March Madness Chapter Seventeen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

“Nathalie, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” David peeked over the wall of Dominic’s cubicle. He never called me March, not even after hearing most of the world call me by that family nickname. When I had met David, I had introduced myself as Nathalie. To this day, I wasn’t sure why. “I really need to talk to you.”

“I thought you told the cops you were in town on business?” Jackson asked without turning around.

I watched David’s face flush red, just along the hairline and the jaw. He was a blusher, too, always had been. It was one of the first things we realized we had in common, along with reading tastes and large extended families. “I am in town on business. But I still need to…” his voice trailed off before his eyes narrowed. “Look, do you want to get out of the way? I need to talk with my ex-wife.”

“What do you say?” Jackson willed me to meet those inhuman blue eyes. “Do you want me to get out of the way so you can chat with your ex?”

Jackson had been eerie before, with his blank faces, his toneless voice, but now, now he was downright frightening. “What do you want, David?”

“This is not a conversation we need to have like this.” David was barely 5’10, which meant he was standing on his tiptoes to see over that wall. I hadn’t been able to wear heels on our wedding day, so I wouldn’t have been taller than he was in the pictures.

When he moved to the cubicle, he looked exactly the same. I had demonized him in my mind after the divorce, but he looked exactly the same as he always had. Same intelligent grey eyes, same shock of black hair, same perfectly straight nose and beautiful cheekbones. Same lanky build and dress shirt and the tie I gave him for our anniversary two years ago, the one with the tiny bottles of Tabasco on it. “What are you doing here?” I asked him.

He sat on the edge of Dominic’s desk. The position made him shorter than me. It was a calculated move, one to make me feel comfortable and safe. But I knew better, goddammit. I knew better. “In town on business. Like I said.” He steepled his fingers under his chin. His hands were even the same, same square neat nails, same long fingers, same beautiful, loving, painful hands.

There was warmth behind me, and a hand at the small of my back. Jackson. “Is that all you need to say?” he asked David. From the lack of tone in his voice, I knew he was serious.

David held up his hands and I saw the inked words written on the skin of his left palm. I choked back the giggle gurgling inside of me. David was always at a loss for paper, wrote important notes to himself on his hand in blue Bic ink, because, as he once told me, we lost paper. We didn’t lose our skin. “Hey, this is a family matter. It’s none of your concern.”

“She is very much my concern.”

I put a hand on Jackson’s arm, tilted my face to look back at him, but his eyes, God his eyes were so blank, void of any human emotion. Cold, hard, penetrating, and so very ruthless.

“So what, you’ll shoot me?” David regarded Jackson with amusement, a tiny corner of his mouth curled up in the smile he gave me the night we first met, the night at the English graduate students’ Bar of the Week. The night he bought me a drink and talked Ezra Pound and Elizabeth Bishop. “Please. I married into the Sandersons, remember? I’ve been threatened by an army of gun-wielding rednecks for years now. You’ll have to do better than that.”

“Who ever said I was threatening you with bullets?” Jackson’s mouth curved into a nasty little smile and I felt cold in my stomach, cold ashes and dead wood and dirty, dry leaves choking at the back of my throat.

I turned back to David to look at something, anything, than that pitiless look on Jackson’s face. Then, and only then, did I notice the bruise on my ex-husband’s jaw, the small cut on his cheek, the larger one near his hairline. “My family didn’t do that.” My finger lifted to point as his bruised face and hovered in the air, unsure of where to go next.

“They did just about everything else.” His hands flattened on the desk and he leaned forward. “They rolled my house.” His accent got thicker, the bayou spilling out. “They had my license revoked. They’ve threatened my wife with jail time. What hasn’t your goddamn family done to me and mine?”

This time, the giggle did break through my lips. “You came all the way to Chicago to plead your case? Jesus Christ, David, give me a break. Give me a fucking break.”

His eyes narrowed and I saw him struggle to retain his mask, his lawyer mask, the polite man from southern Louisiana, ma’am. Don’t mind me. I’m just a good ole boy. “They put dog shit in my shoes. I had to buy all new shoes.”

Jackson laughed behind me, but it wasn’t an amused sound, not really. “That wasn’t the Brotherhood, was it, love?”

God, he even knew what I called the boys, the army of men with my eyes and maiden name and five of them, with badges and guns. The Brotherhood. “No,” I said, my eyes on David. “That was me.”

His fury grew harder, grew faster and his hands clenched the edge of the desk so tight, his knuckles whitened. “That was you?” he whispered. “I always thought that was Jeremy. He had the extra key.” His accent became thicker still.

He wanted to hit me. I felt it, felt the rage roll off of him and almost suffocate me. And I wanted to rage back, claw his face, his hair, pound at his chest with my fists for screwing Maria, for hitting me, for the baby. But someone had gotten there first. “What happened to your face?”

“I got mugged. That’s why I’m at a police station.” He pushed himself away from the desk and I stepped back, bumping into Jackson on the way.

Jackson put his hands on my arms to steady me and then pulled me back until I was barely pressed against his chest. “Who mugged you?” he asked David.

“I don’t fucking know. If I knew, would I still be at the station waiting for these…” he sucked a breath before he could finish his sentence. “I’ve been here for two hours,” he said in a low tone. “Can I go now?”

“What do you think, Reggianno? Can he go?”

I turned to look at Dominic. How long had he stood there, watching this scene? How long had he known David was in town? A day? Two days? Was that why I was under constant watch? Dominic sucked at his teeth and shook his head. “Nah, I don’t think so. If you’d come this way, Mr. Thibodeaux, we’d like to talk to you about threatening your ex-wife.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I didn’t threaten her.” He jabbed a hand in my direction as he said this and I felt myself shrink back against Jackson.

I kept doing it. I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. There was now an answer to Dominic’s question from earlier. Yes, I was still scared of my ex-husband.

“He threaten her?” Dominic asked Jackson.

“Absolutely,” Jackson said. “And God. And puppies, and America. I think he needs to stay overnight.”

David looked as if he were going to take a step forward and then thought better of it at the last minute. I didn’t blame him, but God, I wanted him to do it. I wanted them to have some excuse to keep David locked up overnight, preferably with some large man with a pet peeve against pretty-boy lawyers. “Get your fucking brothers off my back, Nathalie.” He seemed beyond caring about threats now, or the men who heard them. He was a lawyer. He knew his rights, and he hadn’t been Mirandized yet. “Tell them to leave Maria alone. She just called me and told me about your latest little prank.”

I took a step towards him without even realizing it. “It’s not a prank. I was trying to help you. There’s someone after me, and I’m pretty sure it’s the same person who mugged you.”

A little snort escaped David’s nose. “I’m not playing.” With one final damning look, he turned and followed Dominic out.

As soon as he left, my knees buckled. Jackson caught me before I could fall to the floor but I was dead weight in his hands. He half-dragged me to a chair and set me down in it. “You okay, love?” The “Concern” look was back, the slight softening around the eyes and mouth, the gentler voice.

“What is he doing here?” My hands were shaking. I stared down at them and watched them flutter in quick, jerky movements. “Why here?”

“He reported a mugging at another station. We have his name flagged and when they ran it, they sent him over here.” Jackson crouched down next to me, his hands resting on either arm of my chair. “He’s a suspect. You need to know that.”

My head shook in the same jerky movements as my hands. “He would never protect me. Not anymore.”

There was a flash of something in Jackson’s eyes. Nothing strong enough to be emotion, but perhaps something not unlike understanding. Knowledge. He knew there was more to my divorce than I had told my family. Maybe on some instinctive level, in his perceptive ability to read people, he had read me, seen through my fear and shaking hands and knew that I had a very real reason to fear David. “You want to get out of here?”

I only had to nod once. Jackson scooped up Artful, took my arm, and led me outside without word or explanation to Dominic. There was no need. I saw Bobby watch us leave the cubicle, saw Markus note our exit, perhaps even write down the time of our departure. Dominic would know, but I really didn’t care if he did or not.

We were heading away from downtown before either of us spoke. Strange that it was me who broke the silence. “Dominic lied to me,” I whispered. “He knew David was here.”

“To be fair, he withheld information. There’s a big difference.”

But no, there wasn’t. Dominic had brought me to the station, knowing that David was there. He could have had Jackson meet me outside for all of that. It seemed all connected somehow, with the disengaged security system in my apartment, with the phone call from my guardian killer, everything. It seemed calculated, and probably a smart move from a strictly professional view. He had to gauge reaction when David and I saw each other, see if David really was in the running for the guardian killer.

I closed my eyes and willed my brain to stop processing, to stop trying to find the deepest and darkest reason for every movement. Dominic didn’t know what to do with me, and Jackson had tried to prevent me from seeing David. This hadn’t been intentional. I was sure of it. I had to be sure of it.

There were hands on me, hands lifting me and carrying me, still almost asleep, out of the jeep. I had passed out sometime between closing my eyes and now. I blinked twice, three times before my vision righted enough to see a two-story house, grey bricked and flanked with tall leafy trees. When I twisted my head, I saw a massive black gate closing on some unknown command.

“You are just a Fed, right?” I asked, looking up at Jackson.

“You’re the one who keeps using that term, love.” He shifted me in his arms and unlocked the door. Once we were inside, he pressed a rapid combination into the security pad on the wall. Artful had already rushed passed us as if he, too, were working on some unknown command.

When Jackson set me down, dizziness rushed through me and I wobbled a bit on my feet. One hand sought out the wall to steady myself and the other reached for Jackson’s arm.

“When’s the last time you’ve eaten?” he asked.

“I don’t remember.” I let him lead me through the foyer into a spacious living room with stone floors and a large fireplace dominating one wall. The other walls weren’t walls at all, but built in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, crammed with volumes.

“What do you want more, food or sleep?”

Only Jackson would ask that question of me. I swayed again and he caught me, again. “Sleep, but I left my bag at Dominic’s.”

“Come on.” He took my elbow and led me towards the stairs. “Get whatever you need.”

He left me in the master bathroom with an unused toothbrush, fresh towels, and permission to dig through his closet and change into whatever I wanted to wear to take a nap. The bathroom was almost the size of my bedroom at my apartment, and everything was austere and white, stark and chrome, reflective on a thousand different surfaces and bright, so goddamn bright. As I unwrapped the plastic on the toothbrush, tears burned the back of my eyes. I didn’t even have my own toothbrush. I didn’t have my own clothes or toothbrush or anything that was mine.

After I brushed my teeth and washed my face, I padded back into the bedroom. I curled up on the bed and looked around the room, trying to focus on something familiar, something recognizable that would make this awful feeling inside of me melt away, but nothing about Jackson’s bedroom was familiar to me. The art prints on the wall were the only swashes of color, the bright abstract paintings awash in a sea of reds and blues and blacks. Everything else was monotone, from the grey sheets to the white walls to the dark grey carpet. Even the lamps were utilitarian, the bases gunmetal dark and the lights dim.

I stopped breathing for a second as the unfamiliar walls pushed in around me. David’s face swam before my eyes and a headache started pounding in my temples.

White trash. Pathetic. Hiding behind the big men with guns. He hadn’t said those particular words this time around, but the implications were there, all the same. Besides, he had said them before, screamed them at me, and they were burned in my memory.

It was too much. There were too many instances of betrayal and violence and anger directed at me today, and I didn’t even have my own toothbrush. Everything I owned was either off limits to me at the moment or on my body. This wasn’t right. This shouldn’t be my life. This wasn’t a life at all.

I jumped off the bed and walked downstairs to the living room. I found Jackson reading on the couch, his feet propped up on the coffee table. He looked over at me, his face unreadable.

“Food or sleep?”

Neither, not for a long time to come. “You have a nice house.” I trailed my fingers along the rich wooden mantle over the fireplace. “Will you take me on a tour?” There was a Pollack print over the mantle. Jackson was a fan of abstract art. I knew it.

“No. Get some sleep.” His tone was a little harder this time.

 “I can’t sleep.” I wandered over to his bookshelves and ran my fingers over the spines of the books. With his sprawling gated house, I almost expected the books to be leather-bound and the edges gilded, but I would have been wrong. His bookshelves were very similar to my own, a mishmash of hard-covers and paperbacks, and he had as many if not more books as I did. Some of the spines were cracked all over, some merely had one long wrinkle down the middle, and some had the little yellow “Used” stickers that reminded me of my undergraduate literature courses. My head pounded even more, and I gripped the edge of the bookshelf, steadying myself.

“You know, I don’t even know how old you are.” I pulled a random book down from the shelf. Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III. I opened it and saw the scrawled notes in the margins, the penciled underlining in the text, and the room started to shift. Accept the fluster of lost toothbrushes, the marriage badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

“Thirty-one. Go to bed, March.” The tone was harder still but I ignored it.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster. I flipped forward in the text and froze. “The End of March,” I read. I gripped the edge of the bookshelf tighter and tore my eyes away from Bishop, prophetic, grotesquely beautiful Bishop. She could never find her way home either. I peered at the bookshelves and tried to understand their organization.

“I’m really not all that tired.” Not alphabetically, because the Arnold was next to the Brontës, the Austen next to the Byron, and the Bishop next to the Eliot, almost like they were organized by–

“March. Bed. Sleep,” he said, snapping through my thoughts. “Come on.”

By an English major. The books were organized by periods, the Victorians and the Romantics and the Modernists and I wanted to go home, wanted to go home to my own bookshelves that were organized in the exact same fashion. I turned towards him, one hand still gripping the bookshelf and the other clutching Bishop, before I perched on the sofa.

“Look, whatever y’all need, I’m your Girl Friday.” I sank against the cushion in a deflated slump. “I told Dominic earlier that we should use me as bait, lure the guardian killer out.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew what had been wrong with today.

“Is that what you think?” Jackson asked.

I looked at his unreadable face and my hands grew cold, so cold. The room shifted again as an audible click sounded in my head. But they hadn’t been careful with me, had they? Not really. Not lately. Every time something happened, they had paraded me around in public, daring someone to make contact. And the guardian killer knew. The bastard knew they were using me as bait. That’s what he had been trying to tell me on the phone.

I sucked in a breath and looked at Jackson for some sign of emotion, some sign that I was wrong, but his face was empty, so completely empty.

“I’m already being used as bait, aren’t I? All of this wandering around and being dragged from one place to the next.” My fingernails bit into my palm. And who had been doing the dragging? Who had been taking me out into public? “Those weren’t dates.” It took me a second to realize I said the words out loud. I burst into laughter and it was high-pitched, hysterical. Even though it may look like (write it!) like a date, it wasn’t. “I am such a fucking idiot.”

The last flicker of emotion drained from Jackson’s eyes, and I knew that I had to do something, anything, to get over this feeling inside of me. It was too much. Everything had caught up with me and it was just too much.

Dominic had used me as bait. Dominic had used me.

I stood up and walked to the fireplace. Jackson followed me, grabbed my hand and held it just as I was reeling back.

“I like that fireplace,” he said in a soft voice.

“Then give me something else. Something solid.” I turned to look at him, saw him about to refuse, and tears burned my eyes. “Give me something, anything other than this. Please.”

His eyes shadowed a bit, the neon blue overcast, a portent of rain. But he nodded and led me to a room at the back of the house without further comment or objection. The walls were brick, the equipment expensive. I stood in front of a punching bag, ignoring Jackson’s request to wrap my fists and just waited until he held the bag for me.

Left fist for my shoulder wound, right fist for Dominic’s betrayal. Left fist for the guardian killer, right fist for Callaghan. Punching harder, punching faster, left, David, right, Gasconis, left, Ollie Bineski, right, stitches.

“Your knuckles are getting red.” Jackson didn’t even wobble with the force of my fists slamming into the bag. “You need to stop.”

“Leave me alone.” My rhythm didn’t slow. Instead, it gained momentum until I could feel my shoulder burn, beg me to stop but it was better than the knot in my stomach and the throbbing in my head. Left, Baton Rouge, right, Maria Dugas.

When Jackson reached up to pull the punching bag off of the hook, I sidestepped him and went to the wall. I got in a good four punches before he comprehended what I was doing, grabbed me around the waist, and pulled me away.

“Don’t,” he said in my ear. “They’re not worth it.”

“That’s what you think.” I wriggled in his arms but he held me fast against him, even pressed his arms tighter around my waist until most of the breath rushed out of me.

“You’re better than this. Prove it.”

But no, I wasn’t. Why didn’t he see that? I was white trash, pathetic, constantly hiding behind the big men with guns. My solution to my husband’s betrayal had been to put dog shit in all of his shoes. I hadn’t even asked for half. I hadn’t asked for anything at all in the divorce. “Put me down.” My voice cracked and I was cracking, falling apart into a million pieces because David had come to town and some man had videotaped me while I bathed.

“Your knuckles are bleeding.” Jackson’s breath was warm against my ear, belying his harsh tone.

I had nothing. No life, no friends, no relationship, no alimony, no security, no toothbrush. I had nothing but this man holding me, nothing but the body that was pressed against his. This was real. This was the only real thing in my sad excuse for a life and I needed it, needed something, anything real.

“Are you going to calm down?”

I twisted around in his arms, grabbed his face, and kissed him.

He didn’t kiss me back. I pulled away.

“Logan, please,” I said in his ear. “Please, anything but this pain.”

He pulled away from me and his face, that face, so blank, so cold, so damning. “No.” He untangled my hands from his neck. “I’m not Reggianno, March.  I don’t go after my cases.” His face was hard and almost… cruel. But was it cruel on purpose? Was it a mask? He had a true face, but I had never seen it. Why couldn’t I see it?

Something wet trickled down my face and I brushed it away with an impatient hand. “I forgot. You’re not getting paid for this, are you? How many times did you use me as bait? Is the guardian killer watching us now, or is he waiting outside for his turn?”

Jackson took a step closer to me and I took a step back. We were dancing, one two three, one two three, a mad girl’s waltz. “You’ll do anything to feel something else besides anger and fear, and I’m not taking the bait. I don’t give a damn if you’re mad at me now, because come tomorrow, you’ll thank me.”

I sucked in a breath at his harsh words and almost doubled over. “No, that’s not it.”

“We both know it is.” The harshness, the cruelty, all of it eased off his face and for one brief shining second I saw him, the man under the mask, the man who had teased me about being my friend. “March, listen to me. There is a very sick man out there playing with you. Keep this up and he wins. He gets control of you and you’re too goddamn strong to let him win.”

But I wasn’t strong. I never had to be before. My brothers had always been strong for me. I was a pathetic, small, insignificant thing who got herself caught up in something she couldn’t get herself out of, and once again, the big strong men with guns had to take care of me. Who was this goddamn pathetic? Who was this weak? “I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for. It was a normal reaction to an insane situation.” He sank down on the floor and rested his back against the wall. After he was settled, he patted the ground next to him. “You’re angry, hurt, confused, tired, and probably starving, and that’s just a result of what’s happened to you today.” When I sat down, he picked up my hand and ran a gentle thumb over my knuckles. “They stopped bleeding.”

“We’re really going to do this. We’re going to pretend this didn’t happen.” I didn’t know if I was shocked or hurt or still so very angry with myself.

“I’m not pretending anything.” He lowered his arm and still held my hand in his. “It happened. Past tense. You’re the English teacher. You know what that means.”

My other hand lifted, covered my mouth and so many emotions flooded through me I couldn’t breathe with them all. I had just tried to sleep with him, and we were sitting next to each other not five minutes after it happened talking about grammar.

But Jackson just reached over and removed my hand from my mouth. “Don’t be embarrassed,” he said in a soft voice. “Not with me. You have an incredibly strict sense of honor, and it’s admirable. Just don’t be the martyr.”

I untangled my hand from his and wiped off my face again. “Not with you?” I asked.

“Friends, remember?”

When I turned to look at him, I didn’t see the humor, or amusement, or even the faintest traces of friendly sarcasm I expected to see. He was serious. This was serious. This was forgiveness. Absolution. I wasn’t as alone as I had thought. “Are we?”

The familiar half smile curved on his face. “Thought we already had this discussion, love.”

We had, and apparently, that was that. We had made verbal acknowledgement of our friendship, and to Jackson, that was all we needed. But something had changed, solidified, an odd thread running between him and me. A connection. He had seen me at one of the lowest moments in my life, and his opinion of me hadn’t faltered. “You’re absolutely right. We did.” The muscles on my face shifted and I felt it, the tiniest trace of a smile just forming on my face. The art of losing wasn’t hard to master, after all, even though it may look like disaster.

His smile deepened, that dimple in his cheek flashing briefly. “Hungry?”

And strangely, for the first time in several hours, I felt something other than pain, fear, or rage. I felt exhaustion, and hunger. Normal bodily reactions. When he stood up and offered me a hand, I took it. When he made dinner, I ate it. And when he talked books for the hour following, talked Sayers and Christie and Chandler, I talked back. It was a calculated comfort, and it worked. It made me forget, just for a little while, about David, about Dominic, about being used as bait. About constant romantic betrayal.

#

When I realized that I was awake, I buried my face deeper in the pillow. There were two smells warring with each other deep in the fabric, so similar I almost didn’t distinguish them at first. It was Jackson’s scent, buried deep in the pillow, so similar to the smell of the clean pillowcase, that fresh linen smell, that was confusing me. And there was a sense of Jackson, too. I rolled over just as he leaned down to click on the gunmetal lamp on the nightstand. “Time is it?”

            “It’s ten o’clock,” he said. “You need to wake up. Reggianno’s going to be here in a few minutes.”

            I looked beyond him to the window. It was awfully dark for ten a.m. “I slept for nine hours?”

            “No, you slept for twenty-one hours.” He turned the alarm clock towards me. “It’s ten p.m. Thursday.”

            “Holy shit.” I sat up in his bed and rubbed my eyes with balled fists. When I opened them, everything was still blurry, the red lights on the alarm clock smearing across my vision. I rubbed harder and my vision lurched back to steadiness. “Why’d you let me sleep so long? Is Artful okay?”

            “Because you needed it, and Artful’s fine. We played for a while.” Jackson sat on the edge of the bed and looked over at me. “Feeling better?”

            Strangely, I did. Worlds better than yesterday. Even my shoulder felt less stiff. Maybe my hysterical boxing session had helped it after all. “I’m all sleep sweaty. I need a shower.” I took me a second to realize I said the words aloud. My cheeks started warming almost immediately.

            Jackson chuckled and stood up. “I got your bag for you earlier. It’s on the chair. Take a shower and change your clothes. There’s some coffee downstairs whenever you want some.”

            “Ooh, I’m going to tell that you snuck off of guard duty to get my bag,” I said as I swung my legs over the edge of the bed.

            “I didn’t. I had someone keep an eye on the house while you were asleep.” And with those rather cryptic words, Jackson disappeared through the bedroom door, closing it with a soft whoosh behind him.

            Sleep had helped. Showering helped more. Jackson’s bathroom, however, made me lustful for tons of money and an interior decorator. The shower stall and spa tub were separate. I gave the spacious tub a longing look before I climbed into the tiled stall, which was larger than any shower I had ever been in, complete with five separate jets. It was a miracle of water and steam.

            After my shower, I dried off with a fluffy gray towel, set it aside with another longing look, and decided to beg, borrow, or steal as much time with Jackson’s expensive and beautiful bathroom as humanly possible. This was how the other half lived. I had never wanted to know that other half, but giving their penchant for amazing bathroom accoutrements and I could almost look forward to waking up every morning.

            I threw on a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt before I packed my bag and wandered downstairs. I found both Jackson and Dominic in the large Mexican-tiled kitchen that had brick floors and an honest to God hearth. “Do you have a will?” I asked Jackson as I headed to the coffee pot.

            “Sure,” he agreed without missing a beat. “Why?”

            “Because if you ever want to leave your house to a plucky and deserving high school teacher, I know just the skirt.” I poured a generous amount of rich coffee into a grey stoneware mug before I stared at the counter.

            “I’ll keep that in mind. Cream’s in the fridge.”

            “Feeling better, kid?” Dominic asked as I fumbled in the two-door stainless steel mammoth of an icebox.

            “Surprisingly, yes. And you?” I didn’t mean for my tone to be that cold, but it came out that way all the same. Maybe there were some things sleep and showers couldn’t fix, like using me as bait.

            But maybe Dominic was too distracted to even recognize my tone. “Finish up your coffee so we can get going. I have to make some phone calls when we get back to your place.”

            “Take it to go,” Jackson said. He walked over to the cabinets and reached high above me.

            I took the Starbucks travel mug from him and dumped my coffee into it. “Thanks,” I said in a soft voice. “For everything.”

            “You’re welcome,” he said in the same volume. “I’ll check back in later.”

            Dominic, Artful, and I rode to my apartment in near silence, with only the sound of the Beatles played very low between us. I didn’t know what to say. What did one say to the current star of her naughtier dreams who also had used their dates as opportunities to lure out an omnipresent homicidal stalker? “Anything new going on?” Apparently, that’s what one said. It just fell out of my mouth.

            “With what, the Mafia or the guardian killer?”

            And to think that I had forgotten I was involved in two police investigations. I ran my fingers through Artful’s fur and stared down at my puppy. “Either?”

            “Nothing.” The one word sounded desolate and ironic, all at the same time. “We couldn’t hold your ex. We had to let him go.”

            I shook my head and turned to look out the window. “It’s not him, but that doesn’t leave us very many options.” Jackson had said that it was an inside job. Someone was too connected to me, too aware of everything going on, all the information that we knew, that we talked about, even things that weren’t said in my bugged home.

            “No, it doesn’t. Thibodeaux was a lead. We had to follow the lead.”

            Things that weren’t said in my bugged home. Things said outside the home. When I turned to look at Dominic, he opened his mouth, but I pressed a finger to his lips and then pointed that same finger to my purse.

            Dominic was a cop, a good detective, but more than that, he was a very smart man. The muscle in his jaw ticked, once, then he turned back to the road. “Don’t worry about your ex, kid. He’s going back to Baton Rouge. He’s not going to bother you anymore.” He nodded as he said this, and I took that as a sign to follow my hunch.

            “I wouldn’t want to be David for a million bucks right now, if he’s going back to Baton Rouge.” I opened the first pocket of my purse and started feeling around. Problem was, I didn’t know what I was feeling for. “Want a cigarette?”

            Dominic nodded in approval. Rummaging for smokes would explain any static if my purse was bugged after all. “Sure. You got some? I’m out.”

            “I’m checking.” Nothing in the outside pocket. I unzipped the inside and tried that next, looked at everything in my purse. Nothing in my wallet, any of the pockets, or the strap. “Nope, no smokes. I think I have some at home.” I deflated in my seat a little. I had been so sure.

            “It’s okay.” Dominic reached over to pat my arm. “You can wait for nicotine, can’t you?”

            I ran my fingers through Artful’s fur again. “Of course I can. So do you think that…” my voice trailed off as my puppy leaned up and licked my chin. It was a rare gesture now. Ever since Artful began to form his own personality, he had revealed himself to be a bit selective with puppy kisses. “Everyone loves Artful,” I whispered.

            Dominic shot another sharp look at me before his eyes widened. “Yes, everyone does. He’s a good dog.”

            Everyone I had ever met in Chicago loved Artful, loved to pet him, to play with him, and more importantly, to come into contact with him. My purse wasn’t the only option. In fact, it was the least likely. It rarely left my shoulder, or my sight, while I was out. But I had let the world pet my puppy, hadn’t I? “He’s a contrary dog.” The contrary dog in question settled on my lap, his head resting on his paws.

            “Nah, he’s the Dodger. He’s just selective.”

            “That’s what I get for my naming my dog The Artful Dodger.” I ran my finger under my puppy’s collar and tried to feel for something, anything, that would suggest it had been tampered with.

            “How you doing, kid? Need food, anything?”

            I read through Dominic’s subtle hint. I was doing fine. More than fine, in fact. My finger neared completion in its swirl around the collar, and I felt something, like a bump, a tiny little bump near the clasp on Artful’s collar. That’s how the guardian killer knew our every move. That’s how the guardian killer predicted my every step, my every misstep, my every foray outside of my apartment.

            I picked up my puppy, pressed a kiss to his head, and then turned to Dominic. “I’m feeling a little funky,” I said. Then, with a pointed look at Artful’s collar, “Might be coming down with a bug.”

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