Day 78, WP76: Chapter 2 of MARCH MADNESS

You asked and I listened, Gentle Reader.  Here’s the second chapter of my novel, MARCH MADNESS, which is my mystery.  You can find the first chapter here.

 

CHAPTER TWO

“What did you say?” I reached for a napkin to clean up my mess, my hand shaking.

Dominic was satisfied by my stunned, explosive reaction if the little smile on his face was any clue. “Antonio Gasconi, the man you took the bullet for. He’s a Mafia boss around here.”

Everything fell into place with an almost audible click, from the cops waiting outside my hospital room to Dominic’s less than sweet interrogation. “Oh, so that’s what this is about. Y’all thought I was involved with the Mafia.”

“Honestly?” Dominic leaned back in his chair, his fingers cradling the coffee cup. “The popular theory was that maybe you were Gasconi’s girlfriend, but that didn’t pan out. None of the other theories seemed to hold up, either. Now, I hate to say it, but I’m beginning to believe you’re telling the truth.”

I resisted the urge to bury my face in my hands and muffle the scream trapped just in the back of my throat. “I really, really, really didn’t know who he was. I just wanted to get him out of the way. They know that, right? The Mafia? You guys have to know that, too. I’m a high school teacher, for God’s sake.”

“I’m sure they do. And after talking to Baton Rouge, the rest of the station believes you, too. You know,” he said, giving me a shuttered look, “you have a lot of family in law enforcement.”

“Four brothers, seven uncles, and fourteen cousins,” I said. “In Baton Rouge PD alone.”

His eyes didn’t even widen. He really had talked to Baton Rouge. “Yeah, I figured that’s why you weren’t phased by the interrogation. It must have been hell growing up.”

“Only for me.”

His face sobered. “Jesus, what did your brothers do to your ex-husband?” His voice was soft again, and I started to wonder if that was a natural personality trait or one bred by time and profession and career.

“Do you really want to know?” I played with the edge of my napkin. “Or is this another ploy for information you already have?”

“I’m just curious. Off the record.”

“Well originally, they were going to pin him with possession, or carrying concealed or something, but I put a stop to that.” Just barely, though. My brothers had been furious with David once they found out he was cheating on me. Add in everything else that had happened and Momma and I were ready to lock every one of them in the attic. “Instead, he got his license revoked.”

“How’d they manage that?”

“He received forty-two parking or moving violation tickets in three days.”

“Not just from your family.” It wasn’t a question.

“Family has friends,” I said, smiling a little. “He can’t operate a vehicle for a year.”

“I like your family already. How did they handle you leaving Louisiana?”

“They didn’t,” I said, the smile falling from my face. “Can we get back to Mr. Gasconi?” Don Gasconi. Of all the goddamn times to have an attack of Catholic guilt. Bang-up job, Sanderson.

Dominic nodded and cleared his throat, all business from then on out. “Big Tony Gasconi is a… reputable businessman around town. We can’t get him for anything illegal. He washes clean every time. We think this was a feud execution, but you managed to stop it.”

“Well, what did you do to the old man when you scraped me off the sidewalk?”

“Nothing. It’s not a crime to be shot at.” At my look, he sighed. “We pulled him in for questioning, but he’s not in jail.”

I fiddled with my napkin again, trying to control the blood rushing to my cheeks. “So… so he’s okay, right?” My fingers reached for the coffee cup next.

Dominic’s eyes narrowed to slits. “He’s a criminal.”

“But I mean, if you’re going to take a bullet for someone, you want to make sure it works and all. I’m just asking if he’s still alive.” I glanced over my coffee cup at him. “Don’t give me that look.” I took a sip and glanced again. “It’s not my fault. I didn’t know he was a mob boss.”

“One of your brothers said that you have the worst string of luck imaginable. I guess that’s true.”

“That’s got to be Jason. The rest think I’m blessed.” I slumped back in my chair, my fingers playing with the handle on my cup. “So what now?”

“Well, I think it’s safe to say the flowers are from him.” Dominic took a sip of coffee and a decided look at the large arrangement on the counter.

“Oh. Really?” At his nod, I shrugged with my left shoulder. “Well that’s sweet of him, I guess.” I followed his gaze to the flowers. The gerbera daisies were beautiful, a riot of sunset oranges and reds and maroons. I loved gerbera daisies. Come to think of it, I didn’t want to know how the old man knew that.

“And we think he paid your hospital bills, too,” Dominic said.

“Oh, I… well, I have insurance.”

“He covered your deductible, I mean. But it’s untraceable.”

“Well, I guess that–”

“And someone paid your rent for a full year.”

Okay, now I was getting creeped out. “Are you serious?”

“In cash, so again, untraceable.”

“Anything else you’re not telling me?”

Dominic sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “To be honest, Gasconi’s not your problem. He’s pretty old school, no dealings in drug or prostitution rackets that we’ve been able to link to him, but he’s got a Family of thugs that doesn’t have his sense of discretion, and they’re in the middle of a war with a few other Families.”

“So you’re tellin’ me I took a bullet for a discreet mob boss who’s in the middle of a freakin’… freaking mob war?” I tried to reject my accent, which had a tendency to become more pronounced when I was nervous, or in one of my “Moods,” as my family called them. Since college, I had tried to dissolve my accent, but put me in a strange situation, though, or two seconds with my family, and it was all “I’m fixin’ to make the groceries, y’all.” It was a royal pain in the ass.

“A discreet mob boss who has plenty of criminal dealings,” Dominic said. “But one who always pays his debts. And now, you’re one of them.”

“Okay, so I’m a discreet Mafia debt. That I get. That’s fine. Good. I like people paying my rent.” I leaned forward on the table, my hands clenching the edge. “Go back to the mob war thing.”

Dominic’s lashes hovered over his eyes, half-obscuring the pupils. He was about to tell me something very distressing indeed. I was sure of it. “Look, we really don’t think that’s going to affect you in any way. We just want to be in the know about Gasconi. The more interest he pays in you, the more interest other people will pay. Do you see what I mean?”

My eyes wandered back to the flowers on my counter. I saw what he meant, in a blazing Technicolor sunset rainbow. “So if word gets out that the discreet mob boss is following me around, paying my rent and sending me flowers, people are going to start thinking I’m someone important.” And important equaled killable.

“It shouldn’t be as bad as all that. Just let us know if you see any shady-looking characters around.” Dominic drained his coffee cup before he stood up. “And if you get any more presents.” He washed out his cup in the sink and cocked his head towards the door.

I trailed after him and his very exposed, very protective-looking gun. “Shady? How shady? Mafia shady?”

“Anything shady.” He gave me that heartbreaking smile again. “Thanks for the coffee.” With that, he and his gun were gone.

Well, fine. I had guns of my own. Two of them, in fact, and licenses for both. Unfortunately, they weren’t concealed-carry licenses, but maybe my parrain could take care of that. Mental note: call godfather for possible Illinois concealed license. My eyes trailed back to the flowers and I made a small addendum: call Catholic godfather, not Godfather.

But the flowers were beautiful. I plucked a few daisies out of the arrangement and reached for the red vase on my storage shelf without looking. When my fingers brushed against my kitchen timer instead, I glanced up to see the smallest shift of things. The timer was in the middle of the shelf, where the vase had lived since I moved into my apartment. Now, the vase was scooted almost to the end. Something nagged the back of my mind, and I walked over to the trash can to stare in dumb awe at its contents. I hadn’t put that ice cream carton in the trash can Monday night. I was sure of it.

I started taking inventory. When I ran my finger over my television, it came away with no dust. When I examined my bookshelves, the stacks in the corner were rearranged in ascending order by size. I would have never been so picky or so logical. Last book used went on top of stack. That’s how things worked.

“Son of a bitch.” I slumped against the wall. The goddamn Mafia had been in my house. And they cleaned.

My rage continued to build as I scanned the rest of my apartment. Not only had the Mafia cleaned my apartment, they had taken inventory as well. My secret money stash in the old Campbell’s soup can in the cabinet? It had a few hundred more dollars in it. My guns in my nightstand drawer? Cleaned, polished, and freaking loaded. It seemed like the only thing they didn’t do was make groceries and take out the trash. I slammed down on my couch and finally, finally checked my messages.

The number 27 stared up at me from my voicemail icon.

“Oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Of course I was wrong. Joseph called first. Aunt Mary didn’t call until much later.

“March Madness, it’s Joey. Call me.”

“Marchy, it’s your favorite brother. Gimme a call at home tonight,” Jason said.

“Nathalie March, this is Jimmy. You need to call me as soon as possible.”

“Natty Bumpkin, it’s me. If you don’t call me back in twenty-four hours, I am getting my ass on a plane and dragging you back home. Love you.” That was Remy.

On and on it went. All five brothers called, along with my mother, three uncles, my grandmother, some aunts, and assorted cousins. And to add insult to Sanderson family injury, the phone rang in the middle of the twentieth message.

“Hello, my Nathalie,” my mother said when I answered. “How are you feeling?”

The tension in my shoulders eased a bit at that soothing maternal tone. “Hey, Momma. I’m a little bit–”

“Because I’d like you to explain to me how you managed to get hospitalized two weeks after moving to Chicago.”

“Well, it started with–”

“Because it took you a month after starting kindergarten, at least.”

“But I didn’t–”

“And a police investigation already?”

“Momma, it’s not my–”

“You better call the boys. They’re worried sick.”

“But not you, apparently.”

“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

I closed my eyes. “I’ll call the boys right now.”

“I love you, Nathalie. I just don’t know how these kinds of things always happen to you.”

“Kind of wondering the same thing myself. I love you, too.” I hung up the phone and took a deep breath before I called the police station in Baton Rouge. At least that way, I could get most of the family done in one fell swoop, and maybe even get to them before Chicago told them I was the new Mafia mascot. “Jeremy Sanderson, please,” I told the operator.

“Detective Sanderson’s on a call right now. Can I take a message?”

She wasn’t an operator I knew, then. Someone new. Things had already started changing, and I had only been gone two weeks. “Joseph Sanderson, then.”

Rustling noises came from the other end. “Lieutenant Sanderson is not on duty at the moment. Can I take a message?”

My fingers started tapping along the end table. “Dammit, this is March Sanderson. Connect me with a Sanderson. I don’t care which one. Somebody has to be there.” Someone was always there.

There was a pregnant pause. “Hold, please.”

“Sanderson here,” a man said in a thick Louisiana accent a minute later.

“Who’s this?” I asked. All of the men in my family sounded alike, from the deep timbre of their voices to their dropped g’s. It was impossible to tell them apart when they only supplied a last name.

“Marchy? It’s Jace.”

I thanked God it wasn’t Joey who, in typical Joey fashion, would lecture me until Doomsday. “Hey, big brother.”

“Marchy hon, what’s this about you got shot?” Jason started sucking on his teeth and my fingers twitched against the table.

“I walked into a bullet. But the worst part is that it happened before coffee and you know how that goes.” Please don’t let him go on a rampage, I pleaded with the powers above and several in between. Let him remain calm and in Louisiana.

He sucked his teeth again before he answered. “Jesus, you okay?”

“Well, I’ve finally had some coffee, so sure am.” When he started chuckling, I eased back into the sofa.

“Chicago said it wasn’t that bad, and Jeremy didn’t freak out, but you know….”

“None of you got on a plane, right?” And if his easy-going attitude was any clue, none of them knew anything about Big Tony Gasconi.

He laughed harder. “We were going to come but you threw a fit. Then one of the nurses got on the phone and told us it was basically a scratch.”

I exhaled the breath I didn’t even remember holding. “It is. It’s just a scratch. Nothing to worry about. Barely even needed stitches.”

There was silence on the other end and my hand twitched again. “No one mentioned stitches.” His voice was about ten decibels lower now.

Oh heavens to Betsy. With all the things I had going on, the Sanderson Inquisition just had to come along and screw everything up. “I didn’t mean stitches. I meant–”

“Start at the beginning, Nathalie.”

Icy prickles danced along the back of my neck. The boys only pulled out my first name when they were especially pissed off.

After listening to my long complicated story that involved no Mafia, a few nuns, and maybe some homeless starving orphans, Jason was sucking so hard on his teeth, his nicotine patch must have been working overtime. “Jace, you there?”

“This is worse than the prom.”

My fingers drummed on the table triple-time. His hard voice was recognizable as the product of twenty some-odd years of scolding a baby sister run wild. Plus, well, prom had been a fiasco. “Jason.”

“And that time at Tiger Stadium.”

Which, of course, had been even worse than prom. “Jason.” My fingers drummed so hard, I formed a fist to make them stop.

“Swear to me that you’re fine, baby girl, and I’ll stop checking the prices for plane tickets.” Some typing sounds trickled through the phone. “Hell, will you look at that. Did you know that I can get a round trip ticket for–”

Words began to rush out of me. “I’m fine, I swear. I’m home from the hospital and there’s nothing to worry about. Who else was around when the call came in?”

The clicking sounds paused. “Remy, Jordan, Uncle Steve, Uncle Mikey, Corey, and I were here when Chicago called us. Hey, did that guy Alcott ever find you?”

“Apparently, he had a heart-attack. Some guy named Dominic Reggianno is working the case right now.” Another pause. “Stop thinking, Jace, before your patch catches fire.” In nineteenth-century New Orleans, the German and Irish immigrants didn’t get along with the Italian immigrants. New Orleans was a mere ninety miles from Baton Rouge. My family was both German and Irish. And the South had a long memory.

“All right, I’ll tell the boys not to buy plane tickets. But you better have your phone glued to your side. Love you, baby girl.”

I blinked back the tears threatening to flood my eyes. “Love you, too. Hey, thanks for not getting on a plane.”

“Won’t work next time. Next time you get shot, we’re hopping the red eye.”

“Well here’s hoping there won’t be a next time. That was the dress Maw-Maw wore to see Lady Day perform, and….” My voice trailed off when Jason cleared his throat. “I mean…”

Jason sucked his teeth again. “I taught you better than to go walking into bullets, and I know Momma taught you better than to go walking into bullets wearing a vintage dress.”

“Of course y’all did.”

“So behave yourself, baby girl. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I wandered over to the stereo and in a moment, Lady Day belted out the blues. My toes squished in the area rug, curling with the sudden calm coursing through me. Thank you, Billie. The calm continued through my shower, through the steam hanging thick in my bathroom, and ended with an abrupt screech when I glanced in the mirror to comb my wet hair. Ten stitches traveling from around my right collarbone to curve towards my breast. Three faded scratches tearing down my cheek and a slight bruising around my eye. And then, of course, there was the tenderness on my skull. I looked the poster child for heroin chic, a warning to good Samaritans everywhere.

Unfortunately for me, my mother had raised a good Catholic daughter who had a slight affinity towards compulsiveness. And stupidity. I rested my head against my mirror for a moment to revel in the humid bathroom before I headed across the living room to my bedroom to dress.

Once I was in my comfort uniform of a Sanderson brothers’ sports jersey and a pair of baggy pajama pants, I made another pot of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table, trying to control the twitchy impulses from my phone conversation with Jason. Didn’t work, damn his teeth sucking. After I made a careful climb on the windowsill and pulled down a pack of cigarettes, I poured a little water in a cracked mug for an ashtray, lit a cigarette, and breathed a sigh of tobacco relief.

The phone rang as I took my second drag and I eyed it with suspicion. There was only one person who would know to call me at this precise moment. “You’re just plain obnoxious, boy,” I said by way of greeting. “You know that, right?”

“Get that cigarette out of your mouth when you’re talking to me, Natty Bumpkin. You quit, remember?”

I relaxed in my chair. He wasn’t going to yell, not if he was teasing like this. My twin, contrary to a fault, called me by variations of my first name. “Not unless you get that donut out of your hand, Remy.”

“Donut? I see no donut here. You’re always picking on your wittle baby brother. Pick pick pick.”

“Two minutes mean nothing to anyone in the world but you.”

“Yeah, well, those two minutes mean I’m Momma’s precious baby and you’re just the icky girl.” His pause was brief, but it spoke volumes, all the same. “So the Brotherhood was scared you died, but even I’m not that lucky.”

I tried to match him tone for tone. “Takes more than a bullet to stop me.”

“Don’t I know it. Everything okay?”

Was it? I stared down at my cigarette, wondering why in God’s name I started smoking again in the first place. It must have been the situation with David. “I just got home and everything’s all still rushing around me.”

“Well put on Billie or Nina, smoke your damn cancer stick, and tell me what’s going on.” After I filled him in with as few details as possible, he sighed. “I’ll see what I can dig up, let you know what I find.”

“Don’t go digging too deep,” I said. “You’ll strike oil.”

“So it is that bad,” my twin said. “I kinda wondered. So who’s working your case? Are detectives in the Windy City called Sanderson, too?”

I gave him Dominic’s name and listened to the silence echo back at me. “Jeremy.

“Grumble grumble. I’ll give him a call, put in a good word.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“David came by the station today,” he said, changing the subject.

“Why’d you ever let me marry someone that stupid?”

“Because you told me you would smother me in my sleep if I didn’t lay off him. So it seems that someone papered his house last night. I told him he should think about starting a recycling business, what with all that extra paper just lying around his house. And on top of his house. And in the trees.”

“Oh Remy, you didn’t.” Unbidden, a little smile crept over my face.

“I didn’t. That would be wrong and unlawful. I’m an officer of the law, remember?” He lowered his voice. “But a few of the guys may have gone out walking after the poker game.”

“I still shudder over the thought that someone was stupid enough to give y’all badges and guns.”

“Nat, you know better. Who needs guns when there’s a special on double-ply rolls?”

I burst into laughter. “I’m hungry. Let me go so I can eat something.”

“Give me the detective’s name again. I just want to call and make sure everything’s okay.”

I thought about it for a second before I gave Remy the information off of Dominic’s card. After I hung up the phone, I finished my cigarette before I tore through my fridge, looking for something to eat. I opened a random container with hope, but it contained only butter. I rumbled around some more, grabbed cheese and bread, and sank down on my hand-me-down couch with a sigh. Before I moved, my oldest brother Jimmy and his wife mumbled apologies as they gave me their old living room set. I didn’t know why they apologized. The couch was deep and wide, lived in just enough to make it soft and inviting, and, of course, red was my favorite color. But I think they apologized more because I had no furniture of my own after the divorce. Jimmy was my lawyer, and he kept urging me to take David to the cleaners. I didn’t want to take David Thibodeaux anywhere. I just wanted to get the hell out of my marriage and back into my own last name.

But my bedroom set was new at least, although bought at a substantial family discount from my uncle’s furniture store. The bed was a cherry wood four poster with maroon and cream cotton sheets. I also had a vanity table, something I had wanted since I was a little girl. Growing up, I didn’t have dolls and play makeup and vanity tables. I had books and toy guns and my brothers’ football jerseys. I left the toy guns behind, but I never outgrew the books. I looked over at my built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and saluted them with a hunk of bread. The bookshelves were the real reason I fell in love with this apartment, the reason I ignored its odd floor plan–the bathroom on the opposite side of the house from the bedroom, the strange cubby-hole in the living room that was the perfect fit for my computer desk.

But once I moved in, I found other delights here and there–windows that caught the sun in the morning, square nail heads in the hardwood floors, the sturdy fire escape that served more as a balcony than as a safety precaution.

But my apartment was so empty without four surrogate fathers and a twin, without Ava smiling over a book or my mother cooking over the stove. I needed to get a cat, or a dog, or something. I decided to put that on my list for tomorrow. I walked over to the fridge and wrote “Buy Pet” on my dry-erase board. Shaking the pen, I also wrote “Buy Pen” underneath, and stopped myself from adding “Move Back to BR.”

I still didn’t know the real reason I accepted the job offer from Our Divine Mother of the Most Holy Rosary. Maybe it was the pretentious-sounding name, which still made me giggle. Maybe it was that Chicago seemed far enough away from David and Maria to be tolerable. Or maybe, it was divine intervention.

The nuns at Divine Mother were from the same order as the sisters at St. Martha’s, the high school I taught at back home. After David and I split up, St. Martha’s principal pulled me into her office. Sister Regina knew about my situation, of course. Everyone in southern Louisiana knew about my situation, thanks to the delightful media coverage.

Sister handed me a glass. We slammed back our drinks before she dropped a packet in my lap.

“What’s that?” I asked, my voice choked from whisky.

“Information on a school in Chicago. They’re looking for a new senior English teacher.”

“I’m… fired?”

“Of course not, honey. I would never fire you. You know how much we love you.”

I did know that much. I had gone to St. Martha’s for high school, applied to teach there after I got my Master’s, and was immediately given a job. I had been a good kid, despite the incidents my family liked to bring up, and even the ones they didn’t know about. Besides, Sister Regina once confessed to me that hellions were her favorites, and while the nuns clucked their tongues at “that Sanderson girl” running wild and rebelling against her domineering, overprotective brothers, they thought I was sweet and charming in a spitfire sort of way. Besides, they loved my widowed mother to pieces and felt bad that she had to raise five boys and that girl on her own.

“Then what?” I asked, fingering the file in my lap.

Sister Regina sighed. “March, get out of Louisiana. If you don’t, this thing with David will follow you for the rest of your life. The baby,” she made the sign of the cross, “is gone, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Try another city on for size.”

I rolled my empty glass in my hand. “Won’t it look like I’m running away?”

“Of course not.” After she removed my glass, she took both of my hands in hers. “Sister Joan, the principal over at Divine Mother, really wants an English teacher with your expertise to revitalize their advanced placement program, rework their senior literature courses. Look through the papers and think about it. Then if you want, give her a call. If not, stay here and no harm done.”

“My expertise, huh?”

She squeezed my hands. “The uncanny ability to stimulate brilliant teenagers bored to tears with ordinary school curriculum. Of course, it probably has nothing to do with your own personal experience.”

I blinked wide eyes at her. “I was an angel in high school.”

“You know better than to lie to a nun, March. That’s the straight ticket to hell.”

I burst into laughter and relaxed in my seat. “Uh huh. And why isn’t Sister Joan using someone in-house?”

“None of their teachers are working out with the advanced girls.” When I cocked an eyebrow at her, she sighed. “And yes, she owes me a favor.”

I started flipping through the papers. “Out of curiosity.” I glanced up at her. “Just out of curiosity, what’s the pay?” When she gave me the number, I almost fell out of my chair. It was almost twice what I was making in Baton Rouge.

“Illinois has a lot more money than Louisiana does, March.”

“Would I get dental?”

Three days later, I flew to Chicago, met with Sister Joan, and signed a one-year contract. I came home, finished out the school year, put my affairs in order, and arrived in Illinois the first week of June. And now here it was, closing on the middle of June, and I had made no friends, got shot in the shoulder, and was receiving strange gifts and a house cleaning from a mobster.

“Great idea, March,” I said as I headed to the kitchen. “This was a bang-up move.” I opened my freezer and, discovering three more pints of rocky road, decided to eat ice cream for dinner because, short of cheesecake, I was at a loss in my life.

I was halfway through the pint and Breakfast at Tiffany’s when I remembered that I had eaten the last pint of ice cream I had in the freezer on Monday night. So the Mafia had made my groceries.

Stupid ice cream.

#

I woke to shadows creeping across my room and the sound of thunder thick in the distance. A quick glance at the clock proved it was still early, and a quick stretch proved that my shoulder was making leaps and bounds in the healing department. But after three more phone calls from the brothers who hadn’t been able to reach me last night, I was itchy to get the hell out of the house.

When I walked outside for my run, I saw dark clouds rumbling overhead and felt the air thick and heavy with the promise of rain. A wave of homesickness rushed through me. The humidity in the air reminded me too much of Louisiana, too much of my brothers and summer football games in the yard. I started my run, trying to beat the rain, but I wasn’t a mile in when the sky opened and it started to pour. I slipped under a store overhang to wait it out, a little pleased that my shoulder was holding up under stress.

“Oof!” I slammed straight into another person and was about to fall back when a strong hand steadied me.

“You okay?” a man said from several inches above my head.

I looked up. And up. And up. Easily 6’5 if not taller, he was broad-shouldered and sculpted, not an ounce of fat I could see anywhere on his body. But his muscles weren’t gross and bulging, not like he was over-compensating for something. He was just… big. Mafia muscle big, despite the fact that he was too Aryan to have a last name like Gasconi. After I untangled his hand from my elbow, I backed away a few steps to get some breathing room. “I’m fine. Sorry about that.”

“Didn’t see you there.” He brought his hand back down and took a sip of coffee.

“Didn’t see you there,” I countered. Despite not seeing me there, he had held his cup high so that it hadn’t spilled a drop when we collided. Nice reflexes, indeed.

“Hiding out from the rain?” He couldn’t have been local Chicago. Everyone I had talked to had a thick Midwestern accent, or another accent tinged by traces of Chicago. This man’s accent was odd, devoid of any discernible place.

I squeezed my ponytail in my fist and watched the water drip onto the concrete. “Nah, I just thought that this was a good place to stand for an hour. Or three.”

“And slamming into people is a good way to make friends.”

I bit back the smile trying to creep on my lips. Damn him and his charming sarcasm. “Not really. That’s why I’m getting a dog tomorrow.”

He cocked his eyebrow at me. It would be cheap to call the color of his eyes sky blue. The color was too vivid, almost neon in its intensity. “Dog?” he said.

“Or puppy. Whatever.” Human beings shouldn’t have eyes that blue without a little help. “Are you wearing colored contacts?” The words fell from my lips before I could stop them.

He ran a hand over the shaved stubble of his dark blond hair and for some reason, I thought that it was a new personality tic for him. The blank face, however, seemed rehearsed. “What’s that, love?”

I glanced back at him, a smile threatening to peek out. “Sorry, it’s just been a weird week. I’m not usually this rude.”

He gave me a little half-smile that almost hid the long, thin scar that twisted under his right eye to curve along his cheekbone. “And I don’t usually block dry retreats.” He hesitated for just a second before he offered his hand. “Jackson.”

“March,” I said before I shook it. “You’re not local, either?” At his look, I untangled my hand from his. “It’s just… you don’t have an accent.”

His face blanked again, and I realized it was an automatic reflex, a trained response to hide emotion. “I’m local,” he said. “Long enough, anyways.”

Trained response to hide emotion. Tall, muscled, hanging out at a coffeehouse I passed on my regular runs. The stage was set, the scene rehearsed. This was suddenly familiar. There had been tall muscled men hanging out at the hospital yesterday, and I had been stupid enough to assume they were just guys. But no, they weren’t. They were Mafia, weren’t they? But they were definitely Italian, definitely Gasconis, and there was no way this man was. “So is Jackson a first name or a last name?” I asked as I took a casual glance towards the street.

“Last name. March’s a family name?”

Something in his voice made me pause. He knew me. Somehow, this strange man knew me. I turned back to him with a slow, deliberate movement as my foot edged behind me. “So you control the weather? Make the sun shine for me tomorrow, okay?” I took another infinitesimal step away.

He made no move towards me, just leaned against the wall and took a sip of his coffee. “I’ll see what I can do but you should be more careful,” he said, as he disappeared into the stinging rain.

I felt isolated on the porch, then, all at once and much, much too quickly. I wanted to go home.

When I rounded the corner of my street, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head and almost tripped over my own two feet as I saw a black luxury sedan cruise about a block behind me. I felt my heart leap in my throat and… it was coming closer. I ran faster, my feet splashing in the puddles, but the car kept pace. When it stopped at the curb, I ran faster still, not caring about my shoulder, not caring about the burning in my lungs. All I wanted to do was get away, get away before some scary man came out. And then there were feet splashing in the puddles behind me, keeping time with my pace. But I refused to look back, refused to let him catch me and I was so close, so close to home when a large hand grabbed my elbow. I tried to scream, I really did, but the scream died somewhere in my throat.

I gulped and looked up at the man, trying to wiggle out of his grasp, but his hand kept me in place. Why shouldn’t it? It was huge, nearly twice the size of mine.

I stifled a hysterical laugh and prepared to lift my leg, ready to kick him in a precarious place when I saw that he had something large and black in his other hand.

The man gave me a curt nod, opened a big black umbrella in his other hand, and placed it in mine. “Stay dry, Ms. Sanderson,” he said in a familiar odd voice. Well, of course it was familiar. But his toothpick was gone today.

“What?” My voice was a croak, my fingers gripped tight on the handle of the umbrella. He was the guy from the hospital, and the other man was… Bit? Bit seemed a lackey. This man seemed the boss.

And this man actually seemed taken aback. “Stay dry.” He pointed to the umbrella. “It’s raining.” He hesitated a second before he nodded again and turned back to the car.

It didn’t help, really. I stared after the car for a long time before I put the umbrella over my head and ran back to my apartment.

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