March Madness Chapter Eight

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER EIGHT

There was an ashy taste in my mouth, and it reminded me of the Christmas bonfires on the levee in Gonzales, when I wandered too close to the fire and inhaled wood smoke. And this taste, this taste of fear, panic, and blind terror, was so goddamn similar, it was uncanny. Four men were dead because of me, and I didn’t even know why.

“March?” Dominic paused a second. “Are you okay?”

How to answer a question as rhetorical as that? There were four men watching me yesterday, from two different Mafia Families. All four men were killed, and Dominic had to ask if I were okay? “I’m just peachy,” I said in a faint voice. I dangled the evidence bag at him, suspended it between two fingers, as if all the plagues in the world were contained within. “Do we know what the Gasconis were doing here?” Was it The Special and Bit? I had seen them just this afternoon.

He took the bag and put it back in his pocket. “Possibly watching you to make sure you were okay, but if you want to know, we’re not sure who was watching you, who was threatening you, and who killed who.”

“Whom,” I said in an absent voice. “The two Gasconis that were killed, they weren’t… I mean…” I sucked in a breath and met his eyes. “Their names weren’t Bit or The Special, were they?” For some reason, a quick stab of sorrow slammed into my gut. Lord help me if I was getting attached to my hairy fairy godfather squad. Bang-up job, Sanderson. They weren’t stray puppies.

Dominic’s face flushed pale as his eyes grew wide in his face. His finger twitched once, then twice, against his knee. “Big Tony Gasconi sent The Special to watch out for you?”

“Didn’t I tell you their names earlier?” It must be something special to have The Special watch out for me, if Dominic’s bloodless face and wide eyes were any clue.

Suddenly, his skin became a little grey around the edges as his cheeks flushed red. “Are you trying to tell me that Tommy ‘The Special’ Spinelli has been following you around town, and you neglected to mention this to me?”

Tommy Spinelli. I stored the name away for future reference. “Yes.” I cleared my throat and tried to make my voice less squeaky. “Yes. He’s actually not a bad guy when you get past the ego and…” my voice trailed off. I had never seen Dominic that particular shade of red before.

“Do you have any idea who Spinelli is? What he’s done? And you sit there and tell me he’s not so bad?” His voice rose in volume throughout the speech, ending on a roar.

“But is he going to hurt me. That’s the question, isn’t it?”

Dominic blinked before his face relaxed a little. “No, he wouldn’t. Spinelli does whatever Big Tony tells him to do, and if he said he’s watching out for you, chances are he is.”

“Why?”

“Who the hell knows? We don’t have much personal info on The Special. Just a file three inches thick.” He cocked an eyebrow at me in triumph.

“Uh huh. He gave me his umbrella in the rain.”

A muscle twitched in Dominic’s cheek. “Are you saying Tommy Spinelli is part of the godfather squad?”

I tried to see it from his perspective. A well-known Mafia soldier following an awkward redhead around, handing her umbrellas in the rain. Yes, that muscle twitch was definitely Dominic trying to keep from laughing. “And he offered to help me carry my groceries.”

            The muscle in his cheek twitched again. “Look, if The Special tries to… well, if he tries anything, anything at all, run like hell and call us immediately. You got that?”

            “What’s ‘The Special’ stand for?” I asked. When he didn’t answer, I tried a different route. “Who is he, then?”

            “He’s Big Tony’s adopted son. Just try not to talk to him, okay? It’ll be better that way.” He shifted against the wall, relaxing a bit. “Do you mind if I stick around, just until Frankie installs the security system tomorrow?”

            “No, I don’t mind.” Artful came trotting over and I pulled him on my lap. He immediately squirmed off and pranced over to Dominic. Et tu, Artful? “Do you know anything about getting a concealed license? I mean, my guns are registered. It was the first thing my brothers and I did after we unloaded the truck.”

            “Let’s not worry about you carrying concealed right now.”

            Somehow, I saw what he meant. The scary guys wouldn’t approach me on the street. It was too public. Rather, they’d focus their harassments to more private arenas, like my apartment, and more private times, like when I was sleeping. No wonder Dominic was offering to spend the night on the couch. “Times like this, I miss my brothers,” I said.

            “Because they’d watch out for you?” Dominic gave Artful a final head scratch and stood up. “That’s what you have us for, kid.” He held out a hand to me.

            After a moment’s hesitation, I took the hand and let him pull me up. “Sort of, but mainly because they would have never let me get shot in the first place.” I turned towards the living room, ready to go to bed, but I turned back to him instead. “Thank you, Dominic. I mean, for being here. You don’t have to do this. I know it’s not in your job description, but… but it’s nice to have someone in Chicago that cares.”

 He gave me a sleepy smile. “You’re welcome. I’m just sorry that this is happening to you. Leave your door cracked so I can hear if someone tries the window.”

I gulped and nodded. “Good night.” Artful and I headed into the bedroom and we curled under the covers. I told Art he was being a big baby, all scared under the covers like that, but he wouldn’t listen to me. Well, he was just a puppy. Puppies needed Mommas to protect them. That’s why I stayed under the covers with him.

#

I woke with a start, confused by the moonlight creeping across my floor to spill over my sheets. I heard noises coming from the kitchen and I was back in Baton Rouge, sixteen years old again, listening to Joey and Jordan sneak into our mother’s house for free food after a long night of collegiate partying. I smiled to myself at the memory, remembering how those early mornings would turn out. I would creep downstairs and express astonishment over my brothers’ appearance, berate them for not staying at their own house, and then we would pile into the car and get pancakes at an all-night diner. When we would get home, Remy would be awake and waiting, ready to fuss at Joey and Jordan for contributing to my delinquency. But our older brothers would tease him and he would smile and we’d watch television until the rest of the house came alive. And then, of course, we would consume more pancakes, made by my mother this time, before the boys would head back to their apartment.

I stretched in my bed, feeling the muscles pull and shift under my skin and I groaned as the stitches in my shoulder pulled, just a bit. I swung one leg onto the floor, getting ready to open my mouth and call out to Joey and Jordy, before I remembered that this wasn’t Baton Rouge, and no one should be in my kitchen. My blood ran cold and I eased my nightstand drawer open and felt around for my Browning. My fingers curled around the cool handle and I gripped it, the metal firm and warming under my touch.

I nudged my door open and froze as it creaked the tiniest bit. The sink turned off and I sucked in a breath of relief. The water came out of my faucet in loud spits and gurgles, and no one could hear a tiny door creak with all of that noise.

I toed my way across my hardwood floors as the moonlight bent and dipped across the room and the shadows waltzed across the wall in lazy promenades, but there was something missing. I glanced at the couch. Dominic. I had forgotten Dominic was sleeping over and–

“What’s wrong?”

I jumped about twenty feet in the air before I turned to see Dominic staring sleepy-eyed at my gun. “Goddammit, Dominic, I could have shot you!”

He plucked the gun out of my hand. “You stood in the middle of the living room for at least a minute and a half, staring at the wall. Hitler invaded France in less time.” He sat on the edge of the couch and reached for the glass of water on the end table. “Stealthy Wan Kenobi. That’s you.” He took a sip of water and placed it back on the coaster.

“Give me back my gun.”

“Nuh uh. You’re pissed enough that you’ll shoot me just on principle because I’m sneakier than you.” Even in his half-asleep state, he was amused rather than scared. Glad to know one of us found this situation hilarious. I certainly didn’t.

I could have shot him. I could have accidentally shot him before I even realized who he was. “Ever since the concussion my eyes have–”

“Oh come on, March. We have to work on your sneaking up on people while half-asleep skills.” He walked towards my bedroom, gun in hand.

Blood rushed through my veins and I felt giddy with it all, adrenaline and fear and guilt, guilt over something I didn’t even do. I settled back down on the bed and folded my legs, still shaking. He may have been amused, but I was ten beats away from having a heart attack. I sucked in a deep breath and tried to match his tone. “And I’m a crack shot. You would have lost more than a finger.”

“Thought the concussion hurt your eyesight?” He slipped the gun back in the drawer.

“I’m really, really sorry.”

He seemed to react to my serious tone. He gave me a gentle smile before he leaned down to press a soft kiss to my lips. “You’re also damn near adorable decaffeinated. Dangerous, but adorable. Go back to bed, kid. It’s safe. I promise.”

#

I woke again to sunlight creeping into my bedroom and the smell of fresh coffee.

“Good morning,” Dominic said as I slumped past him.

“Mornings suck.” I slammed the bathroom door behind me. Once I brushed my teeth and put on my sweats, I felt a little more human, but not by much.

“I made coffee,” Dominic said I walked through the living room.

“Coffee’s good.” I was halfway to the door when he grabbed my arm.

“Where are you going at six a.m.?”

“Runnin’.”

“Alone?”

“Of course alone.” I glared up at him. “I always go….” I paused. “Oh.” Not anymore, apparently.

He ran a hand through his sleep-tousled hair and let out an exaggerated sigh. “How far do you run, exactly?”

“Five miles.”

He groaned. “All right, let’s go.”

I looked over to Artful who was curled on the couch, but Dominic shook his head. “I already took him out. He’s fine.”

We eased into the first mile and I felt myself calm down. Routine was important. Running was more important. But the most important of all was getting out of the house, stretching my legs, and trying to get rid of the confined itchiness I felt almost every morning. My brothers called it my “condition.” They knew the real reason, remembered their sister as a child, waking up in the dark and screaming because she couldn’t see in the pitch black room. That’s when they realized that I needed a nightlight, and open space, and breathing room.

Marina, the dyed blonde, jogged around the corner. “Good morning,” she said in her thick accent. “Have friend today?” Like most non-native speakers I had met, she dropped the article before the noun.

I nodded at her and gave her a brief smile. “Spreading the joy of running.”

She laughed, deep and throaty, before she nodded at us and passed by.

“Who was that?” Dominic asked.

“Marina. I see her almost every morning. We run around the same time.” We turned the corner and I jutted my chin forward. “And that’s Sam and Kit. Kit’s the dog. Sam’s the man.”

“The man?” Dominic asked, amused.

I laughed and regretted expelling that much breath. “The non-canine member of the equation. He’s a regular, too.” I slowed down to a standing jog as we approached. “Good morning, Sam,” I said before I reached down to scratch Kit behind the ears. “Hi, honey.”

Kit licked my hand and panted up at me with enthusiasm.

“Kit, this is Dominic. Dominic, this is Kit.” I watched Dominic offer his knuckles to Kit to smell and Kit, after a moment, licked them. Dominic, like me, seemed to be a dog person.

“Kit just loves March,” Sam told Dominic. “Isn’t that right, Kit?”

Kit turned and panted up at his owner before he turned back to me.

I looked down the street. “That’s my last regular,” I said to Dominic. “The guy in the Marines shirt. I see him, Marina, and Sam every morning.”

“Routine’s important to you, huh?” Dominic asked.

“Not really, just… for a while, they were the only people I talked to.” And even that hadn’t been much, just a “good morning” until I broke down and introduced myself to them.

Marine shirt guy gave me a smile as he passed, his eyes impenetrable behind black sunglasses.

“Good morning,” I said to him.

He slowed down and jogged backwards to us. “Good morning,” he said. “Sorry, I just whipped on by.” His voice was flat, Californian, but there was something lazy in it, something like a drawl hidden underneath. He had lived in the South for a while. I’d bet money on it.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Have a good day.”

“Yeah, you too.” He jogged forward again.

“And what’s his name?” Dominic asked after he left.

“No idea,” I said. “That was the first time we’ve ever spoken.”

“You slacker.” Dominic sped up a little. “Come on. Race you home.”

When we got back to my apartment, I didn’t know what Dominic had been complaining about. He kept pace with me just fine, and I was more out of breath than he was. I glared over at him while I gulped down water.

“All the Reggianno men are good runners,” he said. “Only way to keep up with the Reggianno women.” He gave me a little grin and sucked down water with a self-satisfied air.

After I was showered and dressed, I surrendered the bathroom to Dominic and put some biscuits in the oven. He came out the second they were done, dressed in different clothes than last night. When I cocked an eyebrow, he shrugged.

“I keep a few different changes of clothes with me in the Blazer,” he said. “Sometimes I get stuck at the station.” He nudged me into a chair, poured us some coffee, and brought the biscuits to the table.

Uh huh. This sleepover was planned well in advance. I was sure of it. I buttered a biscuit and wolfed it down. “What time do you have to go to work?” I asked around a mouthful of food.

“Today’s my day off,” he said. “So I’m sticking around until Frankie does his stuff.” He paused, giving me an embarrassed look. “If that’s okay, I mean.  I thought we could go to a movie.”

#

Of course, halfway through the movie, his cell phone rang. We snuck out of the theater so he could answer it. After a one-sided “uh huh” conversation, Dominic hung up the phone. “Change of plans, kiddo. We need to go to the station.”

Something made me itchy, made me twitch in the way that only Sanderson twins understood.

By the time we were halfway to the police station, I was shifting so much in my seat that even Dominic noticed.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I… I don’t know.” I stared out the window. Something was wrong, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with this trip to the station. I wondered if Remy felt restless, too, if our odd twin connection stretched this many miles, or if it got caught up somehow, in the distance between.

“Can I ask you a question?”

I turned back to Dominic. “Of course you can.”

“When I talked to your twin the other day, he said he had a… a…” he paused, trying to find the right word.

I gave him a little embarrassed smile. “Remy told you he had a bad feeling?”

“Yeah, he did.” Dominic ran his hand through his hair. “I’ve read things that say twins are connected in weird ways, and I just wondered if that’s what it was.”

“That’s part of it. Remy and I have always had parallel lives. Once, in college, I got really sick and lost ten pounds. The next week, at a college five hours away from LSU, without having seen me in the interim, Remy got sick and lost ten pounds.”

Dominic’s expression was disbelieving. “You’re joking, right?”

“No, I’m not.” I turned to look out the window. How to explain this oddness to an outsider, someone who hadn’t had twenty-seven years of proof regarding the Sanderson twin connection? Even more, how to explain about Remy? “But my twin, well, he’s… sensitive.”

“Sensitive? Like, ‘I’m really interested in what you have to say about nail polish’?”

I burst into laughter and turned back to him. “No, he’s as good ole boy as the rest of them. It’s just… Remy knows things, sometimes.”

“Psychic.” The disbelieving tone gave way to suspicion. I didn’t blame him. If I hadn’t known Remy every minute of my life except those first two, I wouldn’t believe it, either.

“Not psychic. Just sensitive.” I scooted down in the seat a little as we turned the corner towards the police station. “It’s nothing freaky. I promise.” Maybe now wasn’t the best time to tell him the other lore about the Sanderson clan, that Remy’s twin somehow inherited the smallest fragment of his sensitivity. That I sometimes, just sometimes, knew things, too.

He just parked the car and took me through a back door. When we walked into an interrogation room, stark and somehow familiar, as if every such room in every station across the country was factory-built, I began to suspect exactly what was wrong.

“Is he okay?” I asked as I rushed over to Bobby Walcheski. “Did something happen?” I tried to extricate my puppy from his grasp, but Artful was entirely too comfortable snuggling with the detectives.

“He’s fine, Sanderson. No worries.” Bobby gave me a rushed smile as he untangled Artful’s legs from his arms. “He just got out earlier.”

I took Artful from him and pressed a kiss to his head. “Got out?” I asked. I looked at the two-way mirror and froze. “Got out,” I said again.

Behind the mirror, sitting at an empty table and smoking a cigarette, was Bit. He didn’t look nervous, or scared. In fact, he looked completely calm, as if being pulled into a police station for questioning was part and parcel with his everyday routine. Who knew? Maybe it was.

“Do you recognize this man, March?” Dominic asked from behind me.

“Bit,” I said in a soft voice. “I’ve seen him a couple of times now.” My hand stroked Artful’s side in little soothing motions, but I didn’t know if they were soothing for me or for my puppy. But they were repetitive, and familiar, and since I didn’t have any cigarettes, would have to do for fidgeting right now. “He’s never hurt me.” I turned to face Dominic. “He’s been nothing but nice.”

“Well, he was also breaking into your apartment earlier.” Dominic cocked his head at the glass. “He says he saw two men climb in through the window, and he went in to stop them.”

“But you found no trace of the two men,” I said.

Dominic looked at Bobby and they shared an uncomfortable but knowing look. No, of course not. They did find trace of the men. They just didn’t find the men themselves.

“March,” Dominic began, but I cut him off.

“What the hell happened to the security system?” Anger coursed through me and I clung to it, with curved claws and bared teeth. This was a setup. I was sure of it.

“We just wanted to see what would happen,” Bobby said, and even his voice was apologetic. He knew we were treading on dangerous ground. He knew I was pissed.

“You let me go off traipsing around Chicago, leaving my dog in an unsecured apartment, just to see what would happen?” My voice didn’t rise at the end of the question. I didn’t end my comment on a roar. Instead, my voice went low and still. The true difference between the blues and the mean reds.  

Dominic and Bobby mumbled in comforting tones behind me, but I ignored them and turned back to the glass. Bit was staring at it with silent fascination, smoking his cigarette with a decided rhythm. Lift hand, inhale for three seconds, lower hand, exhale for four seconds. Repeat until reach filter, and then light new one and start the cycle all over again.

“…taken, so your stuff’s fine,” Dominic said.

“I’m not pressing charges.” I turned towards him and gestured at the glass. “Let him go.”

His eyes grew hard for one second before they softened. We were on his turf, and I dared to tell him what to do. “He broke into your house and–”

“And I’m not pressing charges,” I interrupted. “It’s my house, right? And I say bravo to Bit for scaring away the scary men. Let him go.” With that, I turned towards the door and walked with purposeful strides towards it. I needed to blow off this steam before I spoke to Dominic again. God, he and Bobby were just like my brothers, making plans and then keeping me out of the loop. No, they were worse. Dominic had pretended to take me on a date, while they left my apartment unsecured and vulnerable “just to see what would happen.”

A gentle hand rested on my shoulder just before I opened the door. “March,” Dominic began again, “We had to see if someone would break in. We have to know what threats are out there.”

I bit back a nasty comment, something involving cute detectives preying on lonely, defenseless women. But while I was lonely, I wasn’t defenseless.

But that was the problem. I knew the job, had grown up surrounded by the job, had even been involved on the less pleasant side of the job on more than one occasion. “Can you bring me home?” I asked in a soft voice, not turning around. “Is it safe?”

“Yeah, kid, it’s safe.” He paused for a second. “Bobby, I’m bringing Sanderson home.”

We walked through the station in silence. Dominic left me by the front desk, in Markus’s care, while he ran to his cubicle for something. Markus was silent, too, as if he knew better than to piss me off right at that moment.

Unfortunately, some other people didn’t know to keep silent.

“Hey, sweetheart,” a deep exotic voice said.

I looked up into the face of Tommy “The Special” Spinelli. The ever-present toothpick was trapped between the teeth on the right side of his mouth. “Tommy Spinelli.”

He paled for a second before he relaxed again. “So you heard about me, sweetheart? They tell you I’m a big, bad wolf?” He growled a little, baring his teeth, before his face relaxed into a grin.

I had a sudden flash of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, screeching at Blanche after they hear a tomcat. Tomcat indeed. If I were to bet money on it, Tommy Spinelli was a player, pure and simple. But I wasn’t willing to play. “I’m surprised they sent you to bail Bit out. I would have thought someone like you would have avoided the police station like the plague.”

He shrugged his massive shoulders, the muscles underneath his t-shirt rippling with the movement. It was a calculated move, but when I didn’t swoon in his arms, he tried another approach. He moved closer to me, towards Artful in my arms.

Markus half-rose in his desk next to us, but Tommy scratched Artful’s head with a purposeful hand. “Cute dog,” Tommy said. Once Markus sat down again, Tommy moved in even closer. “Callaghans,” he said under his breath. “They was Callaghans, sweetheart. Ain’t no reason for them to be in there unless they was up to no good. Boss said to make sure no one was up to no good in your apartment.”

And God, I believed him. For some stupid, insane, idiotic reason, I believed him. “Who was killed yesterday?” I asked in a voice even softer than his.

His face darkened. “That ain’t got nothing to do with you. You got that?” And then, on some unknown command, he eased away from me.

Dominic came around the corner a second later, and his jaw set as he took in The Special standing against the wall, trying to look innocent. He jabbed a finger in Tommy’s direction, grasped my arm, and led me out of the station. When I turned around to see, Markus was talking in low tones to The Special, but the roles were reversed. Markus was the one who looked nervous, while Tommy just looked amused and superior.

“Don’t talk to him,” Dominic said when we were driving away.

“Bit didn’t do anything wrong. Tommy said that–”

“So it’s Tommy now?” Dominic interrupted. He glanced over at me. “March, he’s a criminal. Worse, he’s a Mafia soldier, Tony Gasconi’s most trusted capo. He’s done things that would turn your hair white. Bit’s not much better.”

I knew why he was really upset. I was trusting the Mafia over the cops, trusting Tommy over him. And it was wrong of me. I knew that. But the Mafia had tried to stop the men from going into my apartment. The cops had given them an invitation to do so. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because we didn’t want you to get upset. We didn’t even know if anyone would try it, but they did. I was going to tell you eventually.” His thumb tapped against the steering wheel. “It wasn’t a ploy, not really. I really did want to go to the movies with you.”

It was the way he said it more than the words. His tone was absolutely sincere, and most of my anger rushed out of me, leaving me almost breathless.

He glanced over at me again, his face relaxed. “How’d you do it?” he asked. “Growing up with that many cop brothers, how did you separate it?”

How to tell him I didn’t separate it? That none of them did? That my uncles and cousins and brothers took pulling me in one outrageous situation after the next, or keeping me safe to be not part of the job, but part of familial obligations? “Tell you what. I’ll separate Dominic from Detective Reggianno, if you separate March from ‘Sanderson.’”

He paused for a second, as if trying to figure out what I meant. And then, his eyes widened, just a bit. He hadn’t even realized he called me “Sanderson” at the station. It was an automatic response on his part, that separation of personal life from professional. “It’s a deal.” He held out his hand towards me, his pinky finger crooked. This time, I paused for a second before I realized what he was doing. Then, I burst into laughter, linked my pinky with his, and jostled his hand. “Pinky swear,” I said when I pulled my hand away.

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