Copyright Amy L. Montz
It happened during the tail end of November in Baton Rouge, which seemed to be the tail end of everything: autumn, second quarter at St. Martha’s, and more recently, my faith in my marriage. That was the thought that ran through my mind that morning as I walked through LSU’s campus, near deserted in the pre-Thanksgiving vacation. To be honest, it was why it surprised me that anyone was around to offer help at all.
“My God, are you hurt?” a woman had asked.
Was I? My stomach hurt and my lip was cut but did that mean that I was hurt? “I… I don’t know.” I pressed my cheek against the cool tiles on the side of the library.
“…saw it from across the quad and I tried to get here before…”
Before my husband’s mistress attacked me and called me a whore? I pulled my knees closer to my chest and my stomach hurt, and I didn’t know why.
“…hit you like that? Do you know her? Did she…”
Maria Dugas broke something inside of me and I didn’t know what it was. There was a sharp pain, a deep pain somewhere inside and I felt… I felt…
“Like something’s gone.” My mouth formed the words and I heard them in my head but not in my ears. There was a roaring instead, and black dots dancing before my eyes and color, some kind of color, almost hazel, or chestnut.
“Could you help me get her up?” the woman asked someone else. “We can just bring her to those benches over there.”
I did hear that. I fought against the black dots and focused, instead, on the color. But when I blinked up into kind black eyes, I burst into tears.
The man’s face softened. “Come on. Let’s get you off the ground.”
Strong arms around me, pulled me upright, settled me down and I ran my fingers over the smooth, uneven pebbles on the bench.
The woman who had spoken first sat down next to me. “March, are you okay?” she asked in a thick Northeastern accent.
I looked up and recognized her, the white freckled skin, the short black hair peppered with grey, the almost pixie-shaped face and ears that I always suspected she disliked because they made her cute, even at fifty. “Dr. Williams,” I said in a soft voice. “Hi.”
“Do you know her?” Another man hovered in front of us and he spoke with a thick Cajun accent. I hadn’t heard an accent that thick since my wedding, when all of David’s family came out of the woodwork.
Dr. Williams nodded. “She was a student of mine. Listen, could you run over to Hill Library right there and ask for Ava Carmeno? Tell her to come right away.”
The Cajun nodded, gave me a look with concerned hazel eyes, and took off running.
“Divorce law isn’t in the main library,” I said.
“I’ll get her some tea.” The other man pulled something out of his pocket, scribbled onto it, and handed it to me. “I saw the end of it,” he said in a slight New Orleans’ accent. “You need a witness? I’ll testify for you.”
I glanced down at the piece of paper. His name and number were written in large blockish handwriting. “Thank you, Fabian,” I said in a mechanical voice, reading the name written there.
“You’re welcome, honey. I’ll be right back with that tea.”
“Who the hell was that insane bitch?” Dr. Williams asked, the words spoken through gritted teeth. “Do you know her?”
I bit my bottom lip so hard, I broke through the cut that was just healing. “That was my husband’s mistress. And she called me a…” my voice trailed off. She had called me a whore, pinned me against a wall, and hit me hard and fast in my stomach with something on her fist. Maybe brass knuckles. Maybe a thin chain. But who would ever believe someone as tiny as Maria Dugas could hurt someone as tall and awkward as me?
Dr. Williams handed me a linen handkerchief that smelled of cigarettes and coffee. Like me, my former professor had the same two addictions. Unlike me, she hadn’t quit smoking. “Here,” she said, pressing it against my lip. “You’re bleeding.” She lifted my hand to hold the handkerchief against my mouth.
I curled up in a ball on the bench and rested my back against the pillar. “I should have gone to the law library.”
“I don’t have my cell phone,” she said, pulling out a cigarette from her pack. “I was just coming out for a smoke. Do you have your cell phone?”
“No,” I said, staring at her cigarette, my finger twitching against my thigh. “I left it at home.”
Dr. Williams rested her elbows on her knees and took a quick drag. “When that man gets back with Ava, I’ll go call the cops. I just don’t want to leave you alone here, in case she’s still around.” Another quick drag, then, “David’s mistress?”
“Senator Dugas’ daughter, Maria. I just found out. Yesterday.” Dr. Laurie Williams was what she liked to call “old school feminist.” She didn’t believe in women taking their husbands’ last names if and when they married, and certainly never approved of her graduate student, one Nathalie March Sanderson, taking a few years off to get married rather than going on for a Ph.D. But she had come to my wedding anyways, and had given a lovely gift. Something crystal, maybe Waterford.
Dr. Williams took another quick drag before she stood up. “There’s Ava.”
“Jesus Christ, Sanderson.” Ava skidded to a halt in front of me, the man behind her almost colliding with her. “What the fuck happened?”
“Let me go call the cops.” Dr. Williams dropped her cigarette on the ground and crushed it with her heel.
“I have a cell phone,” the Cajun said to her. “I can call them.”
“Then do it.” Dr. Williams untangled Ava from me and pulled her to the side. They began whispering in earnest tones, glancing over at me every few seconds.
The Cajun sat down next to me. “They’ll be here, just a few minutes. Let me call–”
“Ask for Jeremy Sanderson,” Ava said from behind him. “Tell him to pick up his twin at the library.”
The Cajun ignored her and looked at me. “What’s your name, catin?”
“Which one do you want? I have so many.” I chewed on the sleeve of my sweater, my soft blue cashmere sweater that I loved.
“Give me one to tell your twin.”
“Tell him to come and pick up Nathalie.” I stared at his hand, at the faint scars on the back and the deeper one, cutting straight across his knuckles. “How incredibly biblical.”
He glanced up from his dialing. “Your name?”
“Your scar.” I pointed to his knuckles before I wrapped my arms around my knees, rocking back and forth. “Reminds me of carpentry.”
The Cajun glanced at it. “Nothing so romantic, cher,” he said before he made the call on his cell.
There was a cramp, deep in my stomach, and I doubled over. Something was wrong, something was breaking apart deep inside of me and I felt like my insides were coming outside. Hysterical laughter burbled in my throat and I sucked in a deep breath. Insides were outsides, outsides were insides. Blanche was right. It was a Barnum and Bailey world.
I smelled Chanel perfume and looked up at Ava. Tears were streaming down her face and she wrapped her arms around me. “I can’t believe she did this,” she said, rocking me back and forth. “That fucking crazy puta.”
“No, Jeremy Sanderson,” the Cajun said into the phone. “Tell him his twin was attacked on LSU’s campus.”
“Remy knows that I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
“Your twin is coming,” the Cajun said on the other side of Ava. “He’ll be here, just a minute.”
“Your accent’s bayou thick.” Ava glanced over at him as she ran a hand over my hair. “Where are you from?”
“I brought the tea,” Fabian said as he walked back over. “And I already called the cops.”
Did it matter? This kindness of strangers? Did Elysian Fields have to be so goddamn painful to get to?
“I did, too,” the Cajun said. “They’ll come quicker now, I guess.”
When Fabian crouched in front of me and took one of my hands in his, something passed through me. Maybe regret. Maybe clarity. “Got you this, too,” he said, opening my hand and dropping objects in my palm. “Thought you might want them.”
I stared down at my hand and the several foil-wrapped objects in it. “Hershey’s kisses.” I looked up at him. “Thank you.”
“I’m back,” Dr. Williams asked. She handed me the warm mug of tea before she sat on the bench. “How’s she doing?”
“She’ll be fine,” Ava said. “She’ll be just fine.” She took the cup of tea from me and pressed a kiss to my hair. “Know what color your sweater is, Sanderson?”
“Sky blue,” I said, closing my eyes. I was just so tired.
“It’s cheaply called sky blue now, but I think it’s much more literary than that. Della Robbia blue, maybe.”
I opened my eyes and looked into her green ones. “Blanche DuBois in her Della Robbia blue, like the old pictures of the Madonnas.”
Her mouth curved into a gentle smile. “Luring her victims to the Tarantula Arms.”
“And ‘the cathedral bells are the only clean thing in the Quarter.’” I had stopped crying. I wiped at my cheeks and knew that she had talked literature to me on purpose. She had made me forget, just for a second, what had happened to me. “Remy’s going to kill him.”
Her eyes grew hard, the green darkening. “Maybe he deserves to be killed.”
“Who gave you the cut lip, cher?” the Cajun asked. “It wasn’t the crazy Creole, was it?”
“She’s fine,” Ava said again, pulling me closer. “She’s just fine.”
“She said she was looking up divorce law.” Dr. Williams patted my leg. “Tell her if she needs another witness, I saw most of it, too.”
“I was just coming out of Himes,” Fabian said. “Where were you?”
“Across the quad,” the Cajun said. “The professor got here first.”
“I was just coming out of the building when I saw the tail end,” Dr. Williams said.
They were talking about me like I wasn’t even there. Maybe I wasn’t there. Maybe I would wake up in my bed and this will all have been a product of too much stress, too much confusion.
“What hurts?” Ava asked in my ear.
“Maria broke something inside. David broke something outside.” I ran my tongue along the edge of my lip and winced. “I can’t tell them, can I? They’ll kill them and I can’t have the boys in jail.”
Fabian glanced behind me and his eyes widened. “There’s a panicked man coming this way. That the twin?”
Ava glanced over. “That’s Remy.”
And I heard Remy calling my name, faint behind me, before his voice grew in volume. I looked at the two men and Dr. Williams who were still hovering around me. “Good Samaritans,” I said in a small voice. “Thank you for sitting with me.”
Dr. Williams patted my leg.
“Don’t you worry about it at all,” Fabian said.
The Cajun’s eyes softened as he looked at me. “Isn’t anything, catin. Be safe.”
Before I could respond to any of them, I felt Remy’s arms wrap around me and lift me up. I heard his deep voice–so thick with a Louisiana accent but flavored with something else, something rhythmic and a little boyish and just Remy–rumble thanks to these good Samaritans. Then my twin kissed my forehead, cradled me close, and carried me away, Ava trailing at our heels.
I had just finished relaying a shorter, less detailed version of the story to Dominic when our waiter walked over with a steaming metal dish. “All right. One stuffed spinach pie,” Evan said, placing the pizza on the table. He served me first and then placed a slice in front of Dominic. “Anything else?”
Dominic ordered two more beers. I fiddled with my fork and stared at my pizza with trepidation. Honestly, I didn’t even know why I was telling a stranger all of this personal stuff. Maybe because he had talked to my brothers. Or maybe because he asked me to dinner. Speaking of which….
“Why did you ask me to dinner?”
“I didn’t want to be shown up by the old man,” Dominic said.
I relaxed in my seat. If he was willing to lighten the tone, so was I. “No, really. Try again, and this time, go for something even less flattering.”
He shook some red pepper on his slice. “Because I was an ass at the hospital. I’m sorry about that.”
“I can’t believe you really thought I knew the old man.” I gave the piece of pizza a doubtful poke. “Dominic, it’s oozing.”
“I really didn’t. I was just doing my job.” He passed me a shaker. “Put some red pepper on it. Makes it even better.”
I shook some on and took the parmesan when he offered it. “Is pizza supposed to ooze?”
“You like pizza?”
“It’s one of the four major food groups.”
“Then take a bite. Trust me. Spinach or not, Chicago pizza is the best in the world.”
I cut into the pizza with my fork and brought the bite to my mouth. I glanced over at Dominic and found him watching me, his teeth caught on his lip. “You’re freaking me out. Stop watching me eat.”
His bottom lip edged from his teeth as his mouth spread into a smile. “Sorry. I’ve just never introduced someone to Chicago pizza before.”
I put the bite in my mouth and chewed. “Jesus Christ, I’m marrying this pizza.”
He relaxed in the booth and picked up his fork. “Told you.”
One empty pizza pan later, Evan walked over to the table. “Wow, you guys finished the whole thing,” he said, picking up our plates. “That’s impressive.”
I slunk down in the booth to hide my blush and to avoid looking at Dominic, who was still staring at me with an awed expression on his face. “Sandersons Hulk-smash puny pizzas.”
Dominic burst into laughter. “You want to try the local beer?” When I nodded, Dominic ordered two more and the check from Evan.
“I can take care of this whenever you guys are ready,” Evan said a few minutes later.
Dominic pulled out his wallet. “I got it.”
“No you don’t.” I reached across the table for the bill but he snatched it away.
“I got it, kid. You can get dinner next time I need to cross-examine you.”
“Sure,” I said, that tingling back in my fingertips. “I’ll get dinner next time.”
After Dominic handed Evan his credit card, he leaned back in the booth. “So, not to mix business with pleasure, but here’s the deal. I want you to let us know the second Gasconi tries to make contact. I want to be the first person you call.”
“Have you found out anything?”
He shook his head. “And if I did, I couldn’t necessarily tell you. But we don’t think you’re in any danger from Big Tony. In fact, you’ll probably be under his blanket of protection for the rest of your life, whether you know it or not. The old man may be a criminal, but he takes care of his own.”
“What should I do about the rent and the medical bills and the umbrella?”
“Umbrella?” As I told him the story about the car in the rain, he almost fell out of the booth in laughter. “Oh, that’s priceless.” He wiped tears from his eyes. “The old man sent someone to give you an umbrella?”
“It’s a very nice umbrella.” It really was much nicer than the one I owned, with a genuine wood handle and everything.
That got him rolling again. When he calmed, he shook his head. “I have to say this is the most interesting case I’ve ever worked.”
“I’m an interesting gal. So what should I do about all of this?”
“Call it an early birthday present. The money was legit, and there’s no way to trace it. Besides, it’s not a crime to pay someone’s rent or medical bills. Or gift an umbrella. But,” he stressed as he leaned forward, “if you ever feel like he’s stalking you, or following you around, you need to let us know right away. If this ever gets scary for you, call me.”
“Here you go,” Evan said, setting the credit card wallet in front of Dominic. “Second copy’s yours. Have a good night, all right?” Evan glanced over at me. “Sorry for calling you unusual.”
I patted one of his beautiful hands. “Better than a lot of things I’ve been called lately.”
“Like what?” Evan asked, flipping his hair out of his eyes.
“Like mobster’s strumpet.” When Dominic choked on his beer and gave me a warning look, I just shot him a sweet smile. “Good luck with school,” I told Evan.
“Yeah, thanks,” he said, his voice soft. His eyes were a little confused as they darted across my face, but he gave his head a tiny shake and smiled at me before he walked away.
I turned back to Dominic. “There have been a few things. Nothing big, just… I think someone was in my apartment while I was in the hospital.”
His face hardened. “Why the hell didn’t you mention this before?”
I tapped my thumb against my beer bottle. “Because they cleaned,” I said in an embarrassed voice. At his look, I leaned forward. “I think the Mafia cleaned my apartment. And then there are these big cars driving alongside of me while I’m running, men pulling me out of the way of oncoming traffic, and then you tell me I have a cop detail. Why do I need a cop detail, Dominic?” I didn’t mean to sound so accusing, but I hated to be left in the dark, especially in regards to my own personal safety.
He took a long swig of beer before he ran his hand through his hair. “Look, we don’t think you’re in any danger from the old man. We do, however, think that you’re in danger from… other areas.”
My thumb ceased its tapping. Other areas? Someone other than the Mafia Family whose don I saved? Who else would be… well, of course. “Y’all think the Family that put the hit on Big Tony is after me.” It made sense. The Gasconis weren’t a threat. They thought they were protecting me from a threat.
“We never said anything about anyone putting a hit on–”
“No, that’s it,” I interrupted. “You think the other Mafia Families see me as a threat or something.” I sucked in a deep breath and waited for him to confirm my suspicions.
He waited for at least thirty seconds before he spoke again. “It’s a small possibility,” he said. “You interrupted a hit, and nobody really knows why.”
The little glow of pride over figuring it out gave way to an overwhelming cloud of trepidation. Here I was, two weeks in Chicago, and entire Mafia Families may or may not be after me. I leaned my head against the wood at the top of the booth and tried to affect a light tone. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I just didn’t want an old man to die because I distracted him. What’s wrong with that?” Even I almost believed my nonchalance. It was either make a joke about it or scream, and I had never been much of a screamer.
“Just be careful,” he said. “Keep your eyes open for any tails. And as a precaution, we’ve got a few guys patrolling your neighborhood.” He took another swig of beer. “But let us know if you see any muscle around. If the old man thinks you’re in danger, he may have people in place to protect you.”
People in place to protect me. How charming. I was right. That did explain the “Ms. Sanderson” crowd. “Look, if you haven’t already told my brothers about this, I’d like you to keep it on a need to know basis. And really? They don’t need to know.”
“Sorry, kid. I told Jeremy the deal today. He made me swear to keep an eye on you.”
My brow wrinkled. He had already told my brothers and they hadn’t appeared on my doorstep yet? Something was up with a capital U and I didn’t know what it could be. “Oh, so that’s what this is about,” I said. “Remy told you to take me out to dinner.”
“I promise that I don’t need to be bullied into asking a woman out to dinner. I’m all growed up.” Dominic stood up and held out his hand to me. “Want to get some coffee?”
I yawned and took his hand, scooting out of the booth. “I honestly don’t think I could fit anything else in my stomach.”
“Not even ice cream?” he asked.
After ice cream, we were halfway to my apartment door when Dominic gave me a queer look. “March,” he said, gesturing towards my doormat before walking towards it.
I followed him towards the large white box punched with air holes that sat on my welcome mat. We peered down at it for a minute before I picked up the note. “For luck,” was all it said. I cocked an eyebrow at Dominic but he shook his head.
“No idea.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and knelt down. When he took off the top, I exhaled.
The $800 puppy from the pet store jumped up the sides, trying to climb out. His papers were in a plastic baggie inside the box, along with food and vouchers for vet visits.
I reached in to pet him and avoided looking at Dominic. “Do I have to give him to you for evidence?” When Dominic made a little choked sound in the back of his throat, I glared at him. “Stop laughing at me!”
He pulled himself together and avoided my eyes. “I need to make a phone call.”
I unlocked the door and he carried the box in. While he made his call, I petted the puppy inside the box until Dominic came back. “Good news or bad news first?” he asked.
“You should make a report since we think this is connected to Gasconi. But since there’s no discerning evidence, we can’t press charges.”
“What’s the good news?”
“You get to keep the puppy.”
I looked up at him. “Are you sure?”
“Positive,” he said. “What are you going to name him?”
I picked up the puppy and held him close. He cocked his head at me before he tried to gnaw on my earlobe. “The Artful Dodger.”
“I think that was the one book I actually read in high school. He does seem scrappy, doesn’t he?”
I made kissy noises at Artful. “Yes he does.” I looked over at Dominic. “Do you want a beer or something?”
“Nah. I just want to hold the dog.”
I passed Artful over to Dominic and the two of them regarded each other with solemn chocolate eyes. Artful leaned forward and licked Dominic’s nose. In return, Dominic brought Artful’s head close to his mouth and blew. Artful’s face scrunched up before he began wriggling, trying to lick Dominic again.
“He’s a cute thing,” Dominic said, handing him back to me. “I have to run. Take care of old Artie here.”
“Thanks for dinner,” I said, walking him to the door. “I had a good time.”
“I did, too.” His hand clenched the door knob but didn’t turn it. “I’ll see you around. Be safe.”
After Dominic left, I looked down at Artful as he wiggled his butt in the air. “So what am I going to do with you?”
I stayed up half the night reading through Artful’s paperwork, and was pleased to discover that he was already potty-trained, had all of his puppy shots, and wouldn’t get any bigger than thirteen pounds. When the Mafia gave you a gift, they really went all out, but I still couldn’t bring myself to look in Artful’s mouth. Gift puppies and all. I put some paper down in the corner of the kitchen and crawled off to sleep. Artful slept by my feet and kept me warm.
When I woke to whining, I padded into the kitchen and saw my gift puppy staring at his bowl. I put some food in it, gave him fresh water, and checked the time. “Artful, it’s five a.m. This is not a routine you want to establish in this household.” Artful chewed his food and wagged his tail, completely ignoring me. Resigned, I got dressed and went out for my run.
I was three miles in when the same black car pulled alongside of me. This time, I slowed down to a jog to see what would happen.
A window rolled down. “Don’t dehydrate, Ms. Sanderson.” A big beefy hand reached out of the window and handed me a bottle of water and a towel. I held on to them, stupefied, as the car drove away.
“Okay, now this is just getting weird,” I said before I chugged down some of the water.
When I got home, I walked Artful before I stopped by my landlady’s apartment to explain the situation, leaving out the possible Mafia involvement. I tried to pay her the pet deposit, but she shook her head.
“Already taken care of.” Mrs. Cunningham leaned against her doorframe and smoothed back her fading blonde hair. Her makeup was still fresh this early in the morning. By mid-afternoon, the blue eyeshadow would be creased in her eyelids and the red lipstick smeared a little in the corners. But her clothes were always impeccable and her hair always perfectly arranged. “Some guy left it with William last night. Part of the gift, I guess.”
My grin tightened. “Did he leave a card or anything?”
“Nope, no card. Sorry.”
“Did he describe the man in any way?”
“William?” She wheezed out a laugh. “March, I started coloring my hair three years ago. Last week, my dumbass husband looked at me and asked if I changed something recently.”
“I think your hair is lovely.”
“I think so, too. Damned if William ever notices.”
“Well, did he at least get the man’s name?”
Her eyes swept towards the ceiling and her fingernail tapped against her lip before she looked at me again. “John Smith. Yep, his name was John Smith.”
I sighed and gathered Artful in my arms. “Of course it was.”
After I showered and dressed in red capris and a stretchy black t-shirt, I decided to get Artful acquainted with the neighborhood. I should be frightened of the Gasconis’ attention to me, but I wasn’t scared. Not yet, anyways. They were becoming like hairy fairy godfathers in my head, granting my every wish. I mean really, what had they done for me? They gave me flowers and umbrellas, paid my rent and my deductible, and gave me a puppy. These were nice things, a way of saying thank you for saving a life.
And okay, it was probably a stupid thing to do. I could have died, and my brothers were right. They did teach me better than to walk into a bullet. But my mother also raised me, and she taught me to be a good girl. Of course, she also told me not to walk into bullets, but the good girl speech came with more frequency.
I kept an eye out in my neighborhood for big black cars and large, imposing men, but apparently, even the Mafia took some time off. No more cars sidled up to me, and no men ran over to try and intimidate me. It wasn’t as hot as it would be back home in swampy Louisiana–although Chicago was giving it the old college try–but the sun peeking through the trees in the park threatened to dispel the cool wind from the previous rain.
Artful and I passed the coffeehouse I hid out at during the rainstorm–“Marigold’s,” the sign read–and I realized that in my haste to bring him out, I had neglected my cardinal rule. No interacting with humanity without coffee first. I had too many memories of strange conversations and odd purchases–and a recent bullet to the shoulder–to forgo such an important disciplinary measure.
I picked up Artful and looked him in the eyes. “Don’t let Momma forget coffee again, okay, honey? Or it’s bad news bears.” He wiggled his butt and stretched towards me. I nuzzled his head before I put him down. We started to walk in the door when I noticed the “No Pets” sign on the window. Sighing, I looked around for a large black car to pull up and hold my dog’s leash while I walked inside, but for once, the Mafia was not obliging. Honestly, if they were going to cater to my every need, they shouldn’t do it half-assed. But there was a man on the porch, and I decided to ask him if he could watch Artful.
I froze. It was my rain companion from the porch, the big one that seemed to know entirely too much about my situation. I resisted the urge to run away screaming and walked towards the table. He glanced over at me as I approached, and his face was calm, unreadable. Mental note: this one never shows emotion. “Jackson, right? I almost didn’t recognize you, standing away from the doorway like that.”
A tiny half-smile curved on his face. “Sunshine as ordered, love. How’s it working out for you?”
There it was again, that slight undercurrent of innuendo. “Oh, everything’s working out fine, just fine. I’m making it a point not to run into large, looming men anymore.”
He didn’t take the bait. He just leaned down to ruffle Artful’s fur. “I see you got your dog.”
Well fine. He didn’t look like he was going to start waving a gun at me, nor had he offered to give me an umbrella or to buy my coffee, so I sat down. “Last night, actually.” Artful was trying to jump on my lap. I patted my knees and he jumped higher.
“That’s it? He’s already trained.”
“He was a gift,” I said, leaning down to pet Artful. “And he came trained.”
Jackson crouched down and scratched Artful behind the ear. “Nice gift.” Artful’s eyes closed in delight and he settled his head on his paws.
“Best one I’ve ever received.”
Jackson took Artful’s leash and cocked his head at the door. “Go ahead. I’ll watch your puppy.”
After ordering a triple caramel latte and a chocolate croissant, I went outside to see Jackson and Artful in an earnest conversation. Artful looked fascinated by the tall man in front of him.
“Are you teaching my dog your wicked ways?” I asked.
“Always,” he said. Jackson put his hands on his knees and stood up to his quite impressive height. “Nice to see you, March.” He picked up his coffee cup and walked away.
After I ate—well, devoured—my chocolate croissant, Artful and I walked to the park and we both bounced a little. I couldn’t tell if it was because I was happy or because I was a bit rounder from the pizza last night and the chocolate this morning, but life was looking up. I had made a new friend who happened to be a sexy detective, and I had a new puppy. The sun was shining, Marigold’s made an exceptional triple caramel latte, and my hair was staying straightened without humidity to frizz it up. I passed a man on the sidewalk and smiled when he nodded at me. Even the people were becoming friendlier. Chicago, you’re looking better and better. Well, except for that getting shot in the shoulder thing, and the Mafia Family or Families trailing after me, but other than that, everything’s coming up roses.
“Coming up roses, Artful,” I said in a soft voice to my puppy. “If this were a musical, this is the moment when we’d burst into song.” When Artful nosed my leg, I sighed. No singing, talking animals in this feature, Sanderson.
After we played in the park for a bit, Artful and I headed back to my apartment. He was still bouncing. I, however, had the strangest feeling on the back of my neck, icy prickles like eyes were boring into it. But every time I turned around, no one was there.
When we rounded my corner, I felt it again, the same sense that eyes were following me. I walked a little faster. Artful, thinking it was a game, began to run and I trailed behind him, my hand wrapped around his leash. We reached the front door of my apartment building and I fumbled in my purse for my keys. Once I pulled them out, I glanced over my shoulder one last time, and froze.
Jackson was leaning against a tree about ten feet away, arms crossed over his chest, an amused smile on his face. “We have to work on your surveillance skills, love,” he said, pushing himself away from the tree. “You do this back-stiffening thing before you glance over your shoulder. Every time.” Then he gave me a small wink and walked away.