Copyright Amy L. Montz
“Ms. Sanderson. Hey, Ms. Sanderson, wait up.”
I didn’t even slow my stride.
“Come on, Ms. Sanderson. I gotta talk to you.”
“Then you have to go through my bodyguards,” I said over my shoulder.
The steady pounding of the man’s shoes against the sidewalk became uneven, more of a shuffle slide than a sharp staccato. “Bodyguards?”
A quick glance to my left showed a plain tan car, at least ten years old, with two men sitting in the front seat. Cop detail. About fifteen or twenty feet in front of me near the doorway of my doctor’s office sat two beefy men, one smoking a cigarette and another chewing on a toothpick. Mafia thugs for hire, Bit and The Special. And somewhere was a shadowy form, never visible to the naked eye. Possible superhero, Jackson. This guy behind me, however, was a mystery.
I turned to look at him. He was a skinny kid, maybe eighteen or nineteen, with a flutter of blonde hair brushing his forehead. Even from the several feet that distanced us, I noticed his knobby knees, his awkward elbows, his hands that were all knuckles. “Okay, I don’t know you.”
He skidded to a halt and his eyes darted behind me for a second. They widened, the washed-out blue darkening to a dirty denim color. A quick glance behind me confirmed that Bit and The Special were indeed standing up to walk over. “What’re the Gasconis doing here?”
“Bodyguard numbers three and four,” I said in an absent voice. “Who are you?”
He shifted his weight from his right foot to his left and then back again with a quick jerky movement. He seemed to be favoring his left leg. “Ollie Bineski. Look, I just have to give you this.”
I stared at the envelope he kept trying to shove in my hands, but my eyes strayed to his hand instead. The large knuckles were battered and bruised. For some reason, Ollie Bineski didn’t strike me as a brawler. “What is this?” I nodded to the manila envelope.
His eyes strayed behind me again and his shoving became almost desperate. “Just take it. Come on. Jesus. Just take it.”
“Hey, Ollie,” a deep voice said behind me. Slightly exotic, dark and smooth like espresso. Must be Tommy “The Special” Spinelli.
Ollie paled and then went gray, all at once. He all but threw the envelope at me and I caught it on instinct. “That’s for you. With our… with our com-compliments.”
“You delivering for the big boys, son?” A similar deep voice, but not as smooth. That was Bit.
Across the street a car door slammed. Oh for God’s sake. My cop detail was getting out of the car. I looked over and saw a short wiry man checking the traffic before he crossed the street, and a taller, lankier man, almost a boy, by his side. Bobby Walcheski and Edward Markus.
“I’m just doing a favor. That’s it.” Ollie backed up three steps, his palms out.
I tried to imagine what it looked like from his perspective. What I looked like from his perspective. I tried to imagine myself an avenging archangel, all fiery hair and warriors of righteousness crossing the street to be by my side. A warning to Mafia thugs everywhere. Don’t mess with March Sanderson. The cops are protecting her. But then, Ollie didn’t seem to be a Mafia thug, and he wasn’t looking at the cops. His eyes were rooted over my shoulders where I could feel Bit and The Special, the real Mafia thugs, hovering. It looked like nothing more than what it was. A tall awkward redhead whose protectors ran more towards breaking kneecaps and making offers one shouldn’t refuse than any kind of righteous vengeance. The cops were second fiddle to the men behind me. “Thank you,” I told Ollie, clutching the envelope to my chest.
He nodded and backed away some more. He was just turning to run when Tommy spoke. “Tell your sister I say hi.”
Ollie froze, every muscle in his body rigid for just one second, before he took off running.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I whipped around and walked towards the Gasconi men. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Tommy eyed me up and down, a little smile curving around that ever-present toothpick. “Heard you had a doctor’s appointment, sweetheart. We just making sure you get there okay.”
How the hell had they heard I had an appointment? I had just gotten it this morning, when the doctor’s office called and told me they could fit me in after another patient cancelled. That was only two hours ago.
But before I could respond, Bobby and Markus jogged over to us. “These men bothering you, Sanderson?” Bobby said.
“We just walking down the street,” Tommy said. “Ain’t no crime to be walking down no street.”
“Ain’t no crime,” Bit agreed.
Dammit, it should be. Had I known my ultimatum last night after my interview with Jackson would cause this much insanity, I would have just locked myself in my apartment instead. Smart, Sanderson. Real smart. “No, they’re not bothering me.” I turned to Bobby. “Look, I have a doctor’s appointment in about five minutes. Can I go?”
He just ignored me and put a deliberate hand on his hip, right where his gun was. “How’s your probation officer treating you, Spinelli? What’s his name again?”
“Parole just fine, Detective. How that skinny broad treating you? What her name again?” But Tommy’s bravado seemed to be just that. His lips went a little bloodless, a stark contrast to his tanned skin. His speech changed, too, verbs dropping with alarming regularity. English wasn’t his first language. I was sure of it.
“What do you think?” Bobby asked Markus. “I think it sounds like a threat.”
“Works for me,” Markus said.
This time, Tommy held his hands out, palms up. “We just walking down the street. Ain’t bothering no one. Saw this gorgeous lady and thought we say hello. That right, sweetheart?”
It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me. The freaking Mafia was asking me to cover for them? “That’s it,” I said. And like a fool, I went along with it.
Bobby’s hand tightened against the handle of his gun before it loosened. “Then go to your doctor’s appointment,” he said in a soft voice.
Great. Now I had pissed off the cops. But before I could say anything, Bobby and Markus turned around and headed back to the car.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” Tommy said.
I just pushed past him and headed to the door. God, I was such an idiot. This was the second time I was siding with the Gasconis over the cops. With my luck, they’d revise their original suspicions and believe that I was in league with the Mafia, maybe even took that bullet on purpose.
When I opened the door and stepped inside, the cool rush of air-conditioning washed over me and gave me goose bumps. I shivered, and something shook in my hand. I had completely forgotten about the envelope.
“Hi, I’m here to see Dr. Rosenberg,” I said to the woman at the front desk. “My name is–”
“Sign in and fill this out.” She handed me a clipboard and slid the glass shut again.
I did as I was told, handed her my insurance card and my completed form, and wandered to an empty chair in the closet of a waiting room. Then, and only then, did I open the envelope Ollie Bineski had given me.
Ten seconds later, I was running to the bathroom, my hand over my mouth. I made it just in time to empty the contents of my breakfast–coffee, a bagel with butter, and a banana–into the toilet.
I couldn’t move for a few minutes. My brain kept telling my body to stand, but my body and my brain appeared to be miscommunicating on some deep intrinsic level. The Cartesian mind/body split had happened, several hundred years after it was in fashion. March Sanderson, always enamored with retro vintage.
Hysterical laughter bubbled in my mouth and I forced myself to get up, to walk to the sink and rinse my mouth out with water. Then I splashed water on my face, sucked in a deep breath, and stared at my reflection.
My mascara had run and left dark little lines under my eyes. I removed those first. Then I rooted through my purse, found my Visine, and tried to get the red out. Half a bottle later, I looked less like a walking zombie and more like a pale shadow of my Baton Rouge self. This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Life was supposed to get better, not worse. I had a new apartment, a new job to start in the fall, and I was going to make new friends. I had a dog, a stack of mystery novels to read before August, a plan to retile my kitchen counters. There had been an entire decorating scheme in my future, goddammit. I was going to spend the rest of the summer making my apartment my own.
But instead, I was receiving packages from mobsters, being tailed by mobsters, and having mobsters break into my house. I didn’t have time to redecorate because I was too busy looking over my shoulder to see who was following me now. My eyes strayed over to the photographs scattered on the tile floor. I had dropped them in my haste to get to the toilet and throw up. They were heartbreaking, not because they were gory or gruesome, but because I now knew why Ollie was favoring his left leg.
I picked them up, one by one. All of them detailed various injuries inflicted on the kid. Bruised ribs, bloody face and nose, battered knuckles. The last thing I grabbed was the note from the Bineskis which simply read, “This is what YOUR FRIENDS like to do in their spare time. We hope you enjoy seeing what YOUR FRIENDS did to a kid. Get the cops and YOUR FRIENDS off our fucking backs, or next time, you’ll be the model in the pictures. You got that?”
I got it, all right. And apparently, Ollie Bineski had gotten it, too. Someone had beaten the kid, and his Family thought I was to blame.
It was too much. I hadn’t ever met the kid before, for Christ’s sake. I had never even heard of the Bineski Family until Jackson brought them up on the phone. But they were feuding with the Gasconis, I was the new Gasconi mascot, and someone saw a nineteen year old kid as a threat to me.
My eyes swam with tears, but I clenched my lids shut tight until I could see clearly again. This had to stop. I was going to make it stop. I turned to leave, opened the door, and was barely out of it when I stopped short of crashing into someone.
“You okay?” the man asked.
It was all I could do not to scream. “Yeah, Jackson, I’m fine.” I shoved the photographs, the envelope, and the note at his chest. “Take these to Dominic. I have an appointment.”
“Yeah, I know.” He nudged me away from the door. “What’s wrong? What did the Bineski kid want?”
The hysterical laughter I had bit back earlier threatened to rise to the surface again. I was right. He had been following me, and now here he was, at my doctor’s office, lying in wait like some omniscient narrator, ready to detail the events of my life. “He wanted to give me those.”
Jackson was already flipping through the photographs. “Someone beat up the Bineski kid?”
“Yes, and apparently, it’s my fault.” I pulled out the note from the stack and put it on top. “They think it was the Gasconis.”
“It wasn’t the Gasconis,” Jackson said. “Trust me on that.”
This time, the laughter did spill out. “Trust you? I don’t know you. Why the hell should I trust you?” But the strangest thing was that I did trust him, the same as I trusted Dominic. Maybe because he spoke to Remy on a regular basis, and Remy would have known. My odd, near-psychic twin would have known if Jackson was untrustworthy. He hired him, after all.
Jackson leaned against the wall and stared down at me. “You don’t have to trust me, then. Just think about the logistics of this.”
I knew what he meant. Mafia or no Mafia, neither Bit nor The Special looked like the kind of guys who got their kicks beating up kids who were six inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than either of them. Hell, that was three inches shorter and at least fifty pounds lighter than me. But then, why did the Bineskis think so?
“Son of a bitch,” I said under my breath. Well, of course they would think so, if Ollie was following me around and the Gasconis found out about it. Two of their men had already been killed because of me. Or, so we thought.
“You’re a popular skirt.” Jackson reached into his pocket for his cell phone. “The Bineskis were probably curious to know why.”
“And they sent Ollie because he was the least threatening.” It made sense, it really did, from both sides of the law. But then who beat up the Bineski kid?
“And because it’s a bigger faux pas to kill the don’s son than two of the don’s third cousins.” Jackson pulled out his phone and began dialing, nodding to the door of the doctor’s office at the same time. “Go get your stitches looked at. I’ll bring these to Reggianno, okay?”
“Thank you, Jackson.” But I stood there, staring at him.
He dialed the last number but didn’t punch “Talk.” Instead, he glanced up at me. “What’s that, love?”
“What’s your first name?” And what in God’s name possessed me to ask him that?
But Jackson gave me his little half smile. “Logan,” he said.
It calmed me, somehow. Maybe because it made him the tiniest bit more human. “That’s a nice name.”
“Well, it doesn’t start with a ‘J’ like Sanderson names do, but it’s good enough.” He gave me a wink, all in the cheek muscles and none in the eyelid, and pressed “Talk.” “Ten bucks says your doctor yells at you for running.”
“You’re on.” By the time I stepped back into the doctor’s office, I was calm again, and I hated myself, just a little, for the reason why. Despite my adamant protests of help all my life, despite the fact that I swore up and down that I could take care of myself, some small part of me liked letting the big men with guns help me out. It was a familiar scene, after all.
Twenty minutes later, I bit my lip and tried not to glance at the bullet wound aftermath. “So they pulled a little, but what does that mean, exactly?”
“It means that the scarring will be worse.” Dr. Rosenberg pressed gentle fingers to my shoulder. “They didn’t use dissolvable stitches. You’ll have to make another appointment to get them out.” She blinked her eyes, owlish behind her thick glasses, and peered closer at my wound. “You were lucky. Do you know that?”
“That’s what everyone keeps telling me.” But it wasn’t lucky. It was beginning to feel remarkably unlucky. Almost premonition-of-doom unlucky for both me and my wardrobe. I would never be able to wear anything sleeveless again.
She finished taking out my stitches and glanced at my chart. “Any problems with your eyes?” When I didn’t respond, she looked up at me. “From the concussion. Blurriness in vision, headaches after reading?”
“Yes.” A piece of hair landed on my shoulder and I brushed it away with an impatient hand. Even my ponytail was falling apart. “When I wake up, it takes a few seconds for my eyes to clear. And things have been a little blurry.”
She nodded. “Concussion. Do you wear glasses or contacts?”
“Never have in my life.”
“Try some reading glasses, but stop by an optometrist soon and get it checked out.” She scribbled something down on her clipboard. “I’d say ease off on the running for a bit, give your shoulder time to heal. You did get shot, March. Keep that in mind.”
It was always in my mind, every second of every day. “Believe me, I remember.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do.” She set her clipboard down and pulled out a pad from her pocket. She tapped the prescriptions in my hand. “One for headaches, one for pain.” She turned to go, but paused near the door. “Stay away from guns, March, and the men who hold them. That’s the best way to keep your shoulder intact.” Then she slipped out the door and closed it softly behind her.
I shrugged back into my bra and blouse with only a slight sting in my right shoulder. She was right. I acted like I was trying to stay away from gun-wielding men, that I was an innocent pawn who just kept getting tracked down. But I had covered for Tommy Spinelli today, sided with him over the cops, for God’s sake, and then I just handed my problems over to Jackson without question or comment.
By the time I got home, I had developed quite a list of my sins, both real and imagined. I had bonded with Big Tony Gasconi, been nice to George Callaghan and angry with Dominic for leaving my house and my puppy vulnerable. I had let my brothers hire a bodyguard and then didn’t fire that bodyguard when I found out about him. Hell, I hadn’t even called my brothers yet to bitch them into next week for doing something so controlling and chauvinistic. Over the past week I had let every man I knew, and some I didn’t, run my life, mold it to their whims and desires without a peep of protest from my lips.
“But not anymore, Artful,” I said to my puppy when I walked into my apartment. “That all changes. Starting now.”
“March Sanderson, open the goddamn door.”
“Go to hell, Dominic,” I called from the couch. Two days into my siege and I thought I was doing quite well. My apartment had become a fortress, no one entering or leaving except me and Artful, and that was only for brief forays outside for his walks.
“You can’t avoid me forever.” Dominic paused for a second. “I can get a court-ordered warrant if I want to.”
“Bully for you, but I’m not letting you in until you do.”
He banged on the door again. “Goddammit, March.” His tone was getting more impatient, his voice getting louder. He was building up to a nice little hissy fit.
Of course, he had pulled the same hissy fit yesterday, and I still hadn’t let him in. “Goddammit yourself. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that Jackson was a freaking bodyguard.”
“I couldn’t tell you. Jesus Christ, what do you want from me?” There was a long pause. “Don’t you want to know why the Bineskis gave you those pictures?”
Okay, score one to Dominic. I did want to know. I desperately wanted to know, but I wasn’t compromising myself anymore. No indeed. Let them figure it out with their big guns and machismo attitudes. I was only halfway through my DVD collection, anyways. There were many more movies to watch before school started. “Nope,” I called to Dominic. “I’m fine. The Bineskis can go to hell for all I care.”
He said something I didn’t quite catch, so I lowered the volume on the TV, cutting off Mr. Darcy’s quite emphatic speech to Elizabeth Bennet. “What?”
“I said that you’re being impossible.” There was a sliding sound against my door, followed by a slight thudding noise.
I paused the DVD and untangled my chenille throw from my legs. Artful leapt down from the couch and skittered over to the door. After a moment, I followed him. “I’m not being impossible,” I said.
“Yes, you are.” Dominic’s petulant voice sounded lower, somewhere around my knees. He was sitting down outside my door, leaning against the wood and talking through it.
I hesitated for just a second before I did the same, sliding down to my hardwood floor and resting against the door. “Tell me that you understand.”
He hesitated before he responded, perhaps realizing I had wandered closer. My voice was nearer to him, after all. “Because you’re pissed off at me?”
“Not just you.” I rested my head against the door and almost felt the pressure of Dominic’s head pressing against the same space. We were nearly aligned, separated by only a thin piece of wood. If I lifted my hand to touch the door, would he, on some instinctive level, know the exact spot to touch back? Were our bodies in synch with each other, despite my snit, despite the wooden door separating us? “I’m pretty pissed off at everyone in Chicago. Except Mrs. Cunningham. She brought me chocolate banana muffins this morning.” And The Special had left a stuffed spinach pizza outside my door at noon, with a simple, “Don’t starve, sweetheart,” following his knock.
Dominic chuckled, and even through the door, it was a warm sound. “Any left?”
There were, at least four. But I lied and told him no. Maybe because I knew he could convince me to give him one, or maybe because I knew that once I opened the door, all my principles were lost.
We were quiet for a minute. My hand traced little circles against the grain of the wood, but I didn’t know if his hands were doing the same.
“You need anything?” he asked.
“I’m good. I went to the store a few days ago.” Artful climbed on my lap and I transferred my circles to his head. His eyes closed in delight. “So what’s the deal with the Bineskis?”
I didn’t think he would answer me, not without opening the door. It had been a long shot, but it paid off, all the same. “Just what we thought. Bineski was pissed that his men got killed, so he sent his son to check things out. Someone found the kid and beat the shit out of him. Bineski was warning you.”
The coldness in my stomach had an acrid aftertaste, a burning like the smell of a match just struck on a box. The strong sting of sulfur followed by the sooty feel of smoke in my nostrils, all creeping down to settle, uncomfortable and insistent, in my stomach. “Who beat him up?”
“I’m saying a Gasconi, but it wasn’t Bit or The Special.”
For some reason, it felt justified. My Mafia thugs weren’t beating up kids. That had to mean something, right? “And what are you doing here?”
“The real reason or the excuse?”
Unbidden, a smile passed on my face. “Both.”
“The excuse is to get you to come down to the station and make a statement about Thursday. The real reason is that I thought you may want to go get something to eat.” He paused a second. “Or go see a movie.”
Of course the first time a man asked me out on a real honest to God date after my divorce would be through a door while I was currently in siege mode and in a nasty snit. My life was insane and idiotic, and I just needed to accept it. “You asking me on a date, Detective?” I tried to make my tone as light as possible, but my voice cracked on the word “date.” It had been a long time. A really long time.
“Yeah.” Dominic’s voice was softer. “I am.”
He was sweet, funny, the tiniest bit awkward which was entirely too charming, and had heavily-lashed eyes that made me think naughty thoughts involving dark rooms and beds and early mornings. He opened doors for me without being obvious or overwhelming about it. And he was the detective on my case that needed me to stop by the station on the way to our date, just to make a statement. “Not tonight,” I said, and my heart broke, just a little. “I’m already in my pajamas.” That, too, was a lie. I might as well have said I was washing my hair.
“Come on, March. I thought we were going to separate all of this. Besides, I know this great little Italian place that makes a veal parmigiana to die for.”
It wasn’t the veal as much as his tone that did it for me. My hand was reaching for the doorknob, my mouth was opening to say yes, when I heard his phone go off.
There was the sound of a muffled curse on the other side of the door, and then more sliding. Dominic was standing up. The door was cold all of a sudden, the cozy little space now lonely and a bit sad.
“I have to go,” Dominic said. “Don’t go wandering off alone, okay? There’s a car outside if you need to go anywhere. Just let them know.”
But no, we couldn’t separate the job from the life. The two blended together all too well. “Be careful,” I said through the door, but he was already tromping down the stairs. The sound of his feet became fainter, and then there was no sound at all.
“So what do you think, Art?” I lifted my puppy and pressed a kiss to his head. “Is Momma the stupidest woman to ever walk the face of this earth?”
Artful didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I already knew I was. I was letting a good one get away, all in the name of my stupid idiotic principles. And for one moment, I couldn’t even remember what those principles were.
“I could just break down the door,” Jackson said Sunday morning.
We had played this game for twenty minutes now, having asinine conversations through my door. But unlike Dominic, Jackson wasn’t working up to a hissy fit. In fact, I was pretty sure he’d be content to stand there all day and wait until I got fed up and opened the door. “I’m getting dressed for church. Don’t you have anything better to do?” And I was also running late, but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone but me. I scooted my couch back to look for my missing shoe, but it wasn’t there.
“Can you at least give me a sign you’re still alive and well, or do I need to get your brothers on the first plane to Chicago? If I remember correctly, Jeremy was pricing tickets just this morning.”
The shoe was wedged between my entertainment center and my wall. Lord only knows how it got there. After I grabbed it, I opened the door with the security chain still in place. “See? Alive and well. Leave me alone.” I tried to slam the door in his face, but he caught it with his knee.
“Let me in, love.”
I debated smacking his exposed hand with my quite formidable clunky heel, but even I wasn’t that mean. Or that stupid. “Go to hell, Jackson.”
“I was hired to protect you and that’s what I’m going to do.” His fingers edged further in the crack.
“Then do it somewhere else, because I’m not letting you in.”
Then another hand appeared, lifted a small hand-held tool, clipped my security chain, and was immediately followed by the entirety of Jackson.
“You clipped my chain.” I stared at the object in question in dumb awe. “How is that helping the protecting me scenario? You destroyed my chain!”
He pulled a new one out of his pocket. “I figured it would come down to this.” He went to work installing my new chain. “These things are useless anyways. I’ll send a guy around to get you better security.”
I eyed his clothes. Gone were the standard black t-shirt and faded jeans. In their place were a white dress shirt and black slacks. “Oh no you don’t. You are not going to Mass with me.”
“Of course I am.” He slid the new chain in place and turned to face me. “Reggianno’s on a job. That leaves me.”
“Then I’m not going.” To prove my point, I sat on the edge of my sofa with my arms crossed over my chest.
“Nice attitude for a Catholic girl.” He ignored me on the couch and began wandering around my apartment.
I immediately jumped up, grabbed his elbow and tried to tug him towards the door. “Get out. I’m not dealing with any of you right now. I have to be at church in twenty minutes.”
“You have a nice place, love,” he said as he walked across the living room. “Lots of books. I don’t trust people who don’t read.”
I dug in my heels but it didn’t slow him down. “They come part and parcel with the teaching gig. Now get the hell out.”
He ignored me again and walked around the living room, dragging me along with him. “You know, I wouldn’t have taken you for an art nouveau fan, not really.” He paused in front of my framed Billie Holiday print. “But this,” he said, gesturing to it, “this I get. Your brothers said you love jazz.”
“Billie is the cat’s pajamas, Jackson. Everyone knows that. I mean, anyone who doesn’t love Billie just doesn’t have a heart, that’s what.” I started to get animated with my discussion, my snit temporarily forgotten. “And Nina Simone? She’s absolutely brilliant. And, of course, Beth’s the diva of postmodern jazz.” I waved to my Portishead poster.
“I have that album,” he said before he started to walk into my bedroom.
I got shirty again. “What are you doing now?” I said, following after him. “Stop snooping in my house.”
“I’m not snooping. I’m making sure the house is secure.” He wiggled the windows in my bedroom this time, the same as he had done throughout my house. He had peered out windows, checked the fire escape, glanced on bookshelves looking for hidden surveillance cameras, jiggled doors to make sure they would hold against an intrusion. I fluctuated between gratitude and aggravation, and wondered if an odd combination of both was an acceptable response.
Satisfied the security system was installed correctly and everything was in order, he moved back into the living room. “No treadmill?” he asked. “What are you going to do when it gets cold?”
“I’ll join a gym,” I said, lifting my chin higher.
“You better, love. It’s not fun running in snow.”
“When have you run in snow, tough guy?”
He just gave me a mysterious smile again. I was getting very tired of those mysterious smiles, honest to God. When he grabbed Artful’s leash and picked him up, I ran over to stop him. “No way. You’re not holding my dog ransom.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “I’m taking him for a walk. I’m not going to kidnap him.” His look became curious. “Jesus Christ, you think I would kidnap a dog? What kind of monster do you take me for?”
“A big brute of one that’s in league with my brothers, that’s what.” I stood fidgeting, transferring my weight from one foot to the other. I hadn’t run in two days and the walk to church was going to be my first true exercise all week. The familiar prickling on the back of my neck was apparent again. I had paced my living room for twenty minutes this morning without even realizing it. That was what convinced me I had to get out the house before I went completely mad. And now Jackson was trying to ruin it? Not going to happen.
And Artful looked downright pleased with the scenario, what with snuggling into Jackson’s large chest and all, licking his arm and gazing up at him in adoration. I glared at Jackson for making my puppy a traitor, leaving his poor Momma locked inside of her own damn house with the walls slowly closing in around her. But I wasn’t going to church with my bodyguard. Not at all.
I sat down on my couch and crossed my arms over my chest. “He’s already had his walk.”
“You’re really not going to let me come with you, are you?” When I shook my head, a little half smile appeared on Jackson’s face. “So you’re not going to church?”
“I think I deserve one Sunday off.” I cocked my head towards the door. “Have a good day, Jackson.”
He gave Artful one final head scratch and placed him on the ground. “You’ll have to leave sooner or later, love.”
“Just not with you.” Or Dominic, or the Gasconis. Not until this blew over. Maybe I was being stubborn, but that was my decision to make.
“Uh huh. Call me if you need me.” With that, he was gone.
I watched him from the window and waited until he had disappeared down the block before I slid into my shoes, grabbed my purse, and locked the door behind me. I all but ran to church, not an easy feat given my shoes of choice, but dammit, it felt good to move again. I even took a different route, one more circuitous than the one I had mapped out the past two Sundays. I arrived just as the priest opened mass with prayer, crossed myself with holy water, and slid into a back pew.
David had always said I was a creature of habit. I shopped at the same stores, took the same roads home and to my mother’s, and had a similar routine every day. Run, shower, coffee and breakfast, work, coffee, home. Ritual was important. I thrived on similarity, and a familiar routine was a narcotic comfort to me. Maybe it was growing up Catholic, or maybe I stayed Catholic because of the need for ritual. Whatever it was, it worked.
I let the silence of the church overwhelm me, slow my heartbeat and breathing, until the last bits of uneasiness left me, the final shreds of confinement melted away. The church was Gothic in size, all dark gleaming wood and rich colors in the stained glass, and there was comfort in being a nameless face in the crowd. Just another parishioner amongst the flock. A lost sheep called home.
But the regional differences were apparent, the announcements slightly off. A fish fry instead of a crab boil, or holding hands for the Our Father instead of remaining a private entity. I was almost sick for Baton Rouge, almost in pain over losing the South, and it haunted me, throughout the service, and as I followed the crowd outside.
I blinked a little against the glaring sunlight and fumbled for my sunglasses when I felt a hand on my arm.
The man was a few inches taller than me with a wide build, the muscle just starting to soften into fat, and hair so ashy brown it reminded me of cypress trees, and the bayou, and home. His eyes were shadowed by dark glasses of his own, and his expression was unreadable. He seemed familiar, another random member of the hairy fairy godfather squad. Maybe the Gasconi who had brought me coffee on Thursday, just as I was beginning my siege.
I sighed. “Look, I already told you–”
“You don’t tell me nothing,” he said in a deep, husky voice. “And you scream, and I get to make that red hair redder.” He clapped a hand that smelled like cigar smoke and oranges over my mouth and half-carried me to the black sedan idling at the curb before I had even finished processing his statement.
Just as I was beginning to struggle, just as my arms began to flail and my legs began to kick, he threw me head-first into the backseat and settled in next to me.
When I opened my mouth to scream, his hand clamped over it again. “Stop your whining,” he said in my ear. “Or ain’t you a big tough broad?” He tapped my head with something hard, and heavy.
And then, the driver pulled away from the curb, with me trapped between two men that had no interest in bringing me coffee, or offering me protection, and without my dearth of bodyguards for the first time in days. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard a voice saying quite distinctly, “I told you so.” The voice sounded like an odd combination of Dominic’s and Jackson’s, all at the same time, with a hint of Tommy’s exoticness, just to make the situation that much more unbearable.
Then, and only then, after I had processed everything, understood exactly what was going on, did I feel the barrel of a gun pressed against my ribcage.