I had met Billy by coincidence- it had been one of those inexplicable things when you start to feel that something like destiny does exists, even though you lead a poverty-stricken life and make your money outside the law.
It had been one of my usual nights on the subway, selling to junkies who knew I was reliable and regular with the supply, even though I couldn’t afford to be cheap. But there was no dearth of buyers, even on the worst of weeks. And close to Christmas, the demand trebled. Holiday loneliness of some sort.
Billy was one of those unpredictable men who would appear and disappear at will. It was hard to notice him; he was smooth and he was sly. He roamed around with two bulky men when he needed protection but he could become a shadow and hide in the darkness whenever he wanted.
Maybe he saw something in me he liked or maybe he was sniffing around to see if I was hunting on his territory. I was always careful to leave the Big Man’s business alone.
Whenever Billy would meet me, he would leave his bursting-out-of-their-shirts bodyguards. He first took me to his large underground hideout behind a regular jeweler store- it was one of those pies in which the Big Man had dipped his fingers. And there was a crack in the wall, through which a conveniently shown flashlight acted as a signal for entry. Or codes for other messages. But Billy never shared those.
He shared other things though. He told me that the Big Man was called Henry and lived in a secret location nobody knew. The only way to reach the Big Man, even for Billy, was to go through a network of men who were frequently rotated to a standard set of locations that changed at whimsy. Billy couldn’t contact his boss at any time; the boss contacted him.
Billy was so good-looking that it was excruciating to be around him those first few nights. He didn’t buy me anything, saying that it would be too ostentatious for him to do so and would immediately come to the boss’s notice. But he helped me in small ways of his own. He often bought all my stash from me at a price so exaggerated, I was afraid to hold the cash in my hand. But he said he would recover the money somewhere else.
And then one night, he turned up with a bottle of champagne. It was something I had never tasted before. He had gone through great pains to smuggle it out because, though he had access to a lot of things, it was all inventoried and subject to the scrutiny of the Big Man at all times.
I think that was the night i fell in love with Billy.
We were at the hide-out with that bottle of champagne. It wasn’t romantic- the rooms had an oddly musty smell and the plaster from the walls was peeling. Billy had a few hours to spare but one of his few trusted men were on the lookout outside, just in case something turned up.
After my first delicate sips of that elixir, I stopped worrying about all the things that pulled me down in the back of my mind. Billy got out some cigarettes and I watched him light up the first one and puff out into the air; the smell of soap mixed with smoke lingered towards me; I leaned closer and dared to rest my hand on his knee- it was our first intimate contact in over a week of friendship.
Truth be told, I was a little scared of Billy. He worked for Big Man, what if he was testing me, breaking me? There were a dozen ulterior motives I could think of in my head and this was one of the many reasons I hadn’t told Rats about him.
But that night, his shrewd eyes were full of amusement and laughter. He was always at ease, and he leaned in and brushed his lips gently against mine. The electricity of that touch made me shudder. I moved closer, until our bodies touched.
Someone was calling out my name. I drifted from the depths of a deep dream, sifting through memories to figure out what was going on. A sharp pain in my neck told me I was alive.
‘Hey’ somebody whispered. ‘Its Billy. Open your eyes.’
I did. I wasn’t dead because the pain was so real, so piercing but I didn’t know what was hurting. I couldn’t see, except for the hazy outline of Billy’s head floating in mid-air.
‘I need you to listen to me carefully.’ Billy was saying but I heard a moan next to me. I turned and saw Rats, half-unconscious and bound on the floor.
‘Remember I told you about the trafficking?’
I did. One night, a few weeks after our first champagne-soaked love-making, I reached the hide-out and noticed a car parked to one side, the car boot was half lifted and a girl, tied up and blindfolded, was lying inside. She wasn’t making much noise but I could see that she was trying to struggle. One side of her dress was a little torn and I noticed that she was wearing an expensive, heavily-laced bra within.
I went down to Billy’s. ‘Who’s that girl?’ I asked him.
Unfazed as ever, Billy lifted a cigarette to his lips and drew in deeply. ‘Just one of the side-businesses’, he offered by way of explanation.
I didn’t press further. In our world, you kept your head low and didn’t try to meddle with other people’s lives. It was the only way to survive. So no matter what I saw, I kept mum about it.
‘They are going to smuggle you and Rats out of here’ Billy was saying. ‘I can’t stop them. They were on to me. That’s how they got to you. I’m sorry.’
Even through my drug-hazed thoughts, this piece of information struck home. Smuggle us out. It meant one thing; I knew that there would be no turning back.
‘But I can’t let that happen’ Billy was saying. ‘I got one of my men to ring the alarm. He is calling the police. They’ll be here soon, are you listening to me?’
I tried to nod but couldn’t. The police. Yes, I would rather go to jail.
‘You might get busted but I doubt it. This place is flooded with things they’d wanna see. They’d be like children on Christmas morning with a bunch of presents. I think you’ll walk. The Big Man is another matter though.’
I realized suddenly that Billy had my head in his lap, and then realized something was very wrong. If the police were coming…
‘I can’t walk out of this, sweetheart. But I want you to know that through all these years of my infinitely cruel operations, I never for one moment imagined that I would ever get so powerfully caught up in love that I would prefer my own doom to that of a woman.’
A sense of alarm began to take over me. What was Billy saying? I tried to speak up, tried to move, but I was starting to black out. I felt him rest my head gently onto something soft, felt him walk away and then come back. He bent down in front of me and kissed my forehead.
‘Goodbye love’ he said, and before I could do anything or feel anything, the inevitable gunshot rang out and I saw a river of blood cloud my line of sight.
Far away, beyond the walls of the hide-out, I heard the ringing of police sirens.