Copyright Amy L. Montz
“Jeremy, I’m fine,” I said into the phone. I leaned far back in my chair to look into my living room. No, the uniforms and plainclothes were still there.
“Then tell me this. What part of ‘fine’ does a severed head fall under?” From the tone of my twin’s voice, I knew he was one push away from dead serious. Hopping on a plane to Chicago serious.
I felt, even through the phone line, my contrary twin start to shift in his seat, a thousand miles away. This wasn’t time for joking. Not by a long shot. I took a long sip of coffee before I slumped down in my chair. “Jackson called you, I take it?”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” The sarcasm was biting and sharp. “Could it be the fact that my twin was freaking kidnapped today?” The question ended on a roar, and I had to pull the phone away from my ear for a moment. “Yeah, he called me. Thought I should know.”
“Don’t come to Chicago, Remy. Please.” I still wasn’t sure why I was so adamant about keeping my brothers at home in Baton Rouge. It wasn’t that I didn’t miss them, because I did. Desperately. But there were already too many big men with guns roaming about.
“We’ll see about that. I don’t want you going anywhere without an armed bodyguard. You got that?”
Dominic walked into the kitchen at that moment, and gestured his chin towards the phone. I held up a hand to him. “I got it. I promise. Look, I have to go. I love you, okay?”
“Yeah, love you, too, Nat. Be careful, okay? Don’t do anything stupid. Again.” And with that last threat lingering between us, he hung up the phone.
“Hey,” I said to Dominic. “What’s the verdict?”
He sank down in the chair next to me. “Forensic’s going to run dental, but from the sketch you gave us…” he left the thought unfinished and reached for my coffee cup. After he took a sip, he set it back down on the table. “We think it’s Ralphie Millis, a nephew of Big Tony’s on his wife’s side. The eye color matches, anyways.”
Something clenched deep in my stomach, a fist curling up, slamming into my gut. I almost doubled over. “Eye color?” God, it was the man with the green eyes.
“Kind of an odd green color.” Dominic reached for the pack of cigarettes in his pants pocket. “That eye color’s familiar, isn’t it?”
“The kid from the pizza place. Evan, right? The photographer?” I took the cigarette he offered. “I realized that at the church.” I stared down at the cigarette in my hand. The way things were going in my life, I was never quitting smoking.
“We’ve pulled him in for questioning.” Dominic leaned forward with a light.
I, however, leaned back. “Evan? Why? He’s just a kid.”
He shook his head and leaned closer. “He’s a kid that was awfully fascinated with you the other night. A kid with Mafia connections.” He gestured the lighter at me. “Did you know he was Big Tony’s great-nephew?”
I let Dominic light my cigarette before I continued. “He’s not involved in this.”
“You think?” Dominic asked around the filter. He exhaled and set the lighter down. “He’s also Tommy Spinelli’s best friend. That makes him suspicious in my mind.”
I tried to imagine the young avant-garde photographer hacking his cousin’s head off and leaving it on my doorstep. The image, thankfully, failed me. “He’s innocent.” I took a long drag and glanced into the living room again. “Did they find anything else?”
After dusting everything except my kitchen sink for prints, the rest of the cops left. After eating all of my cookies, Bobby left, too. Dominic and I were alone in my house, sitting on opposite ends of the couch, a curled Artful and awkward silence between us, as they had been for the past twenty minutes.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I slid off the couch and stretched a bit, careful around my shoulder. “Okay, I’m starving. Either feed me or let me order takeout, but do something.”
“See, this is what I don’t get about you. After everything you’ve been through today, I would have thought your first priority would be sleep.” Dominic stood up as well. “But you want to go get food.”
My cheeks burned a little and I deflated back down to the couch. “I can’t help it if I’m hungry, right? Besides, don’t I need to keep up my strength?” It was the most pathetic excuse for my ravenous stomach that I could ever think of.
But Dominic just chuckled and scooted Artful over. In a moment, he was sitting next to me. “I’m not complaining. You’re just different than most of the women I know.”
“I’m not different, Reggianno. I’m just tall.” And awkward, with the tiniest pooch to my stomach. I glanced down at the body part in question. Well, maybe not so tiny. Stupid stomach.
“Hmm?” I glanced over at him. He was close now, so close I could feel the heat of him, along his arm pressing against mine. Then the arm in question lifted and wrapped itself around my shoulders, gentle, as to not disturb my stitches.
“I like different,” he said in a soft voice.
It was a moment. We were having a perfect moment in which the cute detective told the awkward redhead that he liked her, really and truly liked her. “This isn’t right, is it?” I whispered as he moved a little closer to me. “I’m your case.”
“You’re a cute case.” He gave me a little smile that made my toes curl.
It felt necessary to match his teasing tone. “I’m not cute. Cute’s something that petite blondes are. I’m a tall redhead. Try statuesque.”
“Then you’re a statuesque case.” His fingers brushed against my hair to touch my neck and I shivered, just a bit.
“A stunning, statuesque case. Alliteration is good.” I widened my eyes in innocence and he chuckled again.
“Stunning and statuesque. But you know what else you are?” He moved even closer until his lips brushed against my ear.
“What am I?” I felt like I was hyperventilating. My breath was coming too fast, too rapid, for me to even catch it. I couldn’t breathe with it all.
But then, just because there was someone out there laughing at me, Dominic’s cell phone went off. He sighed so hard his breath stirred the hair near my ear before he pulled away.
I was near panting against the couch. If this was the reward I got for being the world’s biggest idiot today, it was almost, almost worth it. “Who is it?”
“It’s Bobby,” he said, staring down at his phone. “What’s going on?” Pause. “Shit.” Pause. “No, right.” He stood up and started scanning the room. “Right, I got it. Just give me a few minutes.” He ended the call and turned to me. “I have to go.”
“What’s wrong?” I stood up as well and took a step closer to him. “Is everything okay?”
He looked like he was about to say something, then he seemed to think better of it. He gave me the smile that made his eyes crinkle in the corners. “Nothing for you to worry about. You going to stay put or do I need to lock your door from the outside?”
There was one brief flutter of panic deep in my chest before I realized that he was mostly kidding. Mostly. “No, don’t lock me up. I’ll behave. Scout’s honor.” I held up two fingers.
“You were never a boy scout, and I’m thinking you weren’t ever a girl scout, either.”
A blush stained my cheeks again. “I got kicked out shortly after our first campout.” How was I supposed to know that lighter fluid was not an acceptable flame accelerant? My brothers had used it for every barbeque. It just seemed natural for a campfire.
“I have a feeling this is a story I want to hear one day.” Dominic walked over to me and grabbed my arms with light hands. “I have this big speech planned. Understand that. It involves you being an idiot, sneaking out of your house, getting kidnapped, the works. It’s a really good speech. I’ve been composing it all day.”
“But no speech now?” My voice was almost hopeful.
“No, there’s still going to be a speech. It’s just going to have to wait.” He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the place where my neck and shoulder met. I almost melted to the ground. “Don’t do anything stupid, kid,” he said against my skin. “Because I have handcuffs and a license to use them. And I will lock you up. Don’t doubt me on this.”
“You know, this isn’t the first time a man’s kissed me and then threatened to put me in jail.” I pulled back to meet his eyes, a little smile playing on my face. “But you are a lot more persuasive, somehow.”
“Uh huh.” He chewed on the corner of his lip for a second. “Okay, no, I don’t have the time to hear this, either. But later?”
“Promise. It’s a really good story that involves a fire extinguisher, a lawn, and one of my brother’s friends.” I paused for a second. “Are you really mad at me?”
“Mad’s kind of lessened into intense worry. You keep wanting me to separate Detective Reggianno from Dominic, but you won’t stop doing stupid things.” He shook me, just a little. “Stop doing stupid things.”
“Define stupid.” I was stalling. I knew I was stalling. But I didn’t want him to leave. Not because I didn’t feel safe. I was sure they had some kind of guard outside, watching me. But because we were having a moment, another, different kind of moment. Something intimate. Something that surpassed all boundaries we had previously established.
“Running off by yourself. You want to leave your house? Do it with an armed guard. Just not alone.” He stared at me for a second. We were almost the same height, even with my bare feet. He was just a few inches taller than me. It must have been why the kiss was so perfect, so sweet. We didn’t have to reach for anything.
And just as I was falling into it, just as I was leaning into him, my arms going around his neck, he broke away from me. “I have to go,” he said again. His hands curled in at my waist and pulled me closer. “Really.”
“I know.” My fingers brushed the hair at the nape of his neck before they twined in his hair. “Bobby called.”
“Yeah. But I’ll be back later. There’s a speech.” He kissed me again, short and sweet, and was about to press deeper when his cell went off again. “Goddammit,” he said against my lips. “I have to go.”
“Right.” I untangled my hands from his hair and stepped two, three paces back. “Be careful.”
“I will.” With one look at his phone and another curse, he walked out.
I sank down to the couch and stared at the door. This couldn’t be right. This shouldn’t be what I was thinking about after I received a horrible, disgusting gift on my doorstep. Anything but that.
My cell phone rang then. “Oh thank God,” I told Artful before I picked it up. The caller ID registered “unknown number.” “Hello?”
“Want to see what’s going on?” Jackson asked.
I burst into laughter. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Not at all. I’m on guard duty all night. I figured we could make the most of it.” He paused for a second. “Have you eaten yet? I’ll even pick you up dinner on the way.”
Dominic had said not to do anything stupid. Stupid was leaving the house by myself. But leaving with my bodyguard wasn’t stupid. Besides, we were going to get food. I needed to eat. “You buying?”
There was a knock on my door. “I’m buying,” Jackson said into the receiver. “Come on.”
I hung up the phone, walked to the door, and opened it. Jackson winced as he looked at my face. “You okay?”
“I am really, really getting tired of people asking me that.” I turned to grab my purse and give Artful a kiss.
“You’re limping.” Jackson’s tone was flat and conversational, and it made me pause, just for one second. That flat tone, the blank face that I was pretty sure would greet me once I turned around, all of it was more than a little eerie.
“Well, I did get thrown out of a moving vehicle…” my voice trailed off when I turned around and did see that blank face. I had been wrong, all this time. Jackson wasn’t half-smiles and winks. No, this was his real face, his emotional response. He went flat, without emotion, not one trace of humanity on his face. Jackson was a master at hiding his feelings. I was sure of it.
“You told me you weren’t going to church, March.” He walked over to me and lifted my chin, turning my face so that the light best hit the bruise on my jaw.
I nodded, my face still caught in his large hand. I felt movement in my legs, a wobbly feeling, and it took me a second to realize I was trembling. Jackson didn’t scare me, did he? He was my bodyguard. He was supposed to keep me from getting scared. But God, that blank face, that toneless voice. If he could shut off his emotion, hide it so easily, was he just as capable of faking it? “Jackson, you’re scaring me.”
He blinked. His face relaxed. His hand fell away from my chin. “Sorry, love.” He didn’t look apologetic, but his tone seemed sincere enough.
But no, he wasn’t mad at me. I was an idiot. He was mad at himself. He had actually believed me when I said I wouldn’t go to mass. I was sure he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I took a step towards him, grabbed his hand, and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “I just don’t like being locked up, that’s all.”
His face relaxed even more. There was the hint of something–maybe amusement–lurking in the corner of his mouth. “I believe you’re the one who locked herself up.”
I shook my head. “Y’all were following me everywhere. Anywhere I turned, there was someone behind me, shadowing me. And then I go into seclusion and I started to get so…” my voice trailed off as the panic fluttered again. I closed my eyes briefly and then opened them, giving him a bright smile. “It was an awful lot like high school.”
“Your own fault for being a hellion, I’m sure.” But his eyes, for one moment, were thoughtful.
“Do you have a speech, too? Dominic had a speech, but it’s been put on hold right now.”
“No speech. Just various threats of bodily harm if you ever do something so goddamn stupid again.” He let go of my hand and tapped two fingers under my chin. “I’m not joking. This is serious.”
“And this coming from the man willing to bring me along to tail the cops.”
A little half smile passed on his face. “But I have guns.”
“So does Dominic.”
“My gun is bigger than his gun, love.” He gave me a wink, all in the cheek muscles and none in the eyelid, before he took my purse from me. “Have you had a Chicago-style hot dog yet?”
“I’m not being judgmental. I’m just saying that your car is a little utilitarian.” I took another bite of my second hot dog to punctuate my point.
“It’s not a car. It’s a jeep. Jeeps are utilitarian. It’s part of their charm.” Jackson glanced over at me. “So you like the hot dog.”
“It’s different,” I agreed. And delicious. And I was starving, so kudos to the Chicago-style hot dog. “So give me the scoop.”
“After you made your statement, the cops went out looking for Simon Gasconi. But then, you and Reggianno went home and found the… found the box on your doorstep, before they caught up with him. Once they did, they pulled him and another man in for questioning.”
The hot dog was suddenly unappetizing. I swallowed hard and lowered it. “What other man?”
“Arthur Gasconi. Also known as ‘Arty G.’” Jackson reached his free hand into the community bag of fries between us. “But neither of the men is talking until he gets a lawyer.”
Again with the proper grammar. It didn’t fit with the image I had built of Jackson. Six feet, five or so inches of solid muscle working as a bodyguard who didn’t trust people who didn’t read, and knew that “neither” was singular? I was an English teacher from southern Louisiana, where grammar was a suggestion rather than a rule, so even I made several verbal mistakes. “Jackson?”
“What’s that, love?” He popped a fry in his mouth before he reached for another.
“Did you go to a prep school?” I paused a second. “Are you a trust fund baby?”
A little smile curved on his lips. He glanced over at me again. “So bourgeois of you.”
“See, that’s my point.” I shifted in my seat to face him. “You don’t act like a bodyguard.”
“I lost the manual. Do you want to hear more about this or not?” He reached for his diet coke next. After he had ordered a diet coke, I was surprised he was eating fries at all.
I took a sip of my non-diet, full-of-sugar coke. A long sip. “So their lawyers came, and then what?”
“They had alibis. Solid ones, surprisingly. So they made bail.” Jackson finished his coke and set the cup in the holder.
“And now, Dominic was called to a job.” I saw what he meant. Something was suspicious, all right. Three men kidnapped me. One was dead, and two were released on bail. If the current pattern stayed the same, those two men were in mortal danger from a mysterious “guardian killer.”
I glanced up from my hot dog to see why he slowed the jeep. The red and blue flashing lights were too bright in the inky night, and I blinked against the white dots forming in my vision. We had found it. Whatever we had been looking for, we had found it. “That’s Dominic,” I said in a soft voice. He looked different out on the road. Professional. Official. This was Detective Reggianno, working a case.
Jackson pulled up to the curb and shut off the engine. “If they ask…”
“We went to get something to eat, and saw Dominic, so we pulled over to check it out,” I finished. We had been over this twice already. “Got it.” I set my half-eaten hotdog back in the bag and wiped off my hands. “But Evan’s okay? I mean, they’re not holding him, are they?”
Jackson shook his head. “He’s fine, love. He was at work all day, double shift.”
Good alibi. I nodded and stared out the window. “Can we get out?”
“Sure,” Jackson agreed. His keys dangled from his fingers as he opened his door. “Do you need some help?”
I gave him a disbelieving look and slid out of the jeep. Of course, I landed on my ankle a little too hard, but I had erased any sign of pain from my face by the time he walked over to me. He put his hand on the small of my back and ushered me towards the lights.
“I’m sorry, this area is…” the officer’s voice trailed off as he looked at Jackson. I recognized the uniform. Markus, the young recruit from the station. His hair was neater today, brushed back instead of sticking up in spiky clumps. “Can I help you, sir?”
Markus was calling Jackson “sir”? Something tickled the back of my mind, but it was gone a second later.
“Is everything okay?” Jackson asked. His whole demeanor had changed. He seemed relaxed, comfortable, friendly. The kind of friendly that a young uniform would immediately respond to.
And Markus did. Immediately. “Not really. We got called in for gunshots. When we got here…” his voice trailed off as he looked over at me. “Well, there was a mess.”
“Understandable,” Jackson said. He nudged me forward. “Reggianno’s not around, is he?”
“Sure, hang on.” Markus turned around and melted into the blue and red flashing sea of lights.
“Why is he sirring you?” I asked Jackson.
“Because he’s a polite kid. You okay? Do you need to sit down?”
The something that had tickled the back of my mind started coming forward in full force. “If you don’t stop asking me if I’m okay, I’m going to beat you. You got that, tough guy?”
I was surprised when a big smile passed over his face. He had given me half smiles, or amused looks, but not this full smile. It completely changed his face, softened the austerity. “I didn’t know you had a dimple.” It sounded a little accusing, even to me.
That got him laughing. “You’re an odd skirt. You know that, right?”
“That’s what y’all keep telling me.” I glanced over to see a controlled Dominic walking over to us. The clench to his jaw was so tight, I could see it from here, fifteen feet away. “He’s pissed.”
“He’ll get over it.” Jackson was quiet until Dominic reached us. “Reggianno.” He gave him a curt nod. “Anything I can help with?”
“You can start by getting her home. What the hell are you doing here?” This last was directed to me.
“He’s armed.” I poked a finger in Jackson’s direction. “Big gun. You said not to leave the house without an armed guard.”
Dominic actually looked a little taken aback. “What?”
“We were getting hotdogs,” I began, “when we saw the–”
“Did she convince you to get her out the house?” Dominic turned to Jackson, completely ignoring me. “She needs to be resting.”
“I’m not one to argue with a starving woman. She needed a hotdog.” Jackson leaned against his jeep and crossed his muscled arms over his massive chest. “What’s going on?”
I watched, fascinated, as Dominic’s fist clenched and unclenched. He seemed to be pissed, but not just about me. He seemed to be pissed at Jackson. For bringing me out? For letting me leave the house? “Someone gunned down Simon and Arty Gasconi not ten minutes after they made bail.”
“Same MO?” Jackson asked. “Note and everything?”
Dominic nodded. “On the sidewalk, in freaking blue chalk. This time it was ‘She’s safe now.’”
“You think I have a stalker, don’t you?” I took a step towards Dominic.
“It’s too connected to you to be anything else,” Jackson said. “Someone’s personally invested in you.”
Again, Dominic looked upset that Jackson was taking part in this conversation. His jaw clenched so tight I could almost hear his teeth grinding together.
“When did this stalker theory come into play?” I asked.
“Today.” Dominic seemed to jump at the chance to add his two cents. “I was going to tell you, kid. I just didn’t get a chance.”
No, he didn’t. Maybe that was part of the speech he had planned. “So any leads?”
“None. That’s the bitch of it,” Dominic said. “No one pans out. We have no evidence as to who’s killing these men and frankly, no one seems to care. Most think the world’s better without them.”
Something wasn’t clicking in my head. “So why are you telling Jackson all of this? He’s just my bodyguard, right? Wouldn’t that be violating the integrity of the case?”
After a long moment of silence, Dominic spoke in a rather choked voice. “He can know some things since he’s…”
But Jackson wasn’t just muscle, and most bodyguards? Purely muscle. He had never registered “just muscle” in my head, and it wasn’t about his innate knowledge of grammar and mechanics.
“…watching out for you, we figured we should keep him…”
No, there had always been something a little off about Jackson. Something that always made me think he was a major player. His knowledge of the case, of the Mafia, hell, even of the cops suggested Jackson was a very major player, indeed.
“…all the help you can get. So if we tell Jackson…”
But not cop. Jackson was definitely, one hundred percent not a cop. I should know. Over fifty members of my extended family were cops all over the great state of Louisiana. If anyone could smell a cop, I could.
“March?” Jackson said in a soft voice, cutting through my thoughts.
I met his eyes. “You’re not just a bodyguard, are you? You’re undercover.” Everything fell into place with an almost audible click in my head. Jackson’s sudden appearance. Dominic’s oddness when I first mentioned Jackson’s name to him. Markus’s sirring. Even Dominic’s current tension. Especially the tension.
A little smile played on Jackson’s face, and it surprised me. I hadn’t expected a smile. I had expected more blank faces. “I am a bodyguard sometimes,” he agreed.
Jackson showed up at Marigold’s right after I got home from the hospital. He called my house to give me heads up about the Mafia. Left to their own devices, he and Dominic would be at each other’s throats. Well, Dominic would be at Jackson’s throat, because Dominic was a cop. I knew cops. I knew how they felt about certain things, and there was one thing that all the cops I had ever met hated more than anything. “You took over the case,” I said, pointing my finger at him. “You’re FBI. You’re a goddamn Federal agent.”
Jackson met my eyes for a long stretch of time. There was something lurking there. Maybe amusement. Who the hell knew. But after that long stretch of time, he finally just shrugged. “That’s what it says on my tax returns.”