March Madness Chapter Fifteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

“You’re here, aren’t you?” My head whipped around to look at the other tables, but there were so many people. I couldn’t breathe with them all. Bodies, large masses of bodies and people all pressed against me, invaded my personal space and I half-expected them to start clamoring for beads and trinkets.

Dominic tried to grab the phone from me, but his cell phone rang, too. He cursed, loud and long, and pulled it out of his pocket, but not before he gestured at me to keep the man on the phone.

“Of course I’m here,” the voice said on the other line. It was an odd voice, with no accent as far as I could tell. But not like Jackson’s. This seemed a purposeful disguise of an accent, instead. “Question is, where am I?”

I tried to calm down, tried to ignore the press of people around me, and began scanning the crowd. God, was everyone on a cell phone? “How do you know me?” I asked. My eyes caught on a man a few tables away.

“Mayhem, Natty Bumpkin, March Madness, but not to me.”

Tears burned the back of my eyes. He didn’t just know my name. He knew all of my names. “Who am I to you?” The man a few tables away hung up his cell phone and returned to his newspaper. Not him.

“Don’t be scared of me. I’m only trying to keep you safe. The cops certainly aren’t doing a very good job. Your detective looks like he wants to tell you something. I’ll hold.” He sounded amused at this last part.

He was close enough to see us, and had been close enough to hear our conversation. When a tear rolled down my cheek, I brushed it away with an impatient hand.

“Don’t cry, my brilliant, beautiful March,” the man said. “It breaks my heart.”

This just made three more tears fall. I looked at Dominic, begging him to do something, anything, to make this voice go away. But he shook his head and pointed to the phone. “Keep him on,” he mouthed. “We’re trying to trace it.”

“Ask him,” the man said on the phone. “Ask him what they called to tell him.”

“What… what did they call to tell you?” I asked Dominic.

His eyes widened and he shook his head.

There was a sensation in my hand, a quick burning feeling, and I looked down at it for a second to see the cherry of my cigarette very close to my skin. I dropped it on the ground and sparks scattered from the end. “Who are you?” I asked the man on the phone.

No.” His voice was chiding now. I was a girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead, and I was being horrid. I didn’t give the right answer, and I didn’t know how many more guesses I was allowed. “That’s not the question you get to ask yet. Tell your detective I insist that he tell you.”

When I looked up at Dominic, my bottom lip trembled. He had his hand on his hip, where I knew his gun was lying in wait under his shirt, and he was scanning the streets as I had done, looking for someone, anyone, on a cell phone who may be familiar. But I knew it was a lost cause. “He insists,” I said to Dominic.

Dominic didn’t take his eyes off the crowds of people, and didn’t lower the cell phone in his hand. “We think we have a lead on the Bineski kid.” His voice was flat, toneless, with an underlying edge of steel running throughout it.

“Yes, the young boy everyone assumes I beat up,” the guardian killer said on the phone. “I only want to protect you, March. There are people out there who don’t understand what you are to this world. To me.”

This time, I did start crying. I felt eyes on me, curious eyes from other tables, and I started to fold in on myself, curling my knees close to my chest and wrapping my arms tight around them. “Why me?” My voice was a whisper, a sigh.

But he didn’t answer my question, and I knew, some part of me knew why. He was dropping hints, giving me clues like the calling cards he left with the victims. This didn’t work unless I was completely aware that he was protecting me. “Don’t listen to what they tell you. They’ll say that I… that I did things. I didn’t. That wasn’t me. But there is someone else who wants to hurt you. I have to stop him, too. Don’t you see?”

“Who?” I curled tighter into my ball. “Who do you have to stop?”

“A man, March. Just a man who is a naughty, naughty boy. I won’t kill him. That’s a courtesy to you.” He paused for a moment. “Unless you tell me he ever hurt you.”

“Who are you?” My breath was coming in shallow gulps and I tried to remember to breathe, just breathe. “Tell me who you are. Please, just tell me who you are.”

“Someone who loves you more than that bastard of an ex-husband ever did.”

“What do you know about him?” I whispered.

“Who, David Thibodeaux?” He let out a soft chuckle. “More than you think. But ask your brothers what they know about David. Ask them the real reason they hired a bodyguard.”

Black dots danced before my eyes and my heart stopped beating for one brief second. “I just want you to stop. Please, just stop.”

“No, you say that, but you don’t mean it.” His voice became thicker now, and I almost, almost recognized it.

“I know you, don’t I?” I said, my own accent so thick to my ears. “You’re disguising your voice.” So I had met him, this mysterious guardian killer. Jackson was right. This was personal.

“Such a clever, clever girl. Right now, you’re shuffling through every person you’ve met since you came to Chicago, trying to figure me out.”

My mind paused on George Callaghan. The guardian killer was a man, and he was local. But I didn’t know who he was. I lifted my head, wiped the tears off my face, and started scanning the crowd again. “You think this is a goddamn game.”

“It is a game. Haven’t you figured that out by now? You’re a pawn. They’re all playing you, darling. Just don’t let them use you as bait. You’re better than that.”

Dominic made a rolling motion with his hand. Keep him on the phone.

“Why me?” I asked, my voice shaking harder, shaking faster. “Why the hell are you trying to–”

“I’m just trying to level the playing field. It doesn’t seem fair to have all of them versus one of you, does it?” The guardian killer paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer, touched with that something I couldn’t identify, the thing that made me know he was disguising an accent. “Think about everything that’s happened to you since you accidentally took that bullet. Nothing fits, does it? There’s something odd about the entire situation.”

And the worst part about all of it was that he was right. There was something odd. Nothing had seemed right about this entire farce. “I’m a bit part,” I said, the rational side of me wondering why I was even bothering talking to him in the first place. I wrapped my arm tighter around my knees and began rocking back and forth. “They shouldn’t be so interested in me.”

“One Southern girl accidentally jumps in front of a bullet, and all of a sudden, everyone’s interested. Seems odd, doesn’t it?”

But I was talking to him because he knew something. Whoever he was, he had intel, and he wasn’t giving it to me. “But what does it mean? Why won’t you just… just tell me?” My voice cracked and I began sobbing. “Please stop doing this to me.”

He sighed. “It’s for your protection. Do you think I like watching you fawn all over the cop? Do you think I like knowing that he’s kissed you, probably…” he paused for a moment. “But you’re not a whore. Not like Maria Dugas.”

Acid built up in my throat and burned me raw and I couldn’t speak. Speech failed me.

“But you’ll figure it out. I know you will. Until then, you can’t trust anyone, Natalia.”

Every emotion, every feeling, every nerve in my body shut down at that name. No one called me that, no one but one person.

The line went dead went dead in my ear. I offered it to Dominic.

“Goddammit!” Dominic grabbed the phone from me. “Son of a fucking bitch, he hung up.” He threw my cell phone on the table and began barking commands into his own cell phone, a long litany of sins and deeds and I blocked him out, tried to scan the streets to see if anyone was putting a cell phone in his pocket.

But there were too many people. The guardian killer had always blended into the background before. Why not now? Why not when I absolutely needed to find someone?

I was halfway out of my seat before I realized what I was doing, and Dominic was pushing me back in it again almost as soon as I jumped up.

“No,” he said. “We stay here and wait for backup.”

I shook my head. “He’s gone.”

“We don’t know that.” But Dominic sat down in his chair with a thump anyways. He knew it was a lost cause. The guardian killer didn’t even have to be outside. He could be in a building, any of the dozens of buildings swooping high over us. That’s what Dominic said.

But no, I didn’t think so. The guardian killer had heard our conversation, heard me call him mine and suggest that I get used as bait. And then, I knew, knew exactly where he had been. He had been outside, at a table, blending into the background so that neither of us saw him, but he would have left something, as a reminder. As a trophy. A calling card.

When I turned to scan the tables, I saw one three down to the right, now inhabited by a woman and her toddler daughter. The girl was wearing a black and red kilt skirt and a red hat. Her legs dangled off the edge of her chair as her fingers played with something stuck in its frame.

The bright red rose, solitary and perfect, withstood the girl’s pettings until she tired of the game and began to pick the petals from the bud, one by one, and scatter them to the sidewalk below.

#

            “Here you go, love.” Jackson set a cup of something warm and fragrant in my hands.

            I checked the tag hanging from the cup, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was lady grey tea, my favorite. He probably had a bulleted list detailing every minor preference or personality quirk in my life. Just part and parcel with the job. Everyone knew everything about me, it seemed, from Jackson to the mysterious guardian killer. My guardian killer.

            I gripped the ceramic cup in my hand, willed it to break under the pressure so I could feel the hot tea splatter on my hands. So I could feel something, anything, than this weight pressing against my chest. This feeling of guilt drowning me in its inky depths.

Jackson must have sensed what I was thinking–what man didn’t know what I was thinking?–because I saw him reach for the cup, saw him try to take it away from me. I focused on his arm, on the muscles in his right arm flexing with that small movement. He was so big, he overwhelmed everything in Dominic’s tiny cubicle. The desk, the chair he was sitting in, and me. Especially me.

The walls felt like they were pushing in around me and I couldn’t calm myself down, couldn’t stop the little gasps of breath escaping my mouth. Some part of me registered when Jackson pulled the cup away from me, but it wasn’t until I felt his hand at the back of my neck, pushing my head between my knees, did I understand.

“Deep breaths, love,” he said in a soft voice. “Deep breaths.”

“He called my cell phone. The son of a bitch called my cell phone.” I willed myself to calm down, to even my breathing and keep from blacking out. I had been fine on the ride to the station. Calm. Collected. Just another day in my insane and complicated life. But it took one small panic of claustrophobia to send me over the edge. One small sense of confinement to overwhelm me.

“And you need to tell us what he said.” His hand eased up on my neck as my breathing slowed, renewed normalcy once again.

I sucked in a final deep breath and sat up. The room swam for a moment before it righted itself. I blinked twice, three times, and my vision cleared. Maybe my doctor was right. Maybe I needed to get my eyes checked out after all. “Where’s Dominic?”

He leaned back, far back so that his head looked around the wall of the cubicle. “She’s ready, Reggianno.” He didn’t even need to raise his voice for attention, just spoke in the same moderate, conversational tone he always used.

I had a sudden urge to insult him, tickle him, pinch him, do something, anything, to see if he would be shocked. To see if he experienced some form of human emotion and was capable of showing it. My hand crept closer to his arm, unbidden, and reached out to pinch his flesh.

Jackson pulled himself back in the cubicle at that moment. “What are you doing?” There was just the hint of curiosity in his voice.

I pinched a tiny bit of skin between my thumb and middle finger. His skin was near hairless, lightly tanned, and warm. Very warm. I leaned closer to look at his arm, at the faint trace of scars running from his wrist to his elbow. There seemed to be no part of this man that was untouched by violence, unmarked by scar tissue. The paper-thin scar under his right eye, the thicker, whiter slash on his right bicep, just visible under the sleeve of his shirt, and even these little scratches that spidered their way up his skin.

“March?” he asked again.

“What kind of Fed are you?” My voice was awed, reverential. Even my brother, Joey, the ex-football star, didn’t have this many scars.

Jackson’s hand covered mine, pried it away from his arm and then pressed two fingers to the base of my wrist. “What did he say to you?” he asked, ignoring my question.

“We need to find Ollie Bineski. He’s the only one who knows who the Guardian Killer is.”

I ignored his question in turn, the same as I ignored the other hand he pressed to my forehead. His hand transferred from my head to the back of my neck again, his fingers light and warm, so warm. “We found Ollie Bineski. He made all of it up.”

I should have been surprised, but I wasn’t. Of course the one lead I could have followed up, the one scrap of information I could have gleaned for the case was taken away from me. “Under orders from his father, I bet.” I stared at Jackson’s hand against mine, at the scars tracing up his arm, so I traced them with a light finger. They were a map, somehow. If I could decode it I could finger out the mystery, get the prize at the end of the game. Because this was a game.

“Bineski was pissed about his two men. Ollie got in a fight with another kid, a low-level thug just starting out, and Bineski decided to use it to his advantage.” Jackson pulled his hand away from my neck and tapped two fingers under my chin. “You’re clammy,” he said in a soft voice. “Your temperature’s dropped severely in the last few minutes.”

“Bineski staged the whole thing so we’d be confused.” I shook my head in a slow exaggerated movement. “But the guardian killer said he has to hurt someone else. If not Ollie, then who?”

“Is she…” Dominic’s voice trailed off.

When I looked up at him, there in the opening of his cubicle, I saw what he saw, saw it reflected in his eyes and the hard stamp to his jaw. Jackson and I in an intimate moment. Our hands touching, his hand on my face, our heads so close together as we shared little secrets.

Still, not a sign of emotion from Jackson. He pulled away from me and turned to Dominic. “She’s cold.”

Dominic’s eyes seemed to clear before they switched from my face to Jackson’s. “She’s cold?”

“First stages of shock, maybe. She already hyperventilated.” He cocked his head towards Dominic’s desk. “She needs something stronger than tea. Whisky, maybe. Or just sleep.”

This whole conversation was surreal. I was surreal, distanced from myself and everything at hand. There was no Ollie Bineski connection. They had made it all up to misdirect us. But why?

The guardian killer had played along, tugged my strings and called me Natalia. No one called me Natalia. No one had ever called me Natalia but one person. And that meant that the guardian killer knew more about me than anyone in Chicago should. It meant that he knew me in ways I never thought possible.

I heard Dominic’s voice, and it was distant, filtered, the words indistinguishable under the roaring in my ears. And then I heard Jackson’s voice, but the words were just murmurs under a cloud of white noise, like static on a television station, late at night. I tuned in, twisted the knob and the words became more distinct.

“…her home. She needs to be home right now.”

“Meet us there, then. I’ll get Bobby to come with and we can question her from there.”

We were going home, all three of us to discuss the guardian killer and his murdering and creating. It was a dead man’s party, after all.

“He called me Natalia.”

The white noise receded. All that was left was an eerie quiet.

I looked up at the two men and repeated the words. “He called me Natalia.”

Dominic crouched down next to me and put his hands on top of mine. “What are you saying?”

A giggle burbled up in my mouth and spilled out. Dominic’s face went dark, his jaw clenching harder, clenching faster, faces and names, places I meant to travel. “Only David ever called me Natalia.” Elizabeth Bishop was right: the art of losing wasn’t hard to master.

He and Jackson exchanged a look and I was finally rewarded with something resembling emotion on Jackson’s face. A slight softening of the eyes and an easing around the mouth. I labeled this expression “Concern” and turned back to Dominic. His expression was almost comical, understanding dawning across his features. “You think this has been going on longer than Chicago,” he said.

“Yes, I do. Ever since the phone call.” I felt the calm then, the true calm, not the artificial one that had accompanied my previous shock. I would say the words, but not here. Not in front of everyone.

Strangely, it was Jackson that understood. He leaned forward and whispered something in Dominic’s ear. Dominic nodded, stood up, and took my hand. “Come on, kid,” he said as he tugged me out of my chair. “Let’s get you home.”

My hand was in Dominic’s, and Dominic was leading me, but I gave Jackson’s arm a brief squeeze as we passed him. In thanks, perhaps, or just in acknowledgement of the fact that he had understood. He had known that I wanted to be away from this place, that some words weren’t meant to be spoken in public.

And just as I pulled my hand away, just as Dominic and I were exiting his cubicle, I felt Jackson’s fingers brush mine in a brief reciprocal caress. Mine had been in thanks. His was in acceptance and understanding.

#

Dominic and I arrived at my apartment ahead of Bobby and Jackson, and whoever else they were going to bring to do the questioning. Artful ran up to us the second we were in the door, skidded to a halt in front of Dominic, and immediately showed his belly.

“You’re a sucker, Art,” Dominic said as he scratched my puppy’s tummy. “You have to get over this happy to see everybody thing. Guard dog, remember?”

Artful wiggled so hard in delight, he flipped himself over.

As I watched the two of them play for a moment, a calm coursed through me. Some things were still real. Dominic was real. My puppy was real. This entire farce with the guardian killer couldn’t be real. It was too strange, too fantastical, for it to be a part of my life. “You want some coffee?” I asked.

Dominic stood up and something not unlike guilt passed over his face. “You don’t have to make me coffee. You wanted to tell me something.”

I walked towards him, put my hand in his, tugged him closer. “Artful likes you.”

He glanced down at the puppy in question. “He’s never going to be a good guard dog. He’s too loving.”

“Mock me, Reggianno. Never mock my dog.”

When Dominic looked back at me, his expression had softened. He pulled me closer to him and wrapped his arms around me. “You okay?” he asked against my hair. “How freaked are you?”

I let his scent overwhelm me for a moment, that vanilla and sandalwood scent that was so intrinsically Dominic. “On a scale from one to ten, I’d say four hundred.”

He let out a short bark of a laugh before he could stop himself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to–”

I leaned back and pressed a finger to his lips, cutting him off in mid-sentence. “I’m not broken,” I said in a quiet voice. “I’m cracked, and a little fragile right now, but not broken. That’s good, right? That means that I need you to be you, to keep me from breaking completely. So do you want some coffee?”

Dominic’s lashes hovered over his eyes, half-obscuring his pupils. I was devastated. The look was so beautiful, so apologetic, so unconscious, that it made me want to fall to my knees, to beg him never to change. To always be so sweet to me, so kind. He pursed his lips, pressing a kiss to my finger, before he lowered my hand. “How about I make us some coffee, and you sit down at the table and tell me what you wanted to tell me.”

I couldn’t help it. I moved towards him of my own accord, and he met me halfway. The kiss was sweet, chaste, and it calmed me, too. Some things hadn’t changed. He didn’t see me any differently after the guardian killer’s phone call than he had before. When we pulled away from the kiss, he gave me a private little smile.

“I had a nice day today.” I paused a second. “Before noon. Everything before noon was great.”

The smile grew wider. “Me, too. Mafia and stainless steel bunny rabbits and psycho stalker aside, I had a great time.”

“So go.” I nudged him towards the kitchen. “Make me coffee.” He walked away and I knew, deep down inside, that if we had the conversation I wanted to have, it would destroy this moment, possibly destroy whatever comfort we had between us. I had gone this long without telling anyone else. I could go longer, as long as I needed to. Besides, what would it really add to the case? To Dominic’s understanding of me? It would just victimize me again, and how many times could one woman be victimized in a month’s span?

“You hungry?” Dominic asked from the kitchen.

“Not really.” I poked my head in the opening to see him searching the cabinets. “Filters to your right,” I said. “I need to make a phone call. I’ll be right back, okay?” I left him to his kitchen fumblings and headed to my bedroom, cell phone in hand. There were two birds I had to kill. Luckily, given the plethora of Sandersons in Baton Rouge PD, I could do it with just one stone.

“Jeremy Sanderson,” I told the operator.

“Remy’s on a job right now,” she said. “Any other Sanderson you’d like, March?”

A little smile spread over my face as I recognized the voice. “Hey, Margaret. Who’s there?”

“Out of your brothers? Jason and Jordan. How’s the Windy City?”

“Strange. Good, but strange. Can I have Jason?”

“Sure. Hold on a second. We miss you here, girl. I think your brothers are at a loss for something to do, without running after you all the time.” Margaret had worked at the station for fifteen years now. She knew, better than anyone, my youthful indiscretions. She had fielded all of those late-night phone calls, after all.

“Sanderson here,” Jason said when he answered the phone.

“Hey, big brother.” I glanced over my shoulder to make sure my bedroom door was still closed. “Want to tell me why y’all felt it necessary to hire a bodyguard?”

“Because we were worried about you,” he said without missing a beat. “I thought Remy already told you all of this.”

His accent was always thicker when he lied. “And it has nothing to do with my charming ex-husband?”

He missed a beat this time, and five more after that. “What’re you saying, Marchy?” His tone was curious but not worried. Not yet.

“You know exactly what I’m saying. You’re keeping tabs on David. You think he’s going to come to Chicago and contact me, or something.” Although I didn’t know why in God’s name my ex would come to Chicago and talk to me. He had avoided me just fine after the divorce. We had only seen each other once or twice during the interim, and that was to sign paperwork.

“Why would we think something as–”

But I cut off Jason in mid-sentence. “Remy told you about the stalker here?” When Jason made some vague attempts at protesting his innocence, I shook my head, as if he could see me. “I know he did. So I need you to do something for me. Get in contact with David and Maria. Tell them that they may be in danger.”

Jason laughed, loud and long. “Right. I’m going to call your bastard of an ex-husband and that snake he married and tell them to be careful. Give me another one, Marchy. That one’s too funny.”

“I’m not joking, brother.” I leaned back on the bed and stared up at the light on my ceiling. It was off, but the sunlight pouring into the room detected some sort of shadow inside of it. “It’s your job,” I said in a distracted voice. Was there something caught in the light fixture? It looked like a roach up and died in it.

“Right. It’s my job to protect the well-meaning citizens of Baton Rouge. That doesn’t include baby killers.”

“I mean it, Jace.” But I wasn’t paying attention, not anymore. No, the shadow in the light fixture wasn’t a roach, was it? How gross would that be?

“Fine. I’ll call David and Maria, tell them that you called from Chicago and said that they may be in danger. When they finish laughing at me, I’ll call you back. Okay?”

“Right, that’s good. Thanks.” I clicked off the phone before he could make fun of me anymore and stood up on my bed. I wobbled a bit with the uneven surface and righted myself with a hand to the wall.

There was a knock on the door. “March?” Jackson asked through the wood. “I’m here. Can I get you anything?”

“A screwdriver?” I peered closer at the light. Maybe it was… a snake? How the hell would a snake get into my light fixture? Unless the freaking Mafia put it there, to scare me. I poked the light. The snake didn’t move.

“What are you doing?” Jackson asked from the open door.

I turned to him and held out my hand. “Screwdriver.”

“For what?” He pulled a small black case out of his pocket and unzipped it. From this angle, I caught a glimpse of several metal tools, but he pulled out the screwdriver before I could see anything else.

“What’s going on?” Dominic asked from behind him.

“There’s something in the light.” I took the screwdriver and started unscrewing the fixture. After a moment, Jackson walked over and held up the light with his hand, so that it wouldn’t crash to the ground when it was loosened.

I undid the rest of the screws and tried to ignore the funny feeling in my stomach. This wasn’t a snake, or a dead bug. Some part of me knew exactly what this was. That same part was trying to deny it, all the same.

The fourth screw popped out and Jackson lowered his hand, the glass dome caught in it, so we could see inside.

“What the fuck?” Dominic whispered when he, too, crowded around the glass.

As we stared at the tiny camera wire, trapped within the glass bulb, the red light flickered once at us, and then went dull.

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