what was the true purpose of her visit. It was certainly not seduction, for her eyes were cold and hard. He sat back and nodded at her to continue, curious.
"I'm here to talk business." She sat back and met his gaze. "No one knows about the counterfeit money but you, me and Ari. But I ask you, what profit is there in killing him? It will only attract attention and as you say, you're a businessman. Better to put money in your pocket than to exact vengeance. Ari has a fine home, expensive possessions, investments too. Take them. Make him pay you back. With interest. Take his money and it will pain him worse than death. And that will be a lesson to others. Kill him now and it's over. But you can arrange it so that no one will do business with him again and his pride will be broken forever."
Gambini looked at her and sat in silence. Then he shook his head. "No, you're not his lover anymore. He must have cheated you too, eh? Another woman maybe? I have heard that is his weakness. All right. For you I will do this. A woman like you, you can do better than him anyway. You're very beautiful, talented. Passionate." He looked at her and shrugged. "It's too bad you're not Italian."
Belle sat across the table from Ari and looked at his face. He was haggard, pale. All week he had watched helplessly as his world crumbled around him. He tried to concentrate on her words, to appear interested in what she had to say. But he could only hear the sounds from the back of the room. Workmen there were removing a painting from the wall, crating it carefully in a wooden box for shipment. Ari was nervous, trying hard to evaluate Belle's offer but his eyes traveled from her face to the workmen and back again.
"So you see," she said. "it really is a lucky break for all of us concerned. The settlement house has been needing extra space for some time and we know that you're anxious to liquidate some of your assets right now. We hate to take advantage of the situation. But that new factory of yours is in an ideal location for us and since you haven't really equipped it for the shirtwaist factory yet, it will be easy to convert the building into a clinic and classrooms."
"How much?" Ari was not in a mood to negotiate.
"Well, " Belle sat forward. "We've collected quite a bit in donations in our memorial fund for the victims of the recent fire. Some of that money is going to medical costs. But the rest is set aside for the clinic. Say two grand we'll need for equipment, two grand for the victims. That leaves six grand to purchase the property. What do you say? It's an offer you can't refuse."
Ari watched as the workmen started wrapping his golden candelabra in burlap. He sighed and extended his hand.
"It's a deal."
"No, not that one." Sina shook her head in dismissal.
Belle laid the dress across the settee in frustration. "What's wrong with it? You look great in that."
"No, it's too flashy. That's for work, not for a Christmas party at a settlement house."
"You just don't want to go, do you?" Belle smiled at Sina, enjoying her uncharacteristic uneasiness .
"Not really. It's Mel's idea. He 's going to tell everyone about the new annex and he says I ought to be there. Some lecturer he's going to be if he can't make a little speech at a party without moral support. But I told him I'd go, so I'll go. But let's find something besides my work clothes."
" Why don't you want to go the settlement house?"
"I've never been there before. Why should I show up now, at a party no less? I don't know anybody there except you and Mel. I don't really belong there. I'm just going to listen to his speech, grab a glass of punch and get the hell out of there. Okay?" She held up a plain blue shift. "How about this? I don't want to attract attention."
Belle watched as Sina put on the dress. Fat chance of that, she thought but instead she merely said, "Fine. Let's go already."
The party was already in full swing when they arrived. The main floor of the building was teeming with people from the neighborhood, all dressed in their best Sunday clothes. An impromptu band of an accordionist, a guitarist, and Lenny the violinist provided music. The aroma of the food, the bounty of America spiced with the flavors of a dozen different homelands, greeted each guest with its welcome.
There were children everywhere but a crowd of them had gathered in one corner around Otto and Sofia. Otto was pulling pennies from their ears, their sleeves, making the coins disappear and then snatching them back from the empty air. The children stood wide eyed and slack jawed and Sofia beamed with pride.
Belle entered the main hall first and co-workers and friends called out to her in greeting. Sina smiled to see the warmth with which her friend was welcomed. She was an important figure here. She had nursed their wounds, sat by their sickbeds, brought them comfort in a new land when so many others had met them with indifference or hostility.
But there was a far different reaction as Sina followed her. The laughter and chatter died suddenly and there was silence as the guests turned to stare. She looked at Belle as if her worst fears had been confirmed. For years she had lived in their midst but she did not belong, not here, not anywhere. She had spoken to so few of them, had kept her distance for so long. She was uncomfortable and searched the crowd for the sight of Mel, so that she could wish him good luck and be gone.
And then a dark haired woman approached her and extended her hand. "Hello. My name is Mary Murphy. Me and me boy have been seein' you in your window for a long time now. I always hoped we'd meet. Please come see me son, Patrick. He's sittin' over there."
And then Belle watched as they all clustered around her. Lenny, proudly attired in his purloined long pants, shouted Sina's name and began to play "Alexander's Ragtime Band." A little girl tugged at her dress and she bent to catch the whispered words and smiled. A young man brought her a cup of punch and stood wordlessly, smitten. The truth was there had been a distance because she had made it so. And now they took their opportunity to bridge it with their thanks
It was a party that would be talked about for years to come. Mel made the announcement about the new clinic and everyone greeted the news with stunned silence. To have ten thousand dollars was remarkable. To give it away was unheard of. Then the applause was enough to shake the very rafters.
Then Mel read "The Night Before Christmas" with appropriate gestures and was proclaimed by all to be as good as Barrymore. The children's choir sang Christmas carols and with much applause and coaxing from the audience Sina joined them in "Silent Night." Belle watched as Sina reached out to Mel and brought him onstage to stand beside her and join her in the song. He stood awkwardly until she put her arm around his waist and then his smile matched that of any of the choir.
And then Belle was busy handing out the gifts that lay wrapped beneath the tree. Lorenz Szabo's possessions had been hocked so that each child could have warm gloves for the cruel New York winter and a package of salt water taffy that Simon had brought from New Jersey. They were children unused to such luxuries and Belle's throat tightened as she watched them take the candy, hesitantly, tasting for the first time the sweetness of a food whose only excuse for being was pleasure. Their eyes grew round with wonder and she knew that for some the memory would last a lifetime.
She fingered her brand new wristwatch, with the second hand that would make the taking of a pulse so easy from now on and its metal seemed warm against her wrist. Sina had had it inscribed before giving it to her. "For Belle, my friend, my sister." And Belle knew that like the tenement children there would be a sweetness to this day that she would treasure too.
The singing was over now but Sina held Mel's hand for a moment as the others dispersed. "Merry Christmas, Mel." She handed him a small package, the last one left under the tree. "You always seem to be there when I need you. I just wanted to say thanks."
He unwrapped the gift, slowly, carefully, as if somehow that would reveal to her just how precious it was to him right now, even before he knew its contents. He folded back the paper to find a hand stitched, embroidered sampler, its needlework delicate and colorful. At first it seemed like a thousand others that graced the walls of so many parlors but he looked closer and smiled. There were the traditional flowers sewn around the words "Home Sweet Home" but along the bottom was sewn a row of books and in each corner a volume already opened, ready to be enjoyed.
The for a moment he thought perhaps that she was teasing him but the expression on her face was hesitant, hopeful that he would like it. "It's wonderful," he said. "Perfect."
She grinned. "Well, it was easier to wrap than a porch swing."
He leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Thank you. I have a gift for you too but not with me. Would you mind taking a ride tomorrow?"
The day was cool and crisp and once outside of the city's streets Sina took pleasure in the power of the Buick and sped along the road. Mel refused to tell her their destination and instead gave her directions, one turn at a time until they found themselves in Long Island. The tenements of the city had given way to larger and larger homes until they drove past huge estates, their entrances blocked by gates and fences. She looked at him in puzzlement as he bid her stop and swung open the heavy iron gates that led to a palatial mansion. The driveway was lined with pine trees and their smell was clean and fresh.
"One of my classmates lives here. He's off to Newport with his family for the holidays." Mel leaned over and beeped the horn twice as Sina pulled to a stop. "He stays in the city and doesn't get out here much during the school year. I offered to help him out." Then Mel cocked his head toward the end of the driveway. One of the stablemen was walking towards them, leading a beautiful golden palomino, saddled and ready to ride.
"Her name is Argo. It seems that there's no one here to exercise her enough. I thought maybe you could come out here once or twice a week and give her a run for her money."
Sina ran her hand along the horse's nose, admiring. Argo raised her head, as if welcoming her touch and snorted, anxious for her run. Sina smiled and nodded at the mare. Her voice was soft, almost a whisper, as she said, "She's beautiful."
The stableman commented, "My wife has some clothes you can change into. Just go right through that door."
Sina reached for Mel's hand and with a quick squeeze, she was off only to emerge in a few minutes in heavy woolen slacks, boots and a short jacket. But she hesitated before mounting the horse and turned to Mel. "Thank you, Mel. It's the nicest Christmas present I've ever had. I don't know what to say."
" Merry Christmas, Serafina. I wanted to give you something nice. You're very special to me. I..."
And she kissed him and it was all that he had hoped. It felt good, it felt right. There was none of the doubt and awkwardness that sometimes comes with a first embrace. Instead they kissed as if they had a hundred times before and knew they would ten thousand times again.
And then she leapt up, lightly, gracefully, and waved to him from the saddle. He watched her ride off and the image was one he would treasure for the rest of his life. Her hair was loose and hung down her back and her borrowed boots gleamed in the morning light. She looked wild, beautiful, happier than he'd ever seen her.
The deal was done. He would be running errands and polishing the boots of Albert Worthington, Jr. for the rest of the school year. Albert was a haughty little pissant who would take the opportunity to be patronizing, insulting the whole time. There would be jokes about shepherds and their sheep, Greeks bearing gifts. He had thought "never again" but now he would swallow his pride and keep his fists in his pockets just as he had as a boy.
He watched her as she leaned forward and as the horse took off at a gallop, he heard her laughter ring out in the cold, crisp air.
And Albert Worthington, Jr. would never suspect what Mel knew - that it was the best deal he had ever made in his life.