March Madness Chapter Nine

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER NINE

 “We made an oath!” Ava said on the phone twenty minutes later. “Never date cops. It’s rule number one in the Hellion Guide.”

“Rule number two,” I said. “So you do think that we’re dating?”

“That’s right. Rule number one is never sell out. And yes, I’d say him sleeping over would qualify as dating.” Her tone held a hint of accusation.  “Did I tell you…”

I stopped paying attention to Ava as a thing across the room hit the light and shined, for one brief second. Something metallic. Something that shouldn’t be there.

“…the boys, and Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’ came on, and you know how much we love that song, so–”

“Ava, let me call you back,” I interrupted before I stubbed out my half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray. “Just a few minutes.”

“Sure. Love you.”

            I wandered over to my living room, the phone still clutched in my hand. Artful trailed after me, bumping his head against my ankles every so often. The something caught the light again. I stared in silent fascination at the object hidden on top of the curtains. How had the cops missed this?

            Then I realized why. The packet was half-hidden by the folds of the curtains, and the white paper nearly blended in with the cream and red stripes. I climbed on the windowsill, grabbed the packet of paper clipped together, and climbed back down.

            Tommy had said the Callaghans were in my apartment, and Bit had gone in to kick them out. That there was no good reason for them to be there. But this morning, the two Callaghans had told me they weren’t after me, told me to tell Big Tony Gasconi that they had no ill will for me. So why would they break into my apartment?

            To deliver a package and to have the sense of humor to hide it where I usually hid my cigarettes. Or maybe it wasn’t humorous. Maybe it was just plain terrifying. I sank down on the couch and stared at the first page. It was a note, scribbled in a dark blue ink, the handwriting nearly illegible. “Ms. Sanderson,” the salutation read, “Check your security system. It seems to be flawed. Thought this may interest you. Best, GC.”

            When I flipped past the first page, I stared in dumb awe at the photocopied articles that followed. All newspaper clippings, some from local newspapers, and some that looked to be from alumni magazines, similar to the one I still received from my alma mater, St. Martha’s.

            And all of them related to rivalry between St. Agnes and Divine Mother.

            Callaghan had his boys break into my apartment to deliver newspaper clippings? Why in God’s name would he do something so foolish as that? When I looked at the note again, a dull acidic burn started in my throat and trailed down to my stomach. He was testing the system, warning me somehow. Well, of course. He was suspicious of the cops. They had left my apartment vulnerable, after all.

            But why me? Why would George Callaghan, second-biggest Mafia don in Chicago, warn me? His daughter’s English education couldn’t be that important, could it?

It took a second for my brain to register the sound of my cell phone ringing. When it did, I checked the caller ID and sighed.

“Ava, I said I’d call you–”

“This is important,” she interrupted.

My hand clenched around the papers even tighter. A crease formed halfway across the top of the sheets. “What’s wrong?”

“Hold on one second.” There were noises in the background, and the faint sound of male laughter. I recognized that sound, and a quick glance at the clock confirmed my suspicions. It was dinnertime, and Jordan was just home from work. Other Sandersons must have come home with him. Maybe some of the brothers, or the cousins. For one brief second, I almost couldn’t breathe from homesickness.

“Ava?” I asked again.

“Yeah, sorry.” There was the sound of a door slamming, and I knew what that meant, too. Ava was in the laundry room of their shotgun duplex. It was where she went for privacy when the boys were over. “It’s Sean’s birthday. We’re going to the Chimes for dinner.”

I had forgotten my cousin’s birthday. I hadn’t even bought him a card. “Tell him happy birthday. What’s wrong?”

“Do you know someone in Chicago named Jackson?” she asked.

In that second, before she said anything else, two emotions warred for dominance in my body. The curl of anger deep in my stomach lay dormant and waiting, ready to claw its way to supremacy, which the slight euphoria of triumph made me a little giddy. I knew it. I knew there was more to Jackson that I had originally guessed. And dammit, I was going to kill my brothers. “I know a Jackson. Question is, how do you know a Jackson?”

“So Jordy and the boys come stomping in, right? Of course all of them barely said hello to me before they headed to the fridge. But Remy’s on the phone with someone. Outside on the porch.” She lowered her voice, as if the boys could hear her through the door and the sounds of the spinning dryer. “So I poked my head out to tell him I just talked to you, and he said, ‘yeah, thanks, Jackson,’ and hung up the phone before he saw me.”

“And when he did, he immediately went buddy-buddy?” Ava had known my family almost as long as I had. We had been best friends since kindergarten after all. She could read their moods with the best of them.

“Of course he did, all smiles and, ‘Hey, Carmeno. You’re getting fat already.’  So I knew he was hiding something. Since the only things he would hide from me would be about you…”

“You knew that Jackson was someone in Chicago,” I finished.

“Right.” Ava paused a second. “So who’s Jackson?”

I stared down at the papers in my hand before I shifted my gaze to Artful. He was gnawing on the rag I had knotted for him, and it hung from the side of his mouth like an impossibly long, white tongue. “He’s someone who knows more about my life than he should. Someone in the game. Someone who keeps following me around.” I didn’t know if I was detailing this information for Ava or for myself. “And someone my brothers are talking to.”

Ava said something long and complicated under her breath. She must have been pissed. Her Spanglish only came out when she was truly upset. “They just don’t know when to let well enough alone, do they?”

I jumped off the couch and looked for my purse. There was a very good chance that Jackson may be at Marigold’s. Or since he kept following me around and I was going to Marigold’s, he may meet me there. “Hypothetical situation. You’re a Sanderson brother. Your only sister moves to a new city, a big bad new city, all on her own. She has a penchant for getting into trouble, and sure enough, two weeks after moving, she accidentally gets shot while trying to keep a man from getting shot.” I found my purse under my coffee table.

“You can’t move there yourself,” Ava said, getting into the game. “Because you’ve got work, or a wife, or kids. And you can’t drag her back home, because she’d kill you. But you’re still worried. So what do you do?”

I rested against my front door and closed my eyes, just for a second. “You hire a bodyguard,” we said at the same time.

“I’m going to kill them,” I told Ava. “You’ll be a widow by the end of the summer.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Maybe Alan Rickman has a thing for young pregnant librarians. Call me tonight and tell me what you want me to do.”

I hung up the phone and looked down at Artful. “Want to take a walk, honey?”

Artful did. And so did I.

#

By the time Artful and I stomped the mile to Marigold’s, I was in a mood. Definitely the mean reds. Or maybe Holly Golightly had never experienced rage such as this. Maybe this was the furious oranges or the homicidal yellows. Whatever color my rage was, it felt murderous and childlike all at the same time. Not flying to Chicago my ass. Of course they didn’t have to fly to Chicago. They got daily reports of my comings and goings from the ubiquitous Mr. Jackson, bodyguard for hire.

Well, he better have a backup job, because he was getting fired today.

But when Artful and I stepped on the patio of the coffeehouse, some of my rage deflated as I stared in astonishment at the waist-high post with a sign that said, “Put your leashes here!”

“That’s new,” I told Artful.

“It sure is,” a man said from somewhere to the left. “They just got it yesterday.”

I looked over at an older man, probably in his early sixties, sitting at the table next to the post, reading a newspaper. He had on a green polo shirt and a pair of black dress pants. “Strangest thing, too,” he continued, folding his newspaper. “Apparently, a big black car pulled up outside, some large man came out and plunked it down, then left. I remember the days when a big black car pulling up outside a building meant that everyone hit the floor. What’s the world coming to?”

What was it coming to, indeed? I just sighed and put Artful’s leash around the post.

The old man reached down and patted Artful. “Cute dog. What’s his name?”

“The Artful Dodger.”

The old man glanced up at me, his eyes and nearly bald head twinkling in the bright sunshine. “Great name. He looks scrappy.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Something about this man was awfully familiar, but I was too goddamn tired to try and figure it out. “I’ll be right back,” I said to Artful. “Behave yourself.”

The old man waved me on, the gold wedding band on his left hand glinting in the sun, matching the gold wire-frame glasses on his face. “The Dodger and I will keep each other company. Go in and get your coffee.”

After I bought my latte, I came back outside to find the old man bent over, scratching Artful behind the ears. My puppy stared up at him, head cocked to the side. From the back, the old man looked even more familiar.

Time to hone that Spidey-sense of mine. It was definitely failing. “Mr. Gasconi?”

Don Gasconi, the head of the largest Mafia Family in Chicago, turned to face me. “I thought you wouldn’t recognize me.”

I sat down in a chair with a thump. This day was just becoming impossible to deal with. This week was becoming impossible to deal with. Three Mafia Families, two Mafia dons, and a bodyguard hired by my brothers. “I almost didn’t.”

He patted my hand. “How’s the shoulder, sugar?”

So that’s where The Special got the endearment thing from. “It’s fine.” Well, it was okay. It still hurt a lot, and the stitches didn’t look like they were doing so great. I hadn’t overworked my shoulder too much, but I had a feeling my morning runs were taking their toll on my stitches.

He squeezed my hand, a sweet paternal gesture, and dammit, he was the nicest Mafia don I’d ever met. Of course, he was only the second Mafia don I’d ever met, after George Callaghan. But Callaghan had been nice, too. I was right. This was a farce. “Now tell me how it’s really feeling,” he said.

I avoided his eyes and shrugged before I remembered my mental note: no shrugging. I sucked in a quick breath before I forced a smile on my face.

He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers under his chin. “Gunshots hurt like the dickens.”

I sighed. “Listen, Mr. Gasconi–”

“Tony.”

“Mr. Tony–”

“Just Tony.”

“Tony,” I began again, “not that I don’t appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but it’s getting kind of creepy. First the rent and then the bills and then Artful…” I paused. “Well, I love Artful, but it really has to stop.”

Tony’s eyebrows furrowed together. “What are you talking about?”

I bit my lip and glanced down at my puppy. “Didn’t you send me Artful?”

“I would have if I’d known you wanted a dog, but no, I didn’t. I paid your rent and your bills, and sent you flowers, and…” he paused, giving me an impish grin. “And some other things, but not the dog.”

“And there was nothing else? No, ah, correspondence of any kind?”

His face darkened and I eased further back in my chair. “Is something going on?” He leaned in. “Is anyone trying to hurt you because I swear to God–”

I held up my hand to stop him. “Please don’t finish that sentence.” I rubbed my forehead. I was getting a dastardly headache right behind my eyes.

He peered at me. “I would never hurt you, you know that, right? You’re an amazing girl, and if I had two soldiers like you, I wouldn’t need the horde of idiot nephews I’m stuck with.”

“They’re family.”

He shook his head. “They’re Family,” he said. Honestly, I really did hear the difference. “And sometimes….” He paused and shook his head again to clear his thoughts. “Well, at least there are a few that make it worthwhile, but they’re the young ones. Listen to me ramble on to the first kind ear. Look, what do you need? Money? Job? Clothes? You name it. Just call me for anything.”

I shook my head. “I don’t need anything, Tony.”

He flashed me a smile and I saw the man he was thirty years ago. He had been a very handsome man. “Everyone needs something.”

“Not me.” Of course, I did need someone to make my brothers stop being crazy and insane, but for some reason, I didn’t want to tell a Mafia don that. He would probably make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Something involving cement shoes, size twelve.

“Uh huh. Can I ask you a question?” He reached down to scratch Artful. “Why’d you do it? Why’d you jump in front of a bullet for an old man?”

“To be fair, I didn’t ‘jump in front of’ anything. I jumped at you. I tried to get you down.”

He waved his hand, two fingers twirling in an almost impatient gesture. Apparently, he wasn’t interested in little details like that. I knew, then, that Big Tony Gasconi would never listen to reason about this. No matter what my original intentions had been–to shove him down, to warn him, whatever had gone through my mind in those few precious seconds–I had taken a bullet meant for him. That meant something to many people. It probably meant more to a Mafia don.

My fingers twitched for a cigarette. “You might not like the answer.”

He glanced up at me. “I think I can handle it.”

I sucked in a deep breath. Did they make cement shoes in a ladies’ nine? “Catholic guilt.”

He sat back in his chair and wiped off his glasses. “Catholic guilt?” He eased them back on his face and regarded me with solemn brown eyes. I had the distinct feeling he was trying not to laugh at me.

Damn Catholic guilt. If I hadn’t yelled out to you, I wouldn’t have distracted you.”

Tony snickered, leaning into his right hand and covering his mouth.

“You’re laughing at me! Tony, don’t you dare make fun of me! I took a bullet for you!”

He exploded in one fell swoop, laughing so hard, tears poured out of his eyes. “Saved by Catholic guilt,” he said, his voice choked with humor. “That’s perfect. Wait until I tell my Lotta.”

“Just wait until the next time you need someone to take a bullet. I’ll remember this, Tony. I swear I will.” When he smiled at me, I couldn’t help but smile back. His grin, like his unaffected enthusiasm, was contagious. “Weird bumping into you like this.”

He gave me a little wink back. “Yeah, not as weird as the last time you bumped into me.”

So it was insane, and crazy, and probably stupid, but I liked Tony Gasconi.

“Well–” Tony smacked his hands on his knees before he pushed himself into a standing position. “I need to run, my March, but the offer still stands.”

I shook my head. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, because I do, but I’m fine.”

“You’re a good girl, but we’re taking care of you whether you like it or not.”

“Tony, I really don’t know how to interpret that statement.”

He gave me a little smile before he stepped off the porch. He was about ten feet away when a man with café au lait colored skin and Turkish coffee colored hair stepped out of an alley. He was young, maybe early to mid-twenties, with a wrestler’s build that stretched his white t-shirt too thin, a black newsboy cap slung over his head, and a bulky newspaper under his arm. When he saw me staring at him, Tommy “The Special” Spinelli tipped the hat at me and winked before he followed a respectful distance behind Big Tony.

I glanced down at my puppy and noticed a necklace stuck in Artful’s collar. I picked it up. It was beautiful, a riot of various colored semi-precious stones on a silver pendant. I leaned back in my chair and buried my face in my hands, the necklace dangling from my fingers. My move to Chicago was becoming very complicated.

“Bad day?” said a voice behind me.

I turned around and saw Jackson lounging against the wall, arms crossed, a lazy smile stretched across his face. I knew he would follow me, goddammit. I stood up and shoved a finger in the center of his very broad, very muscular chest. “I have to talk to you.”

He widened his lazy smile. “I figured as much. You looked over your shoulder about fourteen times as you walked over here.”

Something made me think there was no “about” in that statement. He probably had counted. I pointed a finger down. “Sit down. Here.”

He sat and I stomped to the other side of the table and slammed into the chair across from him. “You’re shirty today,” he said.

“Shut up. Which one hired you?”

“Which one didn’t hire me?”

Well of course it would have been a group effort. They all probably chipped in, split Jackson’s salary five ways. Hell, maybe some of my cousins and uncles got involved. Five dollars a week to keep wayward March out of trouble. There may have even been a collection taken up at the station. Something in a metal bucket, with a picture of me taped to the side, the words “SAVE MARCHY” printed above it. “Do you do this sort of thing often?”

“What, bodyguard?” At my nod, Jackson shrugged. “Sometimes. They just wanted someone to keep an eye on you every few days, make sure you weren’t getting in trouble. After the shooting, they bumped up security on you.”

“Wait, they hired you before I got shot?” Mean reds, furious oranges, and homicidal yellows all swept through me in licking flames of rage. I could have stayed in Baton Rouge for all of this.

Jackson leaned back in his chair, his arm trailing at his side to brush Artful’s back. “Not to ruin the mood, but this is serious, love. I don’t think you understand that. You have some heavy muscle following you around. The old man has a couple of guys watching out for you, and a series of contacts in the neighborhood. All good, all benign. In fact, I’m kind of happy about that to tell you the truth. He’s better equipped to handle something happening to you than the cops are.”

“What kind of muscle?” I leaned back in my chair and tried to match his casual tone. And I would, even if it killed me. “You’re muscle. You’re following me.”

“I’m not muscle.”

“You look like muscle.”

“You stereotype people often, or is this just a new thing?”

Jackson.

He flashed me his half smile. “There are two other sets of muscle tailing you, both bad news. Keep an eye out for them, but between me and the detective, I think you’ll be okay.”

My hand froze in mid-air, the coffee cup inches from my lips. “What did you say?”

He cocked his head. “Reggianno and I worked out a schedule for you.”

Of course. When I added it all up in my head, the schedules worked. Jackson’s phone call was after Dominic left my house. Even the day Jackson followed me home was followed by a night hanging out with Dominic. “Son of a bitch,” I said under my breath.

He held his hand up. “Thought you figured that much out.”

I leaned across the table and poked him in the chest again. “You better start talking or I’ll take the old man up on his offer to give me anything I want.”

Apparently, Jackson was used to threats. He just stared at me, head cocked. I knew this game. I crossed my arms on my chest and stared back at him.

Finally, some seconds or hours later, he broke eye contact, sighed, and ran a hand over his head. “Your brothers are right. You really are the most impossible woman I’ll ever meet.”

“Big Tony doesn’t think so. He thinks I’m a good girl.”

Jackson cocked an eyebrow at me and his face relaxed into amusement. “Fine. You’ll just get nosy and find out anyway. Reggianno knows that your brothers hired a bodyguard. We worked out a schedule that has one of us watching you pretty much all the time, so you’re never really alone.” He paused, taking a sip of his coffee. “You’re a good runner, by the way, but if you used some leg weights, you’d get a better workout. And try not to pump your arms so much. It’s not good for the stitches.”

I just stared at him until he gave me a half smile.

“Right. One of us has had you under watch since the day you left the hospital. We have it pretty much sorted out.”

Sorted out indeed. They were parceling me around like my freaking brothers had my entire life. “So, bodyguard, do you know who left the messages on my voicemail and my door?”

He shook his head. “That’s the bitch of it. I ran a trace on your phone but they called from a pay phone so it didn’t matter.”

I sank back in my chair. “So someone really is watching me.” And apparently, there were still pay phones in the world.

“Yeah, but never on my shift. The cops can’t catch them, and even if they did, there are enough bought cops in the precinct to make it a moot point.”

“Bought cops?”

Jackson cocked an eyebrow at me. “The Mafia keeps some cops on payroll. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen The Godfather?

“Of course I have,” I said in an absent voice. So there were bought cops. Of course there were. And that may be why Callaghan was warning me about my security system. He must have thought they did it on purpose–which they did–for some nefarious reason. He probably–

Jackson ran a hand over his head. I was almost sure that it was a new personality tic for him. He must have recently shaved it. I tried to imagine him with longer hair, the honey-blonde lighter the farther away it got from the roots, but all I could see was Jackson with his hair shaved close to his scalp. A military haircut.

“Well, I just wanted to tell you that you’re fired. I don’t need a bodyguard.” In fact, it might be safe to say that I had too many bodyguards at the moment.

“Sorry, love. You’re not paying the bills.”

“Who is paying the bills?”

His noncommittal shrug spoke volumes. Son of a bitch. The boys had taken up a collection.

“Fine. You want to be my bodyguard? Be my bodyguard. My life’s a disaster, you know. I won’t make your job any easier.”

“A disaster? Like Tiger Stadium?”

That was it. I stood up, almost knocking the chair over in my haste. “I don’t care how big you are. I’ll take you down.”

He stood up as well and reached over to scratch Artful’s head. Artful, traitor that he was, just closed his eyes in delight. “You two getting along?”

Something in his voice made me pause. I craned my neck to look up at him. He was taller than 6’4. I was sure of it. “You left me Artful?”

Jackson just gave me a mysterious smile and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. I stared at him for a second until I figured out what he was waiting for. Of course. He was waiting for me to leave first so he could follow me home.

I considered waiting him out, seeing how long he would stand there, patient as Job. But some small part of me knew I’d be the loser in this situation. Jackson didn’t seem like the type to give up easily. Well, neither was I. Stubborn as a mule with a head twice as thick, my grandmother always said about her lone granddaughter. I turned on my heel and headed home, with Artful and Jackson trailing at my heels. They wanted to guard the wayward Southern redhead? All these big men with guns wanted to follow me around to protect me?

Well, for their sakes, I hoped they were being paid well, because they were about to earn those paychecks. I was going to give them a runaround the likes of which they’ve never seen. They would have to–

When I tripped on the uneven cement on the sidewalk, I expected to land face-first on the concrete. Bust my lip, break my nose, or, at the very least, scrape my hands and knees raw. But Jackson caught me before I came close enough to the ground to feel the waves of heat radiating off the sidewalk, trapped there after a day of bright skies and shining sun. As he put me squarely on my feet again, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. This just proved their point. March Sanderson needed to be protected, possibly from herself.

With as much dignity as I could muster, I lifted my head and walked towards home.

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