Copyright Amy L. Montz
“Son of a bitch.” I stared at Jackson as my brain tried to catch up with everything. It felt a bit sluggish. I didn’t blame it. Two dead bodies and one Fed undercover as my bodyguard was a lot for it to digest all at once. “Rather convenient of my brothers to hire the one bodyguard that was an undercover Fed, don’t you think?”
“Rather convenient,” Jackson agreed before he shifted against the jeep to get more comfortable. “But your brothers really did hire a bodyguard.”
Maybe not him specifically. I pulled my eyes away from his and scanned the crowd. It looked like the police were beginning to wrap up. The Crime Lab van was there, as was the local clean-up crew to remove all public displays of blood and chalk. “She’s safe now,” after all. But safe from what? If this guardian killer was so interested in keeping me safe, why didn’t he send me a list of all the people trying to make life rather unsafe for me? “How long have you known?” I asked Dominic.
He slid a look between Jackson and me, then back again. Jackson just shrugged and gestured a hand towards me, beneficent and generous. The lord granting answers to the lowly serf. “Since the beginning,” Dominic said. “When you were in the hospital. But we just knew a name.”
So Jackson got called in on the case after I was shot. Possibly because he was a Fed, since the Mafia seemed to be the FBI’s jurisdiction. But it still didn’t explain why he was parading as my bodyguard. I wasn’t a threat back then. I was just the woman with the worst sense of Catholic guilt imaginable who took a bullet for a Mafia don who then sent a hairy fairy godfather squad to protect me.
“March?” Jackson asked. “I can hear the wheels in your head churning from here.”
I turned to glare at him and he gave me his little half smile. “They make squeaky sounds,” he said.
“Reggianno. Can we start wrapping this up?” That from Markus, who had wandered over to find out why the three of us were standing here not solving a crime, not being dragged back to my house kicking and screaming, or not taking over a cop case and claiming “Federal jurisdiction now.”
“Yeah,” Dominic said. “We got everything we need. Let me just get Sanderson out here first before you start pulling out bodies.”
It was the Sanderson that did it for me. I was once again the case, and as the case, I felt I had a right to pertinent information. “Sanderson’s not finished with her interrogation,” I said to Dominic. Out of courtesy, I waited until Markus was out of earshot. It didn’t seem right to challenge his authority yet again, not in front of a new recruit. “What makes me so special that I get my own Federal bodyguard?”
“You like Billie Holiday.” Jackson pulled away from the jeep, his keys rattling with an ominous tinkle. “And you teach literature. The Feds consider it a public service.”
I couldn’t help it. I gave him a little smile. “Then why you, tough guy? Did you piss off your superiors? Am I your punishment?”
He just ignored this and turned to Dominic. “Are you coming back for her, or do you need me to watch the rest of the night?”
Dominic glanced over his shoulder. “We’ll be a few more hours. Then someone will relieve you.”
So now it was twenty-four hour bodyguarding. Not because of the guardian killer, per se. Jackson was in place long before I ever received that first note informing me I was safe.
“Need anything from me?” Jackson cocked his head towards the crime scene.
And Big Tony was sending men to watch me, too. It seemed to be a joint effort, on both sides of the law, just to keep me safe.
“No, I think we can handle it. But thanks anyways.” Dominic’s voice was sharp and a little sarcastic. The big bad Fed was offering his big bad help.
“No problem. Just let me know if there’s any red tape I can cut for you.” Jackson’s own voice was amused, as was his expression. But it was careful and controlled, all at the same time. These two men had a history that dated to the beginning of the case, if not longer. But still, both of them were on the case.
“Right now, I just need you to baby-sit Sanderson.” Even though I knew Dominic didn’t mean for watching me to sound like punishment, it came out that way, all the same. He turned to go. “Be careful, March,” he said over his shoulder.
And then it hit me, all at once and much, much too quickly. The Feds, the cops, the Gasconis, all of them trailing behind me like little lost ducks. Or big scary men with guns. “Big Tony’s shutting down the business?” The words came out in a rushing spill from my mouth. “Cutting a deal with the Feds?”
Dominic froze, and it was comic, cartoonish to see. One foot was in mid-lift, dangling in the air, as he stopped in the middle of a step. He put the foot down a second later and turned on its heel to look at me.
Jackson leaned against the jeep again, his right side to my left. He crossed his arms over his chest, schooled his face to blankness, and just waited.
I was right. Goddammit, that’s what this was about. Big Tony would only cut the deal if I were part of the deal. And, hell, it explained why Bit and The Special went pale when I asked about the big blonde guy last week. They knew Jackson. That’s why he was assigned to me. Somehow, Tony trusted this Fed. “I’m right, aren’t I?” My voice was soft, triumphant. I felt giddy with it all, and I didn’t know if it was pure exhaustion, euphoria over finding another piece of the puzzle, or both.
“Reggianno?” Markus asked again.
It seemed to break the spell Dominic and Jackson were under. Jackson nudged my left shoulder with his right. “Yes, Ms. Brain. Big Tony’s shutting down the business and cutting a deal. White collar prison, family gets off scot-free, gets to keep the clean money, if he can bring the Feds to worse criminals.”
Worse criminals like, say, the Callaghans and the Bineskis? “Fair enough, but why?” I asked.
“Well, that’s the funny part. He says it’s partly because of you.”
I blinked. “Me?”
“You really made an impression on him, kid,” Dominic said. “Saving his life.”
“Because I took a bullet for him? It was an accident. How many times do I have to tell him?” But maybe, that accident had good reverberating effects. Of course, it would also explain why his nephews were a little… perturbed with me. A little smile played on my face. “He really is a sweet old man, isn’t he?”
“He’s a criminal, March, don’t ever forget that.” At my look, Dominic sighed. “Yes, you’re absolutely right. Big Tony’s a sweet fluffy bunny criminal mastermind Mafia don.”
“A criminal mastermind Mafia don who threw me into the package, didn’t he? Tony won’t cut the deal unless I’m safe, right? And so now everyone’s keen to keep me safe and that’s why Jackson’s here. He’s here to give me better protection.” It explained the Callaghans offering me protection, too. When Big Tony shuts down shop, they move into number one position in the city. It was a beautiful plan. Keep the redhead safe, earn an English teacher for your daughter and a lot of criminal territory to boot.
Dominic actually looked at a loss for words. He turned to Jackson and shrugged. “This is your deal. Confirm or deny at will.”
Jackson regarded me with curious eyes. “It means that more people are trying to kill you, love, protection or not.”
“Without me, there’s no deal?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” Jackson said. “But without you, the deal is more… difficult.”
“So who’s killing the bad guys?” I asked. “Who’s the renegade guardian killer?”
Jackson cocked his head towards Dominic. “Tag.”
“We have no idea,” Dominic said. “No fingerprints, no evidence, nothing.” He cocked his head behind him. “That’s what we’re hoping to figure out.”
Not only could I take a hint when I heard one, exhaustion swept through me again. I felt dizzy with it all. Too much information, too much violence and blood and discovery all in one day. I was ready to go home and sleep it off. “Jackson? You up for an all-night cram session?” Some part of me honestly believed that if we put our heads together, we could figure this out. Some parts of me were very foolish and idealistic.
“You do play poker, right?” He pulled away from the jeep. “From what your brothers tell me, you’re quite ruthless with a deck of cards.”
I tapped my forehead. “Pure luck, my friend. Extraordinary luck.” I turned to Dominic to tell him goodbye and found him staring at me and Jackson with the oddest expression on his face. Something between jealousy and anger. It was too late to deal with any pissing contests. “So who’s relieving Jackson?” I asked him.
“No idea. Someone.” He gave us both a nod and turned back to Markus, and the crime scene, and the case in which I was “Sanderson” and not “March” or “kid.”
I deflated a little, there in the street. So what if I figured out another piece of the puzzle? I had pissed off Dominic again, and I didn’t think it was because we dropped by. He seemed jealous of Jackson, freaking bodyguard Special Agent Logan Jackson of all people.
“You ready, love?”
Jackson’s words snapped through my reverie and I gazed up at him. He immediately leaned back against the jeep so I wouldn’t have to crane my neck. “You don’t need to do that,” I told him. “I’m a big girl.” A pause, then, “literally, as it were.” I was, of course, speaking of my rather tall frame. But Jackson seemed to take the statement differently.
He chuckled. “You do like to eat.”
A gasp escaped my mouth before I could stop it. “Take that back. That’s a horrible thing to say.”
“It’s not a horrible thing.” He looked down at me, his face echoing the red and blue lights.
“I’m tall,” I said, as if that should explain my hips. I was also German and Irish, with an appetite honed by growing up in a house with five boys.
“What are you, a size eight?”
“Aren’t you sweet? An eight on good days.” Really good days. “But let’s call it twelve and move on with our lives.”
At that moment, a stretcher rolled by with a black body bag lying on top. The EMT caught my eye, his eyes sober and a little accusing. He was bringing out the dead, and I was joking with a man about the size of my ass. It didn’t matter who was in the bag, what he had done, what kind of life he had lived. He had been a man, with family and friends and dreams, but now, he was tagged and processed and whittled down to so much meat and bone and paperwork.
Two more men had died. Because of me.
There was pressure against my hand. I glanced down and saw my fingers intertwined with Jackson’s. He squeezed my hand and it was forgiving and reassuring all at the same time.
“‘The long parade to the graveyard,’” I said as the EMT opened the back doors of the ambulance. “Blanche was right. Funerals are pretty compared to deaths.”
Jackson said nothing. I stood there, with my hand in his like a little girl, lost in the woods, as the EMT loaded both bodies into the ambulance. It was my self-inflicted penance for laughing during such a time. I had to stand there and watch as both bodies disappeared into the mouth of the truck, as the lights on the ambulance turned on, as they faded into the distance. Then, and only then, did we turn around to go home.
On the way home, when I realized that my hand was tapping beats on my knee, I clenched it into a fist to make it stop.
But Jackson had already noticed. “Do you need to stop for cigarettes, or do you have some at home?”
I twisted in my seat to face him. “You do know that you are, without a doubt, the creepiest guy I’ve ever met, right?”
That got him laughing again. It was a good sound after that long parade. For the first time since we left the crime scene I relaxed, just a little. “This coming from the woman who knew I wasn’t a local five seconds after she met me? Come on, love. Give me a break already.”
But I had given him a break, dozens of them. He had yet to prove me wrong. “So you’re perceptive, and I’m perceptive. We both like Billie Holiday and Portishead, are avid readers, and appreciate the finer points of the English language. That deserves a break?”
“Don’t forget the appreciation of Depression Era accoutrements and thirties’ mysteries.”
I had a sudden urge to quiz him on all of his tastes, to see if he not only liked books and movies written in the thirties, but the ones set in the thirties, too. Or if he loved Nina Simone as much as I did, and thought Audrey Hepburn to have been one of the most beautiful women in recorded history. If Wait Until Dark was one of his favorite movies, and if he often made jokes that ended, “Leave the gun. Take the cannolis.” The only thing I couldn’t figure out was why this particular urge shot through me at this particular moment. “Jackson?”
“What’s that, love?”
“Are you making all of this up? If you are, you don’t need to.” My explanation was rushed and a bit sloppy. His face had gone blank again, the emotion drained out of it in a split second. I hadn’t even seen it happen. “I mean, I trust you already. You don’t have to pretend to like the same things I do to…” my voice trailed off.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t need you to trust me to do my job.” He downshifted as we pulled up at a stop light. “Unlike Reggianno, I have no qualms locking you up for your own good.”
Our tastes couldn’t be this similar.
His hand gripped the gear shift, dropping it into neutral and wiggling it a bit before slamming it back in first. “What are you trying to get at?”
I felt out of sorts, my skin stretched too tight over too many bones and muscle and blood. Maybe it was exhaustion or maybe, just maybe, it was two more dead bodies weighing on my soul. Jackson had held my hand while we watched that long parade to the graveyard. That meant something. I was sure of it. “Are we friends?”
When he looked at me, his face had relaxed, eased into something resembling the faintest trace of emotion. We were leaving dangerous territory, apparently. “Why?”
“It feels like we’re friends.” I watched him shift in his seat as he eased off the clutch and the brake. The green light echoed in the jeep for a moment, shining everything emerald.
“What does being friends feel like?”
“Don’t make fun. I’m being serious.”
“I’m not making fun. I’m actively mocking you. There’s a big difference.” After he shifted into second gear, he reached an arm over and thumbed my nose. It was a playful gesture, a friendly one. It said more to me than his next words. “You’re not a bad skirt to have around, so making sure you stay around isn’t a bad priority, from a taxpayer’s standpoint.”
I eased back in my seat and rested my head on the window. “So we’re friends.”
“Seems that way, doesn’t it?” He paused for a second. “And I like your dog, too.”
There it was again, the constant reference to Artful. He did seem to get along well with my puppy. He talked to my brothers on a regular basis, had been tailing me since the hospital, and knew more about my life before he met me than most people knew after years of acquaintance. “They told you I was lonely, didn’t they?”
A half-smile flashed on his face. “I think it was more that I told them. They suspected as much.”
“You bought me Artful.”
“Jeremy bought you Artful,” he said. “I was just the delivery guy.” He turned to me and gave me that odd wink again, the one that relied strictly on facial muscles. “That one I was sure you’d figure out days ago.”
“Better late than never, huh?” I hesitated for a second before I reached over and patted his arm. “Thank you.”
He was quiet for an indeterminate stretch of time. Just as I was turning away from him to stare out the window, he said, “You’re welcome.”
“Just out of curiosity, were you two ever going to mention this stalker theory to me?” We were rounding the corner to my street now, after having stopped off for coffee and more snacks for me.
“The guardian killer is Dominic’s case.” Jackson took a sip of his coffee as he straightened out the car with one hand. “We’re trying very hard not to step on each other’s toes.”
I didn’t believe that for a second. Dominic seemed more than eager to step on Jackson’s toes, and Jackson didn’t seem to care one way or another if anyone’s toes were tromped on. “But you have to have an opinion, right? You know what’s going on. You have all the details. Who do you think is going around, protecting me?” I formed finger scare quotes around the word protecting, as I had with Bit and The Special a few days before.
“Honestly? I think it’s an inside job.” Jackson set his cup in the holder as we approached my building. “It’s too connected to you. Someone knows you, knows who’s threatening you, when, where, and more importantly, why. This guardian killer is flying below the radar because no one really gives a damn if someone kills low-level soldiers in a Mafia Family.”
“Except those Mafia Families.” Like the Bineskis, and the Gasconi nephews.
“Except them,” Jackson agreed. “Everyone thought it was just mob retribution in the beginning, the Gasconis keeping you safe. But now after Arty G., Simon, and Ralphie, all important members of the Gasconi Family, were murdered, no one really knows what to think.”
I was quiet as Jackson navigated into a parallel parking spot. He did it quite well, I had to admit. He manipulated the steering wheel one-handed and managed to perfectly align the car with the curb. Once the engine was shut off, he turned to me. “Someone who knows the ins and outs of your case. Who’s threatening you, who’s considered a threat, and the exact timing.”
I knew exactly what he was implying. The only people who had that kind of intel were the cops. “Not Dominic,” I said. There was pain in my left hand, and when I unclenched my fist, I felt four indentations on my palm, little half-moon fingernail prints scoring my flesh.
“No, I don’t think Reggianno. He’s…” Jackson’s voice trailed off and his face went blank. “Stay in the car,” he said before he climbed out of the driver’s seat.
I twisted to look out the window and try to see what made him so shaky. In a moment, a dark figure appeared out of the melting darkness. His white t-shirt was almost blinding near the recesses of my building’s front door, and it took a second for my eyes to adjust and see Tommy Spinelli, looking up at Jackson.
And I had thought The Special was a big guy. He wasn’t anything compared to the Federal agent in front of him. Tommy had thick ropy muscles in his arms, and chest, and shoulders, but Jackson was massive, built more like a warrior than the wrestler Tommy resembled. And while Jackson looked calm and controlled, Tommy looked scared to death.
Some kind of protective spark compelled me to open the door, to step out of the jeep after Jackson commanded me to stay in it, and walk towards these two men. Tommy looked up at me first, but I was sure Jackson knew I was walking over long before Tommy did.
“Get back in the car,” Jackson said.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Tommy said at the same time. He sounded like I felt: exhausted beyond all recognition, but compelled for some reason to still be awake. There was a world-weariness underneath his tired tone.
I stood with Tommy on my left and Jackson on my right. “Is Artful okay?”
Two things happened at the same time, then. Jackson seemed to relax, just a little, and Tommy seemed to soften, just a little. The gray cast to his skin, visible even underneath the tiny yellow light outside the front door, cleared a bit. Whatever Tommy did for Big Tony, whoever he was outside of this little bubble in which we existed and were acquaintances, one thing seemed to remain constant: he was very intimidated by one Logan Jackson.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with your house, sweetheart. That ain’t why I’m here.” He gave darted a quick glance at Jackson before his arm stretched into the near blackness next to the front door, and came out with, surprise of surprises, a young kid.
It took me a second to recognize Ollie Bineski, the kid who got beat up because of me. Jackson, however, didn’t move a muscle, not in surprise or accusation or even boredom. He just stood, and waited.
Tommy pushed Ollie towards us, a necessary shove since Ollie’s feet seemed to have grown roots deep into the sidewalk. His left foot toed the concrete before he shuffled nearer to me, and to Jackson. But Tommy’s push wasn’t cruel or demanding. It seemed almost… brotherly.
“Go on.” Tommy gave the boy another nudge. “Tell them.”
Ollie mumbled something under his breath.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“He said that the Gasconis weren’t the ones who beat him up.” Jackson stared down at the kid from immeasurable height. So not only was he near omniscient, he also had sonic hearing. Great. Just great. He really was a superhero in disguise. Mild-mannered Federal agent by day, able to hear whispered sentiments by night.
“Then why did you tell me that?” I leaned closer to Ollie and lifted his face. It was still bruised, and a quick glance at his knuckles showed that they were still raw. “Why did you give me those pictures?”
Ollie didn’t respond well to my kind voice or my gentle touch. He seemed almost ready to say something, when at the last second, he broke free from us and took off down the street.
“That stupid kid,” Tommy said as he watched him go. “He was mad at me for something, and his old man was mad at March for something, so he got beat and they says they was gonna blame it on us. Freak her out.” He gestured a hand to me at the last part.
“So who did beat up Ollie?” And why the hell would they decide to send those pictures to me to freak me out?
Tommy shrugged. “He ain’t saying. All I knows is he was on your place, and someone caught him, and they beat him up real bad. Other than that, he ain’t talking.”
Jackson and I exchanged a glance. So Ollie Bineski may be our key to the guardian killer? “He didn’t give you a description?” I asked.
Tommy’s laugh was low and warm. “Nah, sweetheart, he ain’t gonna give me no description. I thought maybe you could get the cop to get one for you or something.”
Jackson nodded and pointed behind him. “I’ll take care of this. Go.” He was already pulling his cell phone out of his pocket.
“Yeah, see you.” Tommy moved closer to me as Jackson moved closer to the front door. “You okay, sweetheart?” he asked me under his breath. “Ain’t nothing we can do for you?”
“You know about your cousins, right?” I watched Tommy’s face for some sign, any sign, that he blamed me for his cousins’ deaths. But he just shrugged again.
“That ain’t got nothing to do with you. You got that? Don’t you worry about it none.” He gave me a smile that was all teeth, wolfish and calculated. A ladykiller smile, one designed to make any woman drop to her knees and worship at his feet.
The Special wasn’t even all that good-looking, not really. His eyes were set a little too far apart, his nose was crooked from a long ago fight, no doubt, and his mouth was too wide, the lips too full. But he moved like a predator, all muscles shifting with a grace and beauty that big cats had when they stalked their prey. His eyes and hair were a dark and rich shade that seemed one hue off from Creole black, a dash of brown thrown into the mix. He wasn’t gorgeous, but he was sexy to a fault. “Big Tony’s not the one killing these men, is he? Or ordering them to be killed?”
His brow wrinkled and he popped the ever-present toothpick out of his mouth. “You think Boss is killing his own boys?”
Or maybe Tommy was. But I didn’t want to say that. “I know he wants to protect me, but I didn’t know if…” if you were killing these men for him?
It was Jackson who answered that question for us. “The Special doesn’t do anything but follow orders. Isn’t that right?”
The grey cast swept over Tommy’s skin again. He nodded and put the toothpick back in his mouth. “Yeah, that what I do. I follow orders.” With a final glance down at me, he turned to go.
“Wait, Tommy. I want to ask you something.” I tried to jog over to him but Jackson caught my elbow. So I stood and waited for Tommy to turn to me.
“What, sweetheart?” He stopped but didn’t turn, as if he didn’t want to see Jackson.
“Why was Ollie mad at you?”
He turned, then, and there was that wolfish smile on his face. “He heard some rumors about me and his sister.”
“So when you asked him, he told you the truth?”
Tommy shook his head. “Nah.” A pause, another smile, and then a little wink. “His sister did.” With that, he headed down the sidewalk.
“What is it with you and a soft spot for Mafia thugs?” Jackson asked in my ear. “Reggianno’s told me about your benevolence to The Special. Any particular reason?”
I couldn’t answer him because I didn’t know. I didn’t know why I trusted The Special, or Big Tony, or why I felt the intense need to keep Tommy out of trouble. Maybe it was the sadness around his eyes, or the fact that he seemed to truly be nice to me. Whatever it was, I had the distinct feeling it was going to come back and bite me. “So we need to find Ollie Bineski,” I said instead.
“Yes,” Jackson agreed. “We do, preferably before the guardian killer does.” He paused for a second before he said the word that hung, ominous, between us. “Again.”