“Get in the car.”
There’s a black Cadillac idling in front of Cassel Sharpe. It’s 4 in the morning. He’s standing outside a train station in the empty part of town. He’s been waiting here for an hour, and has seen exactly three other people pass by in that time. None of them have looked like anyone you’d want to be left alone with. He likes to think of himself as someone who doesn’t scare easily, but the more the shadows deepen, the less he wants to be alone here.
He gets in the car.
Once he shuts the passenger door, the driver turns to him, taking off a pair of opaque sunglasses. The driver is wearing all black, including a wide-brimmed black hat, but he knows exactly who it is.
“Did everything go okay?” Lila asks.
He nods and stretches out in the seat, forgoing a seatbelt. Lila’s not that bad a driver; there can’t be much trouble to get into at this hour.
“Just wake me up when we get there,” he mumbles, and as he finishes the sentence he’s already drifting off. The last thing he hears is Lila revving the engine.
He’s been having these dreams lately, ones that make him want to stay awake all the time. In his dreams those men he turned into glass figurines are coming back. They’re dead, but they make themselves alive again, and then they come for him. There’s a horrible glassy sweat on their foreheads. Their eyes are marbles. And when they smile, they have cats’ teeth.
The sun wakes Cassel up three hours later. They’re parked outside a fancy-looking hotel. Lila is leaning on the steering wheel, filing her nails. She’s completely changed clothes, ditching all that black for a gold sundress as bright as the sun and summery white gloves. Cassel regrets missing it.
Almost as if she can read his mind—and honestly, she probably can—she lifts an eyebrow, looking over at him. “Sorry. Couldn’t wait for you to wake up.”
He sits up with a slight grimace. “That’s okay. Where are we?”
With her nail file, she gestures to the hotel. “The Coast City. Dad owns it.”
That explains how nice it looks. “Why are we here?”
Lila pauses for a moment as if she’s figuring out how to word this. “I got a call from Dad last night. Right before I called you. He’s still pissed.”
“But,” she continues, “he needs your help. So he’s—“
“Offering me amnesty? How thoughtful.”
She shakes her head. “No. He’s just…not going to spring any workers on you while we’re here.”
“Where exactly is here? I know you said this was the Coast City, but I don’t know what that is.”
“We’re in Atlantic City,” she says, and immediately he has to repress the urge to run very, very far away. The last time he was here, it was with Mom. Cons in Atlantic City have a tendency not to go well.
“Okay,” he says after a long pause. “I don’t remember this hotel being here, though.”
“It’s new,” Lila explains. “It just opened a couple of weeks ago. And it’s not doing badly, it’s just…” She frowns slightly.
“Not doing as well as a hotel owned by a mob boss should?”
She rolls her eyes. “Everyone who comes to stay here and goes to a casino apparently loses all their money. Doesn’t matter who they are or what casino they go to. It’s all gone.”
“So? Isn’t that your dad’s doing?”
“No. He thinks it’s someone trying to push him out. He wants us to figure out who.” Her eyes are big, pleading. “Come on, Cassel. I know there’s bad blood between all of us, but he really needs us. We’re the only people who can keep going back. Besides…” She looks away, bites her lip. “We get a suite all to ourselves.”
His blood feels like it’s rushing to his head. Even after these last few months, every time Lila reminds him of how inseparably together they are, he still feels slightly faint.
“Fine.” When he speaks, his voice is rough. “Come on, let’s check in.”
Lila smiles, pleased.
Coast City is probably the nicest hotel he’s ever been in. Even Lila, raised in the lap of luxury, seems slightly amazed. Splendor surrounds them with every step. The plush, wall-to-wall carpet muffles their footsteps, and even though Cassel can’t help but suspect that every room in this hotel is filled with wealthy people engaging in depravity, he can’t hear a single sound from the rooms.
Their room is on the top, fifth floor one bed suite with a balcony. Lila has a small suitcase; Cassel has a backpack that’s barely still hanging together. The concierge had given him an unpleasant look as they checked in. Probably thinking, how is someone like him with someone like her?
If the concierge was a fly on the wall, he would get an answer the moment the door to the suite shuts behind them. In the elevator up, Lila had reached out for Cassel’s hand—and it was all he could do not to push her against the wall right then and there. But they waited, as they are so good at doing. They waited the entire walk down the hall. By the time they’ve opened the door, there’s heat running through every inch of Cassel’s body.
As the door swings shut, Lila spins around, her eyes lit up. But she doesn’t do anything. She just stands there, looking at him.
Cassel clears his throat. “So—“
She puts a finger to her lips and leads him away from the doorway. The backpack falls from his shoulder without a sound.
Even though Lila is undeniably, indisputably, unequivocally in control, she still looks at him with a faintly nervous expression, as if she’s afraid he’s going to change his mind. But that’s okay. He’s pretty sure he looks at her the exact same way.
She sits down on the bed. It’s huge and gorgeous, and Cassel’s sure that it’ll be the most comfortable bed he’s ever slept in, assuming they do any sleeping. But when he moves to sit beside her, she puts her hand on his chest, forcing him to stay standing.
Her dress is riding up her thighs, high enough that he can see the lacy tops of her sheer stockings, the straps of her electric blue garter. She follows his gaze, a faint smile on her coral-painted lips. She reaches up, her hands just barely grazing his shoulder, pushing him down.
“On your knees,” she says, and he obeys.
As he waits, she pulls her dress off, the silky gold fabric rippling over her head. She throws it on the bed, the one bright spot on the red covers. She’s not wearing a bra. Just the garter belt. Just the stockings. Just the gloves. Cassel is still fully dressed.
She cups his face in her hands, running her gloved fingers along his jaw. His throat is dry as sand. He swears he can feel the heat of her skin through her gloves. “Lila,” he rasps, and her nails dig into his skin.
She leans forward, presses her lips to the corner of his mouth. “Do you want to kiss me, Cassel?” she whispers, her lips now against his ear.
“Take my shoes off,” she says, and sits up again. He looks down. There are white patent leather sandals on her feet. Three-inch stiletto heel. They look deadly, so he undoes the straps with the greatest care, sliding them off her feet like she’s Cinderella. He leaves them sinking into the carpet a few inches away.
“Undo the stockings,” she says, and with slightly trembling fingers he reaches up to her thigh and tries to undo the ribbon ties. He’s always been happy to let her boss him around. He just wishes it didn’t make him so damn nervous.
But finally the garters are undone, and her stockings start to sag, so he reaches to pull them down.
She slaps her hand over his. “I didn’t tell you to take those off yet,” she says. There’s an edge to her voice, so he stops, takes his hands away.
She stares him down with an even gaze. It feels like minutes tick by before she finally nods. “Take them off.”
He knows how upset Lila gets when her stockings get a run, so he’s careful pulling them down. It takes longer this way, but his gloved hands can linger on her soft skin. Finally the stockings go the way of the shoes, and he looks up at her again. There’s not much left now.
“Gloves,” she says, and holds her hands out. Reverently, Cassel pulls the gloves off, never taking his eyes from Lila’s.
“Now yours,” she says, and he rips his off.
They lock eyes. The only sound besides their breathing is the air conditioner humming quietly in the background.
Finally, finally, she leans down and kisses him. Her teeth drag over his lip, and he’s not sure if he really tastes blood or he’s imagining it but either way he presses into her, wanting more. Her hands skim over his shoulders and close over his neck, and the sensation of skin on skin—
She pulls away, fingering the loose garter straps. “Help me take this off,” she breathes, and Cassel is more than happy to oblige.
When the sun goes down, Cassel is the first to get out of bed. He looks down at Lila, her white-gold hair fanned out over the white pillows, her dark lashes closed over sleepy eyes.
“Come on,” he says, though he feels kinda groggy himself. “We’ve got a casino to take.”
She smirks, though her eyes stay closed. “Do we have to?”
He laughs. “Come on.” He touches her cheek. “Like the song goes—‘put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, come on and meet me tonight in Atlantic City…’”
“I wouldn’t have pegged you as a Springsteen fan,” she says, sounding amused.
“It fits, though, doesn’t it? Besides, your lipstick’s all smeared.”
“I think more of it’s on your face than on mine.”
“Probably.” He runs his fingers over his stubble. “I’m gonna get cleaned up.”
“Wait…” She reaches up, grabs his hand, pulls him over so she can kiss him. It’s tender, nothing of the urgent way she’d been touching him before. When he pulls away, she looks at him almost adoringly. “Come back soon.” It’s not a request; it’s an order.
“Of course,” he promises, and he walks into the bathroom, regretting already that they have to leave the suite tonight.
They’re winning big, and then they lose big. Everyone’s eyes are on Lila, in her slinky emerald dress and high silver heels and blood-red lips. Even in defeat, she’s smiling.
It’s not hard for a born conman to figure out the con, but Cassel spins it out a few days longer than he needs to. Why pass up these long days and nights with Lila? Why leave Atlantic City before they have to? The feel of Lila’s hands with her gloves off, the endless parade of ripped silk dresses, the smudges of lipstick on his mouth when he wakes up, the earrings she buys him as a joke on the boardwalk, the nights of small joys conning rich gamblers out of their money—
Why go anywhere else when he’s home?
He still feels uneasy. He’s still dreaming of the marble-eyed men with sharp teeth.
But next to Lila at dawn, his sleep is sweet.