Copyright Amy L. Montz
The man who had grabbed me outside of church slipped off his sunglasses and gave me a smile, terrible and oddly familiar, that cut deep in his tanned skin. “We need to talk, bitch,” he said in that thick Chicago accent.
“So talk,” I said, choking back my fear with bravado. I drank everything in: the car, the men, their clothes, even what make I thought the gun might be.
“Stay away from Big Tony. I don’t want you talking to him no more.”
My hesitation must have been visible, but he misread it for defiance. The gun pressed harder against my ribs. “I’m not playing with you,” he said. “Does this feel like I’m playing?”
I stared at the man, at his oddly familiar smile, his deep brown eyes, and on some instinctive level, I recognized his features, but the connection I was making in my head was of a man much older than him. “I haven’t talked to Big Tony.”
“Yeah?” the man said. “That right?” When he leaned closer to whisper in my ear, I could feel his spit on my skin. I tried to recoil, but his fingers bit deeper into my arm. “You want to try that again? We saw you this morning.”
I did want to try again, again and again until I came up with the right answer. The one that kept me alive, that would eventually get me out of this car and back to my life. To safety. “I didn’t know who he was.” My voice was small, tinny, almost distorted as if white noise were filtering through the background. “I swear, it was an impulsive thing. I had never seen him before.”
The man to my left giggled, a high-pitched sound that was somehow more terrifying than the gun jammed into my ribs. A dangerous sound. The sound of insanity and delirium all rolled together in a ball to lead us to a very overwhelming question indeed.
“Don’t like liars, Nathalie Sanderson.” The gunman chuckled in my ear, and it was a vast contrast to his companion’s giggle. This was calculated.
I tried to wiggle away again, but where would I go? There was high-pitched insanity on one side, and cold calculation on the other. I didn’t want to take my chances with either. “I’m not lying. Just let me go.” God, it was true. I was asking for favors from men who kidnapped me as if I could rationalize with them. Every movie I had ever seen in which the female victim did the same thing came rushing back to me. And I had scoffed at their efforts, told companion viewers that if I were in her situation, I would never do something so asinine as to try and reason with the criminals.
The gunman gripped my face in one of his hands and pulled me closer, an intimate lover moving in for a kiss. I could smell coffee on his breath, coffee and cigars and oranges. “Let’s try this again.” He turned my face to look at the man to my left, but I didn’t want to look at that man. I clung to the idea of reason, of rationality, and the man to my left knew neither. But when I tried to resist, the gunman gripped my face so hard my lips puckered. “Look.”
So I looked. I had to. What I saw almost made me gag. I had been right after all. The man on the left had a baby face that was shadowed by something darker. The gunman wanted to make sure I knew it. This was the real threat. Not the gun, not the kidnapping, but the man to my left with the dimpled smile and vacant, cruel eyes.
But those eyes… those cat-green eyes were, like the gunman’s smile, familiar. Where had I seen eyes that particular shade of green before?
I sucked in a breath as the gun barrel bruised my ribs. My torso arched, contorted in a curve to accommodate the new pain, and I felt the heat of the boy-man’s body. Another whimper, this one a little louder.
“Please drop me off,” I said to him. “Please. I won’t press charges.”
It felt like a mistake, as soon as the words left my mouth, but I knew it was one when the driver started laughing. His laugh wasn’t an insane giggle or a calculated chuckle, but an outright amused response. “What you think?” the driver asked the gunman. “Should we drop her off?”
Another maniacal giggle from the boy-man to my left. “Drop her off, drop her off.” His words were a chant, his clapping hands punctuating the rhythm.
“My friend here has taken quite the shine to you,” the gunman whispered in my ear. His breath was humid, swampy, and then his lips moved closer. They brushed the shell of my ear and I felt bugs crawling over my skin, thousands of them, marching up and down my arms and legs and any moment now, I would scream. “I ain’t ever seen him like this before,” he continued. “I mean, I know he likes the color red on women, but I never knew he liked red hair. What about it?” His voice was loud this close to my ear. “You like red hair?”
“Red’s my favorite color,” the boy-man said. One finger touched the red skirt lying on my thigh, poking it, examining it. “It’s bright and it drips.” The finger moved up to touch my hair. “Bright and drips. Bright and drips.”
I did it again, scooted closer to the gunman in some effort, any effort, to get away from this homicidal boy-man.
“He’s not all there,” the gunman said in my ear. “We have to watch him real careful, make sure he don’t get out of hand.”
Bile burned the back of my throat and I gagged with it. All three men noticed, and laughed. I managed to choke it back long enough to speak. “I’ll behave.”
The gunman dug his weapon into me, twisting it so that I had to move infinitesimally closer to the boy-man. “We know what you’re doing,” he said in my ear. “And I’ll be damned if some slip of a Mick girl ruins my career.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice began to flatten, even out, the hysteria draining out of it. I knew the place I was going to. It was familiar, dark, comforting. I had gone there the day Maria attacked me.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” the gunman asked. “You got me, Nathalie?”
My ribs felt bruised, raw, like the imprint of the gun barrel would be there forever, pressed into my skin to remind me that I had done a stupid thing. I had picked the wrong man to help, and now, it had gotten me this. “I understand what you’re saying,” I said.
“You better not,” he said, his breath hot on my ear. “Because if I find out you playing your game again, I’m going to come into your house while you’re sleeping, pick you up, and give you to my friend here.”
The familiar dark place receded and I was left with nothing but reality. But the colors were off, all a little brighter, a little sharper. I bit my bottom lip so hard I tasted blood. “Right,” I said. “I won’t.”
“Good. Then we understand each other.” The car slowed down enough for the gunman to open the door and throw me out of the car. I saw the sidewalk crashing towards me and I curled my arms around my head. But I didn’t land on my head. I landed hard on my right shoulder and there were fireworks of pain reverberating from my shoulder over my entire body. But the momentum of the moving car was too much. I rolled twice, three times, before I could pull my arms away from my head and right myself.
My fingers bit into the concrete, pushed my body up just enough so I could see the car in the distance, turning a corner and disappearing from view. And then there were sounds, images in my vision, and the distant sound of shouting.
“Are you all right?” a man said. “Are you hurt?”
I stared at his shoes. Black dress shoes, highly polished, with one long smudge on the toe of the right. Was I hurt? I would be. Pretty soon now. As soon as the shock was over. “I think my knee is scraped.” My voice sounded like my niece’s when she was tired. Petulant, a little annoyed, and childish. Shock. Strange, and I always had thought that after the first time someone came face to face with personal, directed violence, she couldn’t be shocked again. After the first death, there isn’t supposed to be any other.
“You’re bleeding. Are you…”
My fingers dug harder into the concrete, pushing my body up, and up, until I was sitting. Then, and only then, did I touch a hand to my right shoulder. It came away stained with blood. I stared at it, fascinated. It was bright red, and dripped down my fingers to settle on my palm. Bright and drips. Bright and drips.
I sucked in a deep breath, pressed my fingers into the concrete, and tried to keep the panic at bay. “Do you have somewhere I can sit down and use the phone?”
The man leaned down and put strong hands under my arms to lift me to my feet. As I came away from the concrete, I saw dark smudges, one from my bleeding shoulder, and four dabs from my bloody fingers. The man must have felt me wobble with the sight because he held me firm, careful not to put too much pressure on me, and wrapped a strong arm around my shoulders. He seemed to have some kind of training that taught him to deal with a situation like this. Maybe medical. Maybe military. Something that taught him to deal with blood, and panic, and hysteria.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I leaned into him. We were limping up the stairs to the now-vacant church and my legs felt wobbly, shaking a little with every step. Any pressure on my left ankle sent a tiny spark up my leg.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Let’s just get you upstairs.”
We walked into the church lobby and the cool scent of the marble and candles filled my nostrils again. I glanced over at my rescuer but didn’t look past his all black ensemble. I choked back a hysterical laugh as I remembered the day Maria attacked me. I really was like Blanche, dependent on the kindness of strangers.
The man settled me in a pew. My hands gripped the strap of my purse, slung across my chest, before they reached for the purse dangling at my side. I fumbled through it and found three Kleenexes. I wiped off the blood from my fingers before I pulled out my cell phone.
“Dom… Dominic?” My fingers clenched the man’s and I saw a slight smudge on his hand from my blood.
“March, what’s going on?”
My vision cleared and I calmed my breathing. “I… I was kidnapped.”
Dominic cursed a long, complicated string of words before he spoke again. “I’m coming now. Where are you?” After I told him, he hung up the phone.
“Kidnapped?” the man asked.
I pulled myself up to look at him. “I’m…” my voice trailed off as I saw his face, as I recognized him. “Brian,” I said in a soft voice. “Barista who remembers my orders.” I thought he had been a priest in his all-black ensemble.
His lips pursed and he nodded. “I was just leaving mass,” he said, “when I saw them throw you out of the car. Are you okay?”
I started trembling. “I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into,” I said. “I didn’t do anything but… and now the one with…” I shuddered, trying to expel the memory of the green-eyed man from my mind, but then my vision doubled, and I knew exactly where I recognized those green eyes from. “Oh God.” The boy-man was somehow related to my artsy waiter from the pizza place. Was he in the Mafia, too?
“Are you okay?” How many times could one person ask the same question? Wasn’t that the definition of insanity? Repeating the same task again and again and expecting different results every time?
My bottom lip trembled. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.” When he wrapped an arm around me, I leaned into him, smelled the coolness of his clothes, and felt so embarrassed, so small and weak and vulnerable.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me anything.”
“God, you must think I’m an idiot.” I calmed and pulled away, wiping my face. “I’m so sorry. I had no right to–”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” his said, his voice thick with traces of a port accent. Maybe New York.
I tried to focus on something, anything, than what was happening to me. So I looked at his hand in mine and saw a scar cut across the knuckles on his right hand. “This was bad,” I said, running a gentle thumb over his scar. “How’d you get this?”
“It’s a long story,” he said. “I–”
His voice was cut off by the noon church bells tolling the hour. We listened to them, perhaps both counting them, until the last bell reverberated twelve.
And I remembered my Williams, and Blanche at the end of the play, gone deep into insanity, retreating away from Stanley’s rape and complete breakdown of herself. Men had used and abused her, too. Distrusted her, forced her to disreputability and drink until she was a pale shadow of her former bright self. No one, no one was as delicate and as fragile as she was, until men like Stanley came along and ruined her. “Are those bells the only clean things in Chicago?” It took me a second to realize I said the words aloud. I tended to quote mentally and verbally when I was upset, it seemed.
Brian was quiet for a long stretch of time, one minute, maybe two, but it felt longer, somehow. Time had stopped working after the bells had finished their tolling. We were caught in a transient moment, uncounted by rhythmic chimes. We would be in a seminal bubble until the clock tower tolled one. “That’s an adaptation from Streetcar,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
My eyes blurred as tears began to form. In a darker moment, long before the black days of the end of our marriage, David had accused me of living in books. I couldn’t recall what the fight was about now–it happens years before he began working late, going on trips to New Orleans, sleeping with Maria–so it was most likely about money, or going to dinner with my family or his. Any of the thousands of things married couples fight about. But the accusation rang true, all the same. “I read too much.”
Brian squeezed my hand again. “There’s no such thing.” He dropped my hand and stood up. “I have to get to work, but I’ll stay if….”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, looking down at the floor, something tickling the back of my mind. “Thank you.”
“There’s a priest just in the other room. You’re safe now.” With that comment and one last concerned look, he left.
A few minutes later, parishioners began to file in for the next service. After the first odd look, and the second, and the third, I stood up, wobbled over to the petition candles, and knelt down. I would have bought a large candle, but I only had a dollar in cash, so I lit a votive instead and just watched it burn.
A few minutes or hours later, someone knelt down next to me. I didn’t even need to turn to know it was Dominic. I had an awareness of him, now. Maybe it was his familiar scent–vanilla and sandalwood–or maybe a stranger would have waited for me to stand up instead of intruding, I wasn’t sure. But I felt him next to me, all the same.
“You okay?” he asked in a low voice.
“I think I need to go to the hospital.” I glanced down at my shoulder. The bleeding had stopped, but the front of my black and white pinstriped blouse was dark and stained rusty.
Dominic turned me towards him, muttered something under his breath, and helped me stand. I wobbled a little on my sore ankle, and clung to his arm, as much for steadiness as for comfort. He was a familiarity, the one face in Chicago that calmed me. It didn’t matter that he was warring between anger and worry. He cared enough to battle those two intimate emotions to begin with.
The trip to the hospital was quick and silent. The doctor on duty had to soak my blouse with water to loosen the areas stuck to my skin with dried blood. Dominic stood by, arms crossed over his chest and eyes, while not averted completely, roaming about the room as much as possible. How appropriate that the first time he saw me with my shirt off was when I was getting my shoulder stitched again.
“You’re blushing,” the doctor said in my ear. “Do you want me to send him out?”
Apparently not beyond caring. I shook my head and focused my gaze on the linoleum floor. It was an awful shade of diseased green, an institutional color that should be banned from all good society.
This time, the doctor gave me twelve stitches, to account for the tearing, and then probed my ankle. He declared it neither sprained nor broken, but advised me to quit running for a few days. Then he cleaned my scraped hands and knee with alcohol to stave off infection and sent us away.
“Let’s get you a shirt,” Dominic said as we stepped off the elevator. He pointed to the gift shop on the right.
“They won’t have anything button-up.” At his look, I lifted my arm a bit. “I don’t want to pull anything over my head.”
“I’ve got a shirt in my trunk.” Once we were in his Blazer, he unbuttoned his dress shirt and handed it to me. He pulled on a Cubs t-shirt for himself.
The shirt was still warm from his body, and it smelled so goddamn good. He was going into work in a t-shirt just so I could wear something that wasn’t ripped and stained with blood. Once I was in his shirt and buttoning it, he pulled out of the parking lot and headed towards the station.
“Thank you,” I said.
“For what?” His hand fumbled on his dashboard, thumped twice before it found purchase on a pack of cigarettes. Camel lights. I took a cigarette when he offered.
“For coming to get me. For the shirt. For… for not telling me you told me so.” I lit my cigarette with the lighter he offered. “For not yelling,” I said as I exhaled.
“Oh, the yelling will come. I just need to get a statement first.” He gripped the steering wheel one-handed as he lit his cigarette.
“So you are mad at me.” I wasn’t surprised, but I was a little hurt. I had been at church. A person shouldn’t have to worry about getting kidnapped outside of church.
“I don’t think mad’s going to cover this one.” He exhaled loudly before he glanced over at me. “Furious, maybe. Or… or… I don’t know. You’re the English teacher. You come up with something better.”
“Enraged? Livid? Infuriated?”
“Livid,” he said, a small smile following the word. “I think I like livid.”
It wasn’t a consolation. I hadn’t been expecting one. But the smile, while small, was friendly. My mother always said, in that infinite wisdom of hers, that true anger came out of true caring. Someone couldn’t be mad at you for doing something stupid and life-threatening–like jumping out of a tree because you wanted to see if your twin could catch you–unless they really cared about you.
It was a small comfort. But it was there, all the same.
After the incident with Maria on LSU’s campus, after the media got hold of the rather compelling story of the working-class high school teacher allegedly attacked by the local senator’s wild, rich daughter, and especially after word of my resulting miscarriage got out, I noticed eyes on me wherever I went in Baton Rouge. Some were cold, some were sympathetic, but all were curious. I had been a bad wreck on the side of the road. You felt bad for looking, but somehow, you couldn’t stop. You just had to see if the body lying on the ground was moving, even a bit.
Those same eyes followed me as Dominic and I stepped into the police station.
The main room quieted a bit, the humming buzz of conversation dropping to a low level so that it was background noise rather than an overwhelming sound. The eyes of every person in the room were rooted on me for one clear second. And then, as if on some unknown command, all the eyes swung away and the noise picked up once again.
Dominic put a hand on the small of my back and nudged me towards his cubicle. Bobby was already waiting for us, a cup of coffee in hand.
“Jesus Christ, Sanderson, you okay?” He handed me the cup and hovered over me while I fell into the empty seat.
Why did everyone keep asking that question? And how to answer? Well, let’s see, Bobby. I got kidnapped, threatened at gunpoint, and thrown out of a moving car. I reopened my stitches, just got re-stitched, and I’m not even wearing my own shirt. “I’m okay,” I finally said. I took a sip of the coffee and made a face. It was bitter and acrid, had sat so long on a burner that it was viscous.
“Do you think we can do a sketching?” Dominic asked.
I nodded and he came back with a sketch artist in tow. And then, it began. Hundreds of questions and hundreds of answers, detail after detail after detail. A shorter nose on this one, longer hair on that one, and less demonic, more baby-faced on the third. After the first hour, even I began to get detached until I, too, started speaking in short, clipped sentences. Subject, verb, object. Perp, threatens, redhead. It all seemed routine until I mentioned that the gunman called me a Mick.
When Bobby and Dominic shared a glance, a part of me knew, knew exactly what they were thinking. Not Callaghans, because an Irish Mafia Family wouldn’t call me a Mick. Not in that derogatory tone. And maybe Chicago and southern Louisiana were more alike than I had thought. The Irish and Italian immigrants hadn’t gotten along very well in the bayou. What made me think the Windy City would be any different?
“Are you sure that’s what he called you?” Bobby asked.
When I nodded, Dominic dismissed the sketcher and Bobby wandered off. He came back a minute later with a thick file. I couldn’t read the label, but for some reason, I was sure it read GASCONI.
He opened the file with one hand and pulled a photograph out with the other. “Do you recognize this man?” Bobby asked.
I stared down at the picture and the empty coffee cup crumpled in my hand, the Styrofoam cracking with an audible sound. “That’s the one who did all the talking.” I glanced up at Dominic. “What’s his name?”
That’s why he looked familiar, why I associated his features with a man twice his age. He had Big Tony’s eyes, and smile. “What’s the relation to Big Tony?” I asked.
“He’s one of Big Tony’s nephews.” Bobby sat down on the edge of Dominic’s desk and took the cup from me. “There are two possible Families that are feuding with the Gasconis right now, two Families under suspect for Big Tony’s, I mean, your shooting.”
“The Callaghans and the Bineskis,” I said in a soft voice. “But why a Gasconi? Big Tony told me I was under his Family’s protection.” Not that I wanted to be, but honestly, if the Mafia was going to protect someone, they shouldn’t do it half-assed.
“By saving Big Tony’s life, you made men look extremely cowardly. Big tough guys don’t like to be seen as cowards.” Bobby patted my hand in an awkward gesture.
“And now they want to make sure I never interfere again?”
“Exactly. From what you’ve told us, they never threatened Big Tony. They just said that they didn’t want you to interfere.”
I chewed on my bottom lip before I felt my eyes widen. “I remember Simon.”
“You already told us–”
I waved my hand, cutting Dominic off. “No, I remember from the day of the shooting. They were talking… to a Simon? About a Simon?”
Dominic grabbed his pen. “Anything else you can remember?”
I had tried to relive the moments between getting shot and waking up in the hospital, but they were a fuzzy haze in my brain, full of snippets of color and sound and light. When I had asked the doctor, he said that I may never remember everything because of my head injury. I glanced back at Dominic and shook my head. “There were a few names. Saul? Sully?” I cocked my head at Dominic. “That can’t be right, can it?”
He flipped through the file. “No, no Saul or Sully.”
I leaned back in the chair. “So what do you want me to do?”
Dominic cracked his knuckles with absent fingers. “You aren’t going to do a goddamn thing. This is out of your hands.”
“But nothing. You’re going to stay here until we get this sorted out.”
Bobby stood up and offered me his hand. “Come on. I’ve got a cozy little room for you to stay in.”
The cozy room was the coffee lounge, complete with seventies’ vinyl furniture and garish orange stripes on the wall. There was no one else in the room. I didn’t blame them in the slightest. But there was a coke machine, a stack of magazines dating back to 1992, and the lingering smell of burnt coffee. Baton Rouge had a lounge very similar to this one. It said a lot about both the priorities and the budget of most local precincts.
I got a coke from the machine and sat down at the cafeteria table. It was only two o’clock, a mere four hours after the ten o’clock mass I had attended. Why hadn’t I let Jackson go with me to mass? I had done a stupid thing and had paid the price for it. I had tried to be self-sufficient. I had snuck out of my guarded house, for God’s sake, to go to church of all places. Why? Because I didn’t want to be locked up anymore? That was no one’s fault but my own. My siege had been self-inflicted. This new confinement was now mandatory and forced.
When I lifted the coke can from the table, there was a ring of condensation. I pulled my fingers through it, making four lines very similar to those four bloody lines on the sidewalk outside of church. Ladies and gentlemen, these are my hands, my feet. I was still alive. My body was still intact, new stitches aside. Worse things had happened to me. Not many, but still. Being kidnapped, threatened at gunpoint, and thrown out of a moving vehicle couldn’t be worse than miscarrying the baby I hadn’t known I was carrying, could it?
I hadn’t known about her, so I hadn’t been able to protect her. When they threw me out of the car, my arms went instinctively around my head. They had done the same thing that Tuesday at LSU, too, when Maria went after me. I hadn’t even tried to fight back. I had just cradled my head and let her slam her fist into my stomach, again and again.
But if I had known, would my hands have gone around my stomach? Would I have hit her back? It had all happened so fast. Like today. All in all, I had been in that car maybe, maybe ten minutes. Maria had happened in less than thirty seconds. Ten minutes to begin a life, give or take what particular night David had gotten me pregnant, and thirty seconds to end it.
How long, I wondered, would it take for these bastards to end my life?
Several hours later, Dominic and I rode in silence to my apartment. When we pulled up at my apartment and walked upstairs, I tried to say something, anything to get that look off his face. “Do you want to get dinner?”
He didn’t answer me. His eyes were directed off in the distance.
“Dominic, do you want to–”
“Shush.” He paused on the stairs and held his hand out, gesturing for me to stop.
When I did, when I focused on something other than my own panic over losing his trust, I heard it. The sound of Artful barking his head off deep in my apartment. “Oh God.” I tried to run upstairs but Dominic stopped me again.
He seemed unsure of what to do. Leave me on the stairs, potentially vulnerable but safe from whatever threat was in my apartment? Or take me with him where he could keep an eye on me, but possibly put me in harm’s way? He decided that closeness was the better part of valor, and we moved in slow strides up the stairs.
Dominic’s gun was drawn, but his grip wavered as we reached the landing. There was a box on my doorstep, a large white box.
Dominic was already on his cell phone before I saw the reason why. Blood dripped down the side of the box to pool on my front doorstep, bright red, candy apple red, sugary and syrupy sweet looking. And written on the top of the box, in the same bright, drippy red were the words, “You’re safe now.”