The club Gavriel picked for our annual meeting was different than his usual preferences. Over the years, I’d noticed the clubs he chose grew progressively upscale, each venue more lavish than the last. This time, it was a red-brick building hidden in the shadows of Harlem, but designed with posh comfort in mind. I didn't have to fight a line of drunks to get inside. When I gave the bouncer my name, he immediately fumbled to unclasp the gold chain in front of the door, allowing me in. It was busy enough to slip past the crowd unnoticed, but not too overcrowded, which meant we could speak comfortably. Being seen with a federal agent was “bad for business,” as Gavriel liked to say, so we had to be careful.
I’d taken the day off of work and driven from DC to get here, but we'd done this every year. I wasn’t exactly sure when we became friends, or even if that's what we were. I represented everything Gavriel hated about this world. Despite being a federal agent and bound to the law, I still met with one of the biggest, baddest crime bosses once a year—all because of a girl.
Our meetings were always quiet. We'd sit in a booth at whatever bar he deemed appropriate while giving each other understanding glances. Most years, we sipped Sunshine Whiskey and wordlessly reminisced. The cheap liquid tasted like shit, but we didn’t drink it for the flavor. We drank it to pay homage to the girl that brought us together. My bond with Gavriel and the Bullets was a curse. I loved her, and she loved them.
This year, he was running late, which I expected. His empire was growing rapidly. The bigger he got, the more enemies he made. Just because I upheld the law, didn't mean I wanted anything to happen to him. I’d even leaked a tip that he was spotted in Texas, hoping it would direct the FBI’s attention elsewhere for a bit.
He walked through the large wooden door of the club, bypassing the attendant without a second glance. Two of his men flanked him, one on each side, and it was odd seeing him in a suit that probably cost more than I made in a month. His Rolex shimmered under the lights of the piano bar, and his tie was subtle, yet stylish.
I stood. Although our meetings were rare and far between, I knew the drill. The man on his left—who had a tattoo the size of my fist around his neck—stepped forward and began patting me down. He checked for wires, and when his hand landed on my duty gun, I reluctantly pulled it from my belt and handed it to him. I understood why the pat down was necessary, but it didn't mean I had to like it. I hadn’t been without my gun since I became a public servant six years ago. It was an extension of me. A security blanket of gun smoke and metal. Once tattoo-neck determined that I was safe, Gavriel gestured towards the booth, and we sat.
"Hey, Callum," Gavriel said. It was a shitty greeting, but I accepted it all the same. Neither of us wanted to be here. We were friends, maybe. But without her? Everything felt empty. She was the glue that bonded us together.
The waitress brought over our glasses, and Gavriel downed his drink in one steady gulp. He didn't wince as the 90 proof slid down his throat, and when his glass was empty, Gavriel lifted his index finger to indicate that he wanted another. Usually, we at least pretended to exchange polite conversation, but not today.
"I have a lead," I said before taking a sip of my drink. The amber liquid burned in my chest.
"You always have a lead," Gavriel replied. He wasn't wrong. Since Sunshine disappeared, I'd been clinging to whatever information I could find.
"But this one’s good," I tried to explain. I knew it in my gut that I was close to finding her. I expected Gavriel to ask questions about my information, but instead, he surprised me.
"Why do you think she ran?"
I took another sip of whiskey while taking a moment to gather my thoughts. Although we weren't close, at least not in a conventional way, Gavriel could still dig up my deepest insecurities. Had he not gone down the path of crime, he would’ve made a good detective. He was an observer. He picked people apart and exploited their weaknesses.
"I have a few theories."
An older gentleman wearing an oversized suit shuffled across the stage and sat at the grand piano. We watched as he cracked his knuckles before tackling the keys. The song’s light melody didn't match the intensity of our conversation.
"She's in Baltimore," I said with steel certainty. It was the first time I’d had a lead so concrete. Before, the world felt too big. But when I saw her photo come up on a traffic cam scan, I felt hope for the first time in five years. "It’s a blurry photo, but I got it," I explained while watching Gavriel's reaction.
On the surface, he seemed unaffected, but I knew the truth. His heart was racing at the possibility of seeing Sunshine again. One look at the quick pulse in his veiny neck, and I knew. He wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all me.
"How sure are you that it's her?" he finally asked. The waitress brought over another glass of whiskey. I waited until she'd left before responding.
"Her hair is lighter, but it’s her. Either she learned some new skills, or she’s working with a seriously skilled hacker. The image was gone within twenty-four hours. I barely caught it.”
I pulled her photo from my coat pocket and handed it to him. I’d spent the last three weeks staring at her, tracing the lines of her face with my fingers. She had tattoos now. Her eyes were downcast, and her lips pursed. It was a grainy traffic camera, but I knew in my gut that it was her. It was both amazing and difficult to look at. Her hardened exterior was so unlike the simple, sweet girl I once knew.
"I don't have the resources you do. There’s too much red tape, and I’m not sure I want the media breathing down our necks. You see her dad is running for Lieutenant Governor now?"
Gavriel didn’t respond. He looked down at the photo, and I hoped to see some sort of reaction, but there was none. I guess being in the mob did that to a man. He was desensitized, jaded, emotionless. "It could be her, I guess," he said before taking his finger and lightly tracing the edges of the photo. The small gesture was the only crack in his facade.
"I can put up a bounty on her, but I can't make any promises. We can’t keep doing this, Callum." Gavriel looked back towards his men who were standing off to the side while he adjusted his jacket. "The only thing we have in common is a girl you and I don't even know anymore."
I took a good look at Gavriel. Before, I was so concerned with finding Sunshine that I didn't notice the black circles under his eyes. Scattered crimson blood was lightly dusted along his collar. When I looked down at his whiskey glass, I noticed that his second one was already empty. I opened my mouth to speak as he beckoned the waitress for a third.
"Are you okay, Gavriel?" I asked, knowing full well that he wouldn't answer. Instead, he picked up the photograph, folded it, and slipped it into his coat jacket.
“This is the last time, Callum. I think maybe we need to start considering that she didn’t run away. I think we need to at least be open to the possibility that she’s dea—”
I slammed my fist on the table, the loud bang causing the pianist to stumble and hit the wrong key. Gavriel’s guards reached inside their coat pockets while stepping towards us. Gavriel held up a hand, stopping them.
“I would know if she was…” I began, unable to say the word. I would feel it, wouldn’t I? When you loved someone, you just knew.
“Dead,” Gavriel finished. He ground his teeth and stared pointedly at me. Gavriel never allowed his feelings to disillusion him. He was a realist.
"I'll try this one last time. But afterward? We’re going to stop pretending like we know each other, and put an end to these yearly meetings."
It was bittersweet, watching him walk away. On one hand, I knew that he was the only person that could help me find Sunshine. He was right, though. I'd been clinging to his group with what little connection I had. She was what brought us together, and she’d inevitably be what tore us apart.