March Madness Chapter Six

Copyright Amy L. Montz


“Good morning, Kit.” I paused my morning run long enough to give the familiar golden retriever a scratch.

Sam’s cell phone rang. He gave me an apologetic smile before he pulled it out of his pocket. “See you tomorrow, March.”

Dammit. I gave him a brief wave and settled back into my run. The problem with thinking you’re being followed is that you feel eyes on you at all times. The problem with knowing you’re being followed is that you really don’t know what to do about it. I was too far within a residential area to get to a public place, and I didn’t want to turn back and show whoever was following me where I lived.

I almost tripped over my own feet. Unless they knew? Was it the cop detail? The hairy fairy godfather squad? I risked a glance over my shoulder and saw the two men again. They were walking down the street about half a block down, chatting away, and seemingly unaware of me. Or maybe I was being paranoid.

Once I settled back into a decent pace, I scanned my surroundings. Nothing but brownstone after brownstone. Another few blocks and I would be in a more populated area. If I could just hold out for a coffeehouse or a bakery or something, I could get to a phone and call Dominic. He seemed to be the only person in the city I could call about something like this.

One more glance over my shoulder showed an empty street. The two men were gone.

I slowed my pace and leaned against a light pole to try and catch my breath. Paranoia, pure and simple. I was seeing monsters and goblins and Mafia thugs everywhere I went. It didn’t meant that they were actually following me–

 “Hey Sanderson,” a man said about fifteen feet away. “Gotta talk a sec.”

And then, maybe the thing about paranoia was that I was right. I pulled away from the pole and started to head towards the street when a firm hand on my elbow stopped me.

“Just one second of your time,” another man said, his voice deeper than the other’s. Probably stronger, too, if that grip on my arm was any clue.

They must have taken a shortcut, slipped in between two buildings to catch me off guard. This was their turf, after all. Had it been Baton Rouge, I could have given them the slip a mile back. Hell, I would have probably run into at least three Sandersons by now.

But this wasn’t Baton Rouge, and there wasn’t a Sanderson for miles around, except me. I yanked my arm out of his grip and backed away. “You want to talk, you talk. But there’s no need to use physical force.”

“You’re absolutely right,” the first man said. He had white-blonde hair and green eyes, with a pale skin that spoke of some Irish ancestry. I recognized that pale skin, saw it echoed in the mirror every day. Irish. Definitely Irish, and probably with a last name like–

“Mr. Callaghan wants us to talk to you.” The blonde nodded to his friend, and the darker man backed off.

“I have a cop detail,” I said as if that would protect me. Of course, said detail was nowhere to be found, but what did that matter? Sometimes empty threats were better.

A slight smile passed over the blonde’s face before he leaned against the brick building. “Yeah, I’m sure you do. Promise, cross my heart, we just want to talk. Okay?”

But no, I didn’t just have a cop detail. I had years of roughhousing with five brothers to keep me on my toes, and one of those brothers taught an honest to God self-defense class for women. Aim for the eyes, the gut, or the balls, Jason had told me time and again. And then? Run like hell. “What do we need to talk about?”

“Mr. Callaghan said you didn’t seem to get the message last night.” The blonde looked at his friend. “He offered his protection.”

“I don’t need any protection, but thank you for the offer.” Apparently I responded to stress with extreme politeness, particularly when it involved a future student’s Mafia don father.

“Yeah?” the brown-haired man said. “You sure about that? Pretty easy to find you. Pretty easy to slip into that apartment building of yours.”

They knew. Somehow, these men knew about the threats, but deep down inside, I didn’t think they were the harassers in question. A gut instinct, maybe, one that might come back to bite me, but I went ahead and rode that instinct. “You weren’t the one on my phone yesterday,” I said in a quiet voice. “I don’t recognize your voice.”

“Nah, it wasn’t us.” The blonde shifted on the wall and rested his head on the brick. When he looked down at me, I realized how young he really was. No older than twenty or twenty-one. Just a baby. “That’s what Mr. Callaghan was trying to tell you.”

“Trying to tell you to tell Gasconi we got no beef with you,” the other man said. He was older than his friend, but not by much. “The ones in your building yesterday? Not us. Mr. Callaghan told us to tell you to tell Gasconi that he’d kiss the Virgin’s feet to swear.”

Even though I still had no idea where this conversation had intended to go, this certainly wasn’t what I had in mind. But maybe it would be bad form to murder your daughter’s English teacher. Maybe I should relax and realize that some things offered some pretty intense protection, like future recommendation letters. “So you’re here to relay a second-hand message to me to relay third-hand to Gasconi?”

The blonde’s brow wrinkled and it was quite possible he was calculating my equation in his head. Then, seeming to come to some decision, he nodded. “Yeah, that’s about right.” The blonde reached towards his hip and I braced myself for a quick getaway, but it was gum rather than a gun that he pulled out of his pocket. When he offered me a piece, I just shook my head. “Mr. Callaghan said he’s got no beef with his daughter’s high school teacher,” the blonde said before he popped a piece of gum in his mouth. The smell of spearmint grew stronger as he chewed.

The blonde pocketed the pack of gum and pulled away from the wall. “So tell Gasconi that whatever beef Mr. Callaghan has with him, it’s not with you.”

So the Callaghans weren’t harassing me because I was Patricia’s teacher? “Why don’t you tell Gasconi himself?” I asked.

The blonde’s eyes widened. “You’re kidding, right?”

“She ain’t kidding,” the other man said, peering at my face. “She don’t know.”

“Look,” I said, easing a foot or so back, “if I ever see Gasconi, which I doubt seriously, I’ll pass on your message. Other than that, tell Mr. Callaghan that while I appreciate his offer of protection, I’m sure I don’t need it.”

“He thought you might say that,” the blonde said, glancing at his friend. “And we’re supposed to tell you that if something does happen to you, it’s not us.”

“Not us,” his friend said. “We got beef with Gasconi, but not with you.”

Me and Alice, on our way to Wonderland. How deep was this rabbit hole? How long would I keep falling until I hit bottom? “So let me get this straight,” I said. “You had beef with me until you found out I was Patricia’s future English teacher?” And as surprising as it was, it just confirmed my beliefs that Chicago, like Baton Rouge and New Orleans, were just big “small towns.” Apparently everyone knew your mom ’n them.

The blonde shuffled his feet and glanced at his friend again. “You didn’t know it was Gasconi getting shot. We know that now.”

“Yeah, thanks for that.” I watched the men nod at me and walk away before I slumped against the wall and tried to resume normal breathing. Sure, the conversation had been as non-threatening as possible, but the bulges beneath their shirts had been more than a little frightening. You didn’t forget what a concealed weapon looked like under a shirt. Not after seeing it every day for the first twenty-seven years or so.

“You look pale,” a deep voice said behind me. “You okay?”

I almost jumped out of my skin. “Jesus Christ.” I turned and saw the ubiquitous Mr. Jackson standing next to me, watching the Callaghans fade in the distance. Black t-shirt, faded blue jeans, it was like some kind of uniform. Three times now he had worn a similar outfit.

Once the Callaghans had disappeared from view, Jackson flicked those inhumanely blue eyes back to me. “You keep some strange company, love.”

Maybe it was the near-mocking euphemism, or that damnable amused expression, or maybe, just maybe, I was sick and tired of strange and potentially dangerous people wandering up to me pre-caffeine. It had to be the reason I went on the defensive. “With whom I speak is really none of your concern.”

He just leaned against the brick wall next to me. “Proper grammar. Very impressive,” he said before he took a sip of coffee.

“English teacher,” I said, cocking my head at him. Since when did mobsters care about grammar? “Comes with the territory.”

The right corner of his lip curved up and I saw the shadow of that little half smile I was beginning to recognize. “Then could you show me the proper use of ‘lie’ and ‘lay’? It’s always been a bit confusing for me.”

A blush spread over my cheeks. “Not ever going to diagram your sentences, tough guy. Just giving you a heads up.”

“How about helping me splice my commas? I’m open for negotiation.”

I had to admit. It was the first time a man ever tried to seduce me with grammar, and it was working a little too well. Despite his scary shadowing and muscled inclinations, he was an English nerd, too. I was sure of it. “Splice your own commas, tiger.”

Jackson peered over his coffee cup at me, eyebrow raised. “It’ll be a treat if you split my infinitives. Anytime you want, love. Just say the word.”

This had to stop, and soon. Despite his looming bulk and his omnipresence, his innate knowledge of grammar and mechanics was charming me like nobody’s business. “What are you doing here?”

Jackson took a sip of his coffee and saluted me with the cup. “Best coffee in the area, love. And a great view.”

I looked back down the street in the direction the Callaghans disappeared. I was only a block from Marigold’s. Dammit, they had gotten me all turned around. I could see the now-familiar yellow and white striped awning, cheerful and warm, in the distance. “Why were you following me yesterday?” I turned back to Jackson.

He gave me his half smile again. “I like your dog.”

The tension left my face as I tried to shift directions with him. “Artful?”

“Artful Dodger, right? Good name. He has a kind of Dickensian scrappiness to him.”

It seemed almost a challenge. “And you have sort of a Faulknerian creepiness to you. So are you going to tell me why you were following me yesterday or what? Are you in league with the old man? With the Callaghans? And how the hell do you know so much about grammar?”

Jackson looked beyond me in the direction the Callaghans had disappeared and his face shifted, became unreadable in a single instant. All the emotion–the teasing eyes, the half smile–just melted away. I pulled back from him. None of the pieces added up and I couldn’t, despite my big brain, figure him out. One second he was all flirtatious grins and winking eyes, and the next second… well, the next second, he looked… professional.

When he leaned down to whisper in my ear, the scent of clean linen flooded my senses. It was a soothing smell, odd and comforting at the same time. Like the smell of fresh laundry drying in the sunshine, or the five minutes before it rained when the air was thick and heady with ozone. “You need to figure out whom to trust in this situation.” He slipped a business card in my hand. “And from where the real threats are coming. Ask yourself why the Callaghans want you to know they’re innocent.”

I stared at his hand, at the web of scars crossing his skin like ancient constellation maps. There was Orion. There was Cassiopeia. “Because they’re scared of Gasconi?” I whispered. The rabbit hole was deeper than I had ever imagined, and I would fall forever, the way things were going.

He chuckled, and it was an honest sound. “Maybe,” he agreed. “But who does the Mafia fear more than anyone?” Jackson straightened and stared down at me, those neon blue eyes impossibly brighter in the bright sunshine. “I’m here to make sure that bad people don’t hurt you, love. Call me if you need me.” He gave me a little wink–all in the cheek muscles and none in the eyelid–before he walked away.

I looked down at the bright white paper. Its raised black lettering spelled out only a phone number. I had received two business cards in as many days, both with offers of help. But Jackson, for some strange, unknown reason that I was sure would blow up in my face sooner rather than later, seemed the more sincere of the two. There was something about him I just wasn’t getting, something just out of my reach. But when I tried to grasp it, tried to hold on to that spark of recognition, it dissipated in my mind like so much smoke. I turned around and ran back to my apartment, and didn’t look over my shoulder, not even once.


By the time I was showered, dressed, and back down at Marigold’s, Jackson was gone, but I hadn’t come unprepared to meet other faces that I may meet. Time to murder and create, Sanderson. There was a canister of pepper spray in my pocket and a taser gun in my purse. Both had been good-bye presents from two of my uncles back in Baton Rouge. They seemed to think Chicago was going to be a dangerous city, with dark alleys and men lurking about, ready to take advantage of a small-town girl from the South.

They would be pleased to know that they were, once again, completely right.

I gave Artful a brief glance, sucked in a fortifying breath, and walked into the coffeehouse with my puppy trailing at my heels.

“No pets,” the barista said the second I walked through the door.

I glanced down at Artful who was standing by my feet. “Sorry. I didn’t want to leave him outside alone in case–”

“No pets,” the girl said again, gesturing to the sign on the door for emphasis. “Health codes, ma’am. Could you take him outside now?”

Defeated, I gathered my puppy with as much dignity as I could muster and headed towards the patio. “They’re prejudiced,” I whispered against Artful’s head as we slipped through the door. “Anti-dog or something.”

“I can watch him for you, if you want.”

I glanced up at the man that had made such a generous offer. I had had just about enough of the Mafia for one day, and was about to tell him so, when the door behind me opened and sent me flying through the air.

The man’s strong arm steadied me and I looked up into hazel eyes. A woman walked by us, mumbling an insincere apology on her way.

“Are you okay?” the man asked. “You are always falling down, aren’t you?”

Something about him nagged the back of my brain, something associated with things much more pleasant than the Mafia. “Do I know you?”

He settled me on my feet. “Triple caramel latte? Medium?”

I relaxed and gave him a smile. “Barista who remembers my drink order. Brian, right?”

“That’s me. Although I must protest your choice of venues.” He gave a pointed glance to Marigold’s sign.

A blush began to warm on my cheeks. “Et tu, Brian?”

He laughed. “It’s okay.” Brian settled back in his chair and pointed to the legal-sized white paper on the table. “I’m trying to get hired here. Chi-Town Latte is making cutbacks, and I was cut back.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Artful bumped against my feet and I leaned down to give him a scratch.

“I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” He reached out his hand for the leash. “Go get your drink. I’ll watch… what’s his name?”

“Artful Dodger.” I passed the leash over. “I’ll be right back.”

I was just putting raw sugar in my latte when it occurred to me that I didn’t know Brian the barista from Adam’s housecat. What if he sat outside coffeehouses, waiting for unsuspecting pet owners who would never hesitate to ask someone to watch her dog in Louisiana, but was iffy about it in Illinois? When I came tearing through the front door, Brian was scribbling onto his application with his left hand, and holding Artful’s leash with his right. Artful, cuddleslut that he was, was just lying on Brian’s feet looking perfectly content.

“Thanks,” I said as I walked over. I gave Brian a brief smile as I took the leash from him. “I appreciate it.”

“No problem.” He flipped the application over and moved a stack of books off the empty chair. “Want to sit down?”

Actually, what I wanted to do was check out his books. I read the titles aloud as he moved them. “Moon Palace, The Big Sleep, The Eyre Affair, and…” I peered close at the title. “King Lear. Any good?”

“Have you not read any of them?” he asked after he set them down.

“I’ve read the Chandler and the Shakespeare, but not any of the others.”

“Do you like Catcher in the Rye?

I leaned forward a little. “Am I a psycho if I say it’s one of my favorite books?”

He handed me the copy of Paul Auster’s Moon Palace. “Well, try this, then. I tend to think of Marco as a cross between Holden Caulfield and Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov.”

“Really?” I took the book and read the back cover. “It sounds great.”

He gave me a faint smile. “Enjoy it, then.”

“I can’t take your book.” I tried to give it back, but he shook his head.

“Think of it as my good karma. If I loan you a book, then I get the job here and you can return it to me.” He tapped the back of the application in front of him.

“I hope you…” I was interrupted by my ringing cell phone. “Hang on. Sorry.” I rummaged through my purse, past the taser and my wallet and not-so-secret cigarettes and found it buried at the complete bottom. “Hello?” I answered just after the fourth ring.

“March? It’s Dominic. How are you holding up?”

I tried to control the involuntary smile creeping across my face, but my face just wouldn’t listen to me. Stupid face. “I’m okay. I was on my way to see you, actually. I’ve got some stuff I need to tell you. Hold on a sec.” I put my hand over the receiver and looked at Brian. “Thanks. Good luck with the job, okay?”

“Yeah, thanks, March. Take care.” He gave me one last smile before he turned back to his scribbling.

Artful and I wandered towards the street. “I’m back,” I said into the phone. “I was just getting coffee. Can I stop at the station?”

“Actually, yes, you can,” Dominic said. “That’s kind of why I’m calling. I needed you to drop by here for a few minutes.”

“What’s wrong?” The funny feeling in my stomach was back, but I didn’t know if it had to do with Dominic or his rather polite request to come down to the police station. Bad things came from polite requests to come down to police stations.

“Just come on down. Do you know how to get here?”

“I think so,” I said as I headed left on the street. “Give me directions.” After two blocks, I turned around and headed in the other direction. When I passed by Marigold’s again, I raised my hand to wave at Brian, but he was gone. Artful and I arrived at the police station about ten minutes later.

“I’m here to see Detective Reggianno,” I said to the man at the desk.

The young officer looked up at me and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “I’m sure you are. What’s your name?”

“March Sanderson.”

His brown eyes grew serious. “I’ll take you to Reggianno. Follow me.” After he threw away my empty coffee cup, we wandered to Dominic’s cubicle. The officer rapped on the wall. “Hey Reggianno.”

“What’s that, Markus?” Dominic said, not even looking up from his desk.

“Sanderson’s here to see you.”

Dominic looked up and smiled at me as he slid the glasses off of his face. “Hey kid.” He gestured to a chair before he dismissed Markus.

Artful settled at my feet and closed his eyes. “So what’s up?” I tried to resist the urge to start cleaning his desk. Dominic looked even more tired than he had the night before. He hadn’t shaved, and a deep shadow stretched across his jaw, making the circles under his eyes even darker. “You okay?”

“Tired as hell.” He slid a photograph over to me. “Do you recognize this man?”

I looked at the picture and tried to place the man. Early thirties, I’d say, with a large bulbous nose, deep-set blue eyes, and dark eyebrows. He had light brown hair cut close to the scalp. I shook my head and handed back the picture. “No, I don’t.”

Dominic slid another picture over. “How about this one?”

Closer-set eyes than the first, but the same intense eyes, the same short brown hair. His nose was smaller, almost aquiline. He was younger as well, maybe late twenties. I shook my head again and gave Dominic the picture. “Sorry, I don’t. Should I have recognized them?”

“I didn’t think you would.” He jotted something down on a notebook and looked up at me. “But we had to make sure.”

“They’re not suspects from the shooting, are they?”

He gave me a shuttered look. “No one you need to worry about.”

“Dominic, you have to tell me. Please.”

He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “If I tell you, it’s only because you’ll see it in the papers tomorrow.”

I look down at my hand and was surprised to find it shaking. “What happened?”

“These two men were found in a dumpster about two blocks from your building.”

“Are they Callaghans?” I twirled my art deco ring around on my finger, feeling the stones scrape my flesh every time it turned.

“No, they’re not. They’re… other people.”

“Do you think it has to do with the note on my door? Do you think these men were killed to ‘keep me safe’?” When Dominic started cracking his knuckles in an unconscious gesture, I knew that was exactly what he thought.

He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “We think that they’re the ones that made the phone calls yesterday. As for the note, there were no fingerprints on the paper except mine, and the police ruled me out as a suspect since I’m a detective and all.” He tried to smile but looked grim instead.

“So someone killed these guys to protect me, like… a guardian killer?” Someone like Big Tony Gasconi and the hairy fairy godfather squad.

Dominic rubbed his right eye with his fist. “Please be careful. There’s nothing we can do except beef up security around you, and even that is a long shot. Truth is, you’re just not high priority from the taxpayer’s standpoint. They want the drug dealers and the murderers off the street, and to be frank, these guys were possibly both.”

“Do you think the old man did it?” And at that moment, my mind shifted and I was trapped in memory, back in folklore class at LSU, slumped down in the wooden desk, the bars cutting in my back, Casey Broussard leaning his arm on my desk to write a question about Ava in my notebook. My professor’s deep Southern voice echoed around me as the sleepy spring rain splashed against the windows. My professor and the thunder rumbled in turns, the thunder courting lightning and my professor intoning that in some cultures, to save a man’s life was to own his soul forever, the savior and saved sharing a connection that could never be broken as long as the both lived.

“We pulled him in for questioning, but he’s clean,” Dominic said. “He didn’t do it personally, anyways.”

I wondered what Antonio Gasconi’s soul felt like, trapped under my skin, sliding next to my own. And I wondered how to set it free, before I turned back to Dominic and the conversation at hand. “This is scary.”

“Yes it is,” he said. “I would suggest getting a security system installed in your apartment.” He rooted around in his desk and handed me a card. “This is my cousin, Frank. He owes me a favor.”

As I pocketed the card, I remembered my other card from earlier. “Hey, I almost forgot to tell you about this morning.” I detailed the rather odd events of my run and passed him Jackson’s card. Dominic stared at it as if at any second, it would grow teeth and bite his fingers off.

“I know, weird, right?”

“It’s something to check into,” he said in an odd voice, almost choked.

There was something he wasn’t telling me about the ubiquitous Mr. Jackson, but before I could ask what, Bobby walked in and told Dominic he had to talk to him. Immediately. Dominic gave me an apologetic look, told me to be careful, and got Markus to escort me out.

“You okay, Ms. Sanderson?” the young man asked as we walked towards the door.

“Call me March,” I said in an absent voice. “So do you know anything about what’s going on with me?”

Markus gave me a blank look. “About… what’s going on with you?”

“My situation. Why I’m at the police station. Anything?” It was worth a shot, anyways. Not that I thought a young recruit would spill the beans, but still.

Markus shook his head in a wild movement that reminded me of the nurse from the hospital. “You need to ask the detectives those kinds of questions, not me.” And with that, he opened the door for me so I could step into the white sunshine.

As I walked through my neighborhood, I glanced around at the people wandering down the streets, intent on walking towards their specific destinations. Chicago wasn’t as hurried and rushed as, say, the New York I’d always heard about, but everything was just so much faster here than it was in Baton Rouge. People even walked down the streets with more purpose, with more intent.

And somewhere out there someone was focused on keeping me safe.

I dropped Artful off at home, ran two blocks down to make some groceries, and headed back to my apartment. The whole thing took less than thirty minutes, but when I approached my building, I realized that it was enough time for yet another visit from yet another set of men.

“Need help with them bags, Ms. Sanderson?”

I stared at the black sedan parked outside of my building, at the bulky man leaning out the driver’s side window. After a brief indecisive moment, I stalked over to the car and stopped about ten feet away. Both men were wearing hats pulled low on their heads, and both men wore mirrored sunglasses which reflected nothing but the scenery around them. I recognized the non-smoker from the hospital, the one the other called Bit, as the driver. The other one looked familiar, but I couldn’t see him well in the shadowed car. “You’re Gasconis, right?”

The driver tapped his cigarette out of the window. “Yeah, Ms. Sanderson. We are.”

My bags dangled from my fingertips and were heavy on my wrists, but I refused to move any closer. “And you’re watching me, right?”

“It ain’t so bad,” the passenger said in a familiar odd voice. “Considering you ain’t so bad to–”

“Stop it,” I said, waving a hand to cut him off. I recognized him now, of course. The non-smoker from the hospital who had a penchant for giving soaked women umbrellas. “I’m serious. So far, I got three different parties tailing me, and I’d just like to know if you’re the good guys or the bad guys.”

The passenger popped the toothpick out of his mouth and cocked his head at me. “You think we good guys, Ms. Sanderson?”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“You don’t need to know that.”

“Look, just give me something to call you. Anything. I’ve seen you a million times by now. I’d just like to know what to call you.”

“Call him Special,” the driver said. “That’s what we call him.”

“Special?” My eyebrows wrinkled. “What the hell does that stand for?”

“Just work stuff, sweetheart. What’s your problem?”

“Okay, Special–”

The Special,” he interrupted.

After a brief pause, I continued. “Okay, The Special, let me ask you a question.” I glanced over my shoulder. “Who all’s following me?”

“I guess that would be us.” The Special popped the toothpick back in his mouth.

“And are you protecting me?” When I made scare quotes around the word “protecting” with my fingers, his companion chuckled.

“Yeah, sweetheart. Boss, he says for us to make sure you ain’t getting in trouble.” The Special took the toothpick out and pointed it at me. “You got trouble?”

“There’s no trouble I need you to take care of.” My fingers clenched my bags harder. “So anyone else following me from your Family?”

“Yeah, few other guys.” The Special elbowed his friend. “They look like him, sweetheart. Real ugly. Not gorgeous like me.”

Great. The Special was cocky and annoying. Just my type. “What about a big blonde guy? Maybe 6’4 or 6’5?” I watched, fascinated, as The Special’s face went grey and the toothpick almost fell out of his mouth. “Who’s the blonde guy?” I asked, leaning closer. “Should I be scared of him?” So Jackson was in the running for the mysterious guardian killer, too? He had the correct grammar down at least.

“Nah, sweetheart. I don’t know no blonde guy. You know a blonde guy?” he asked his friend.

Mental note: this one smiles when he lies. “Are you going to hurt me?” I asked.

Another slow smile spread on his face. “You took a bullet for Boss, Ms. Sanderson. We ain’t gonna hurt you none.”

“It was a fluke. I didn’t know who he was. He knows that, right?”

“Sure Boss knows,” his companion said. “He still thinks it real nice of you.”

“Maybe more because of that,” The Special said. “What he say? That the redhead was a soldier?”

“A true soldier,” his companion agreed.

I smiled in spite of myself. “A soldier, huh? That’s kind of sweet in a disturbing sort of way.”

Both men smiled back at me. “You ain’t so bad,” the companion said. “We don’t mind watching you much.”

“And what’s your name?” I asked. “What do I call you? Bit?”

“Yeah, you can call him Bit,” The Special said. “Like itty bitty.”

If this man was itty bitty, I was miniscule. “Okay, Bit, let me lay my cards out on the table. Thank your boss kindly, tell him I hope he’s feeling well from the bullet that lodged in my shoulder, and to stop sending y’all to tail me. I can manage fine on my own.”

“Yeah?” Bit said as he shook a cigarette out of his pack. “You think?” He glanced over at me as he lit his new cigarette with the butt of his first.

“That what the Callaghans told you, sweetheart?” The Special asked. “That you can manage fine on your own?”

“Manage your boss, not me. He’s the one that got shot at, after all.”

The Special’s teeth clenched around his toothpick. “That ain’t none of your business.”

I had struck a nerve. “Why are you roaming after me?” I asked, pulling away a little from the window. “Why aren’t you on guard detail to Gasconi?”

“Boss has us working in shifts,” Bit began. “And he’s got some–”

The Special sucked in a hiss of breath, cutting Bit off. “We protecting Boss,” The Special said. “You don’t need to worry about that none.”

No, I was pretty sure I didn’t, but still. I would have a scar for the rest of my life reminding me of Big Tony Gasconi. It just felt like I needed to worry about it. “Whatever. The Callaghans said they have no beef with me. So leave them alone, too.” I pulled away from the car and turned towards my building, the bags on my arms slapping my legs with every step.

“We ain’t here because we concerned with you and the Callaghans, sweetheart,” The Special called after me in that odd half-exotic accent of his. I was getting a little tired of his constant designator of “sweetheart,” to be honest. “They some people, some bad people that don’t like you none. The cops, they don’t know about all them bad people. But we do.”

“So tell them,” I said without turning around.

“Can’t do that, sweetheart. But we watching your back. Ain’t gotta worry about nothing while we watch your back.”

“Nothing,” Bit agreed. “’Cept maybe The Special watching your ass.” And the sound of their combined laughter followed me into my building.


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