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part I

first stanza: ashes to ashes

**********

"Ashes to ashes

...to ashes

to ashes...

...to ashes

to ashes...

...to ashes

to ashes...

to me...

...to ashes

to ashes...

...to ashes

to ashes..."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "Ashes to Ashes"

**********

The cigarette was burning to cinders at the end of its holder. With a final dying spark, it gave out and fizled, dropping ashes like water onto the paper.

I cursed and slammed down the pen. Getting any work done would be impossible today. Contemplatively, I strode to the window and leaned over the sill to look out. It was unusually warm for New York in early November. Most of the leaves had already surrendered and scattered to the four winds, but there were still a few survivors clinging in golden-red regalia to a few hardened branches.

As usual, I was still thinking in lines. "No more Shakespearean trash," I ordered myself. For now, I was free to write whatever I wanted. My new boyfriend had certainly taken care of that. I ran one freshly-manicured fingernail through perfectly-styled hair as I glanced around the suite again. Silk sheets and upholstery, beautiful hardwood furnishings, and a closet containing the best clothing and jewels money could buy in the mid-1970s. All of it provided by my darling boyfriend out of his love for the trophy woman who would occupy those rooms.

I never had any qualms about what I was doing. If someone had been to ask me, I would have given my customary rich laugh in that silken husky voice of mine and asked, "why?" I see it as a career, just as writing or accounting or killing is a career. My mercenary attitude was a great attribute in my profession; my most recent lover had, in fact, been a mob boss. As far as I was concerned, outdated morals only got in the way of survival. And I had always made it her goal not just to survive, but to thrive.

The pack of imported French cigarettes, a kind I'd developed an intense craving for during my years in Paris, was still sitting on the desk. I tapped one out into the palm of my hand and ignited it with the gold-plated lighter in the second drawer from the top. I needed another nicotine infusion. When Reuben got back, I'd have to entertain him for a while before I could coax him out for dinner. I felt like lobster tonight.

Suddenly I heard a loud banging noise out in the hallway. I raised an eyebrow and turned back toward the window, but when it persisted I stalked in annoyance over to the apartment door and threw it open. "Keep it down out there," I demanded imperiously. "I can't work like this."

"Good. I hoped you wouldn't be able to," said a voice from the hallway. I whirled and stared at the man standing directly outside my door. My ex-boyfriend. Still wearing the broad-shouldered Italian designer suits to try to hide what a little man he was. He was standing with those shoulders squared in the hallway, a large package resting against the wall behind him.

"Giuseppe," I breathed, balancing one hand on my hip. "I'm not sure what you're doing here, but I think we've been through this enough times. It's over."

"I agree, Olivia. It is." He stepped to one side, Italian leather shoes carefully avoiding the large package on the floor behind him. Then he was out of the way and I got a better look at what I had thought was a package. It was actually a man sitting slumped on the plush floor. His expensive silk suit was stained a vibrant red. He was very, very dead.

It was only then that I realized it was Reuben.

"You've always had quite a reputation for playing your cards right," Giuseppe said smoothly from the hallway, stepping back and breaking into my thoughts. "Sinking your teeth into one man after the other, always moving up the food chain. You even knew when...say, informing on a high-ranking member of the Family...? would help you in your eternal climb. This time, though, my darling, your choice was very, very wrong. *Dead* wrong, I should say."

I didn't wait for him to get the gun out before I turned and ran. With one high heel, I smashed through the window, spraying glass down into the street eighteen stories below, and swung myself outside and onto the fire escape. One desperate glance upward told me that he was leaning out the window and aiming at me. But Giuseppe was a boss, not a legman, and his aim had never been perfect. I could outrun him. I took a deep breath, brought my legs out to the sides of the ladder, and slid down without bothering to use the rungs.

The shots were going wild all around me when I hit the ground, but he wasn't anywhere near me. I reached for my gun and jerked it free from the tape keeping it pressed to the inside of my thigh. Now I was at the back of the building. On the other side was Central Park. I could run to the inner backstreets, but Giuseppe knew them as well as I did, and I knew he would find me sooner or later. My only option was to make it down to the Majestic. The doorman owed me a favor.

Gunshots rang out behind me. I looked back wildly, but I couldn't see Giuseppe anywhere. I fired back blindly over my right shoulder, tearing like a madwoman down the street. I could see the door of the Majestic at the very edge of my vision. My muscles were burning, and just as I reached the doorway--

--a searing pain shot through my back and I pitched faceforward to collapse into the street. A black limousine rolled past me. Through the tinted window, I could just make out the face of Antony, Giuseppe's right-hand man.

Damn, damn, damn.

I fired limply at the windshield, but my shot went as wild as Giuseppe's and my hand fell back onto the pavement. I could barely think beyond the pain. Everything was going black.

"I'll never play my cards wrong again," I swore bitterly through crimson lips as one last golden-red leaf fluttered down onto my face. It was autumn in New York. I was dead.

To be continued...

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