March Madness Chapter Fourteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

            When I padded out of bed and into the living room, silence greeted me. That meant Jackson wasn’t on guard duty. He had been here yesterday morning when I woke up, sitting on my couch, drinking a cup of coffee and reading through my literature textbook while Billie God blessed the child in the background. When I had glanced over his shoulder to see what story he was reading, I wasn’t at all surprised. “The Possibility of Evil,” by Shirley Jackson. We had talked Shirley Jackson, and Poe, and Melville when we had gone for breakfast that morning.

            But there was no responding call to my early morning fumblings, which meant it wasn’t Bobby Walcheski, either. He had been sitting in my kitchen when I had woken up Monday, with two coffees and a bag full of ham and cheese croissants fresh from a bakery. As soon as I had exited my room, he had called my name. When I responded, he peeked around my kitchen wall, gave me a big smile, and gestured a cup of coffee at me. Triple caramel latte. I had asked him how he knew what my regular coffee was, but he just tapped his head and said that he had his ways.

            I moved towards the kitchen, with more of a shuffle slide than a walk, and as my table came into view, I saw Dominic, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper. “It’s you,” I said, indeed, almost ridiculously.

            He glanced up and slid his glasses off his face. “Hey, kid.” His smile was big, genuine, and God, I had missed that smile. I hadn’t seen him since Sunday night, and it felt too long, like too many hours had passed between us to ever make things the same again.

            But then, how could things be the same when we hadn’t even fallen into a normal routine, hadn’t even been on a real date? We had no parameters, nothing to even suggest that we liked each other, beyond those two impulsive kisses. “What are you doing here?”

            “Wednesday’s my day off, remember? I figured I could kill two birds with one stone. Keep you company while keeping an eye on you.” He pulled the chair to his left away from the table and then patted the seat. “Sit down.”

            My hand reached up to touch my hair, which I knew, without looking, was a snarled mess. Having naturally curly hair was one thing. Having naturally curly hair upon first waking was a constant nightmare. “I need to brush my teeth.” I backed away from the kitchen and half-ran to the bathroom.

            I brushed my teeth, tried to tame my hair into something resembling normalcy, and finally threw up my hands in despair and grabbed a ponytail holder. Stupid hair. Then I checked my pajamas to see if they were anything indecent or unattractive. It hadn’t seemed to matter what I had worn with Jackson or Bobby. They didn’t care about my twin’s rugby jersey or my brother Joey’s LSU Football shirt, my baggy drawstring pants or my crazy hair. But I had been hot last night as I went to bed, and had put on a black tank top and a thin pair of cotton pajama pants.

            My stitches were black and ugly against my pale skin, and very visible under the strap of the tank top. I slid it off, rooted through my dirty clothes, and debated running down to the washing machine to grab Remy’s jersey. But no, there was an old t-shirt from St. Martha’s 2010 senior prom, suggesting that we all sail into the mystic. I threw it on, brushed back my hair, and walked to the kitchen.

            Dominic was already making another pot of coffee. He handed me the first cup and nudged me towards the table. “How’s your shoulder?”

            “It’s good.” I added cream and sugar to the coffee before I took a sip. It wasn’t as strong as I would have made it, but it was good, and warm, and, thank God, caffeinated. “Any news on Ollie Bineski?”

            “He’s disappeared. We think his father has him in hiding, but there’s nothing we can do about it. The kid doesn’t have any outstanding warrants, and he’s not wanted for a crime. We just want to talk to him.”

            I understood what he meant. Without having any real reason to pull Ollie Bineski in, we had no way to force his father to give him up. It had been a three-day fruitless search, but Dominic seemed chipper for all of that. I eyed him over my coffee cup. Entirely too chipper. Something was up. “You look nice.”

            He glanced down at his clothes. Gone was the plainclothes “uniform”–white dress shirt, black slacks, crooked black tie–and gone was the day-off ensemble of jeans and a t-shirt. Instead he was wearing a pair of dark brown corduroys and a rust-colored oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up. When he met my eyes again, he looked awkward and embarrassed all at the same time. I was sure that he hadn’t even realized how carefully he had dressed this morning. “I thought you might want to get out of the house today, maybe go to a movie or something.”

            He had barely finished his sentence before I was out of my chair and heading to the bathroom. Outside of that one quick breakfast with Jackson Monday morning, I had been trapped inside my own home. I had considered making up pains in my shoulder just to be able to go to the doctor. At least it would have been something different. But more importantly, this seemed to be a tried and true effort on Dominic’s part. Sure, part of that effort was dedicated to protecting me from whatever nefarious threats existed, but he had dressed up, for a day out, with me.

            After my shower, I decided on a biased-cut red skirt, my flat Mary Janes, and a black wrap shirt that seemed casual enough to just go to the movies, and dressy enough if we went somewhere nice, like the museum or lunch. I left my hair down and my expectations up, and gave Dominic a big smile when I went back to the kitchen. “So, where do you want to go?” I lifted the coffee pot to pour a fresh cup. “My vote’s the museum.”

            “Which museum? There are at least four hundred in Chicago.”

“The MCA?” I asked as I walked back to the table, and to the cream and sugar.

            His hand tapped against his coffee cup. “Why there?”

            “Because I haven’t been there yet.” I paused for a second. “Unless you don’t want to go. We don’t have to go. We can go to a movie or something.”

            “No, no, modern art sounds great. We’ll make a whole day out of it, downtown lunch and shopping and everything.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. “Let me just call Bobby and let him know where we’ll be.”

            “Why’d you check in with Bobby?” I asked as soon as he hung up.

            His eyes were confused and the lashes hovered low, half-obscuring his pupils. “Because if something comes up with the case and he has to get in touch with me, he needs to know where I am.”

            “But that’s why you have a cell phone, right?” I didn’t know why I was on the defensive, but there was something odd about the situation, something nagging the back of my mind. Something almost familiar.

            “And sometimes reception is iffy in big places made of cement or marble.” He narrowed his eyes a bit. “What’s wrong? Do you want to stay home? We can.”

            I stared at his hand as it clenched and unclenched his coffee cup. “No,” I said in a soft voice. “I don’t want to stay home. Let’s go to the museum.”

            “You sure? Because we can–”

            “No, I’m sure.” I stood up to emphasize my conviction. “If I stay in this house another minute, I’ll go crazy.”

            He put his hand on top of mine, and it was gentle enough to make me sink back down to my seat. “Cards on the table?” When I nodded, he continued. “Jackson and I talked yesterday. We thought it might be a good idea for you to get out for a bit, given the situation.”

            The way he said the word “situation” made it sound like all four horsemen were riding forward point on the apocalypse. “Situation.”

            He nodded and pulled his hand away. “Right. The situation.”

            “So there’s a situation now?”

            Dominic sighed and ran a hand through his hair, tousling the already untamable curls. “March,” he began, but I interrupted him before he could finish.

            “What, is this like the last meal for the condemned? My final glimpse of sunlight?” When I realized I was shaking my leg with pent-up nervous energy, I willed it to stop. “Sorry. It’s just been a little nerve-wracking the last couple of days.”

            “I’m sure it has been.” A muscle ticked in his cheek. “Jackson noticed.”

            That explained part of this whole conversation. He was upset that Jackson noticed I was getting itchy before he did. Well, what did he expect? Jackson had been here. He hadn’t.

            As soon as that thought went through my mind, I felt myself mentally pull away from the situation. I was. I was angry with Dominic for going off in a blaze of glory to solve the case, and leaving me behind. Meanwhile, he was jealous that Jackson was left behind with me. We had to get something out in the open, and soon, or otherwise, we’d dance around issues until those four horsemen did stop to stay awhile in Chicago. I leaned forward to let him light my cigarette. “Dominic Reggianno,” I said as I exhaled, “can I tell you a secret?”

            But he just reached over and plucked the cigarette out of my hand. “Yeah, March Sanderson, I like you, too.” He took a long drag, his eyes never leaving my face. Drinking in, no doubt, the fierce blush I could feel spreading across my face. “But can I ask why?”

            “Why you like me?” I took the cigarette when he offered. “Probably because I have that damsel in distress thing going. Cops love that.”

            His smile grew wider, flirtatious, something deep and dark and delicious lurking beneath the surface. “I’d say that and the gorgeous blue eyes, but you’re the teacher. You tell me.”

            I lowered my eyes to hide my blush. It was the freaky perception thing again, which may send him running for cover. “The glasses.”

            “Hmm?” He reached over to lift my face. “What did you say?”

            The feel of his fingers on my skin, the slight pressure of his hand on my jaw, were devastating, just for one second. When his thumb caressed the curve of my cheek before he pulled his hand away, I thought I’d melt into a little puddle on the floor and be perfectly happy with my new liquid form. “You have this cute awkward thing about not letting me see you wear your glasses.” From the look on his face, he hadn’t even known he did it. “It is so damn charming.”

            “Okay, let me get this straight. We’re dancing around an issue before you’ve even finished a full cup of coffee, which we both know is not the best idea in the world, because we… like each other?” He paused a second. “This has suddenly become very junior high, hasn’t it?”

            But maybe we all knew something back in junior high, something very important indeed. Sometimes the truth needed to be spelled out, written in big neon flashing lights against the sky. How else were we to know if someone liked us unless we asked them? So I did it. I asked. “I can get Ava to send you a note. Check box A if you like March…”

            He lifted his hand and made a V in the air, the upward stroke longer than the first downward. “That’s for box A. Can we go downtown now?”

#

After the Museum, we stopped at a coffeehouse and the conversation, naturally, turned to my insane list of pained limbs. “Hey. I got you a caramel latte.” He placed it in front of me before he dumped a handful of assorted sweeteners. Pink and blue and white and brown packets rained from his hands to scatter on the metal table top, forming an odd rainbowed curve around my cup. “How’s your ankle? Is your shoulder okay?”

“It’s okay. Really. It just wasn’t prepared for anything that hardcore.” Out of courtesy, I emptied one of the raw sugar packets into my cup before I stirred it with the wooden stick he supplied. “Dominic, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” He passed me a lit cigarette before he lifted another to his lips.

That small comfort relaxed me, just a little. He didn’t even ask anymore if he could contribute to my terrible habit. It was sweet, from a smoker’s point of view. “Who’s in the running for my mysterious guardian killer?”

His shrug was quick and immediate. “Everyone’s in the running, kid. I’m not joking about this. We have no idea. Without fingerprints, without a visual of the guy, we have no leads.”

The unspoken statement seemed to be, without Ollie Bineski. He was a lead, a lead they couldn’t find. “Have y’all thought any about using me as bait, trying to lure my guardian killer out?”

I had caught Dominic in mid-drag. He exploded into a coughing fit, so hard and intense I had to pound his back to help him breathe. He waved my hand away and took a few long sips of his coffee. “March,” he began, but I interrupted him.

“No, think about it. It’s a great plan.” I looked around us and realized I was talking too loud in such a crowded place. People filed in thick columns up and down the sidewalk, and every outside table had suddenly filled up, in the span of five minutes. When I checked my cell phone, I realized why. It was fifteen minutes into lunch rush. We must have grabbed one of the last tables left. I hadn’t even noticed.

I leaned forward to get some privacy. “We put me out there, armed, guarded by men stationed strategically around an area, whatever. And then, we have someone pretend to come to hurt me. The guardian killer has to be following me around, so he’ll rush in to save the day or something.” But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back. It was a stupid plan, foolish and idiotic on so many levels, I didn’t know where to begin.

Dominic opened his mouth to say something, to argue, perhaps, when my cell phone rang.

I checked the caller ID. “Unknown caller,” I said to Dominic. “It’s got to be Jackson.” I clicked the “Talk” button and said hello.

There was silence on the other line.

“Hello?” My cigarette hung in my hand, forgotten, and I had the oddest feeling in my stomach.

“March.” The word was a whisper, a sigh, the voice unfamiliar to me.

I felt my equilibrium shift off-kilter, just the tiniest bit to the left. “Who is this?”

“March and her insistence on names.” The man on the other line paused for a second. “But I do like it when you call me your guardian killer.”

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