March Madness Chapter Nineteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER NINETEEN

            No, I couldn’t scream out, couldn’t yell for Markus to come and arrest my guardian killer, because by now, my voice was a barely audible squeak. “Why me?” I managed to say.

            Brian Bourgeois took the tea mug from me and put it on the ground. “That’s a very important question,” he said in a soft voice. His hand clenched on top of mine. “But on the wrong topic. Why you, indeed? Why the Mafia, the cops, the FBI, all of them, why are they so interested in one, no offense, cher, insignificant high school teacher?”

            That wasn’t my topic, but still a very overwhelming question. I tried to wriggle my hand away but he gripped it tighter.

            “More importantly,” he continued, “why did the Gasconis kidnap you?”

            “No.” I shook my head as if it could raise the volume of that word. When I tried to stand up, he just pulled me down again. “You don’t know this.”

            “Of course I do.” He cocked his head towards my building. “You’re clever, but you’re not that clever. Nice ruse with the collar, but I was following your ex, not you.”

            Of course he was. He was the one who mugged my ex-husband, after all, said he would hurt him but not kill him unless I said he ever hurt me. And now, there was proof, in black and blue on my white throat.

            Bourgeois glanced over his shoulder and when he turned back to me, the grip on my hand lessened. “It’s a Shakespearean tragedy. Poor Cordelia’s offering truth to the world and no one wants to listen. Madness.” He tapped two fingers to his head. “You could never keep yourself safe. Look what happened the day we met.” He stood up this time and eased towards the street. “Don’t trust anyone. Just let me take care of it.” He was about five feet away when he paused and glanced over his shoulder. “Remember your literature, Natalia.”

            No longer immobilized by his hand, his vague threats, I became unhinged from the bumper. My legs were lifting, ready to run after him, when an arm clamped around my waist. I struggled against it until I felt breath against my ear.

            “Just wait,” Jackson said.

            I stilled against him and watched my guardian killer’s back retreat down the street. “He’s getting away.” A sob was building in my throat. Too much Shakespeare and blood and reality for one night.

            “No, he’s not.”

            Bourgeois was almost gone, on the other side of the block and walking down the street with a controlled casual stride.

            “Nice thinking with the cell phone, love.” Jackson cradled me against him and it was a comfortable position. Friendly, protecting.

            “But he–”

            “Just wait.”

            And I saw two men follow him. The first, surprisingly, was Bobby Walcheski, in the plainclothes outfit of black slacks and a white dress shirt, the tie loosened around his neck. The other was Markus. They ran after Bourgeois, who had broken into a sprint as he realized I had betrayed him, somehow. Markus launched himself at him and they fell to the street, to the oil and tar and exhaust buried within the concrete. A second later, Bobby joined the fray and helped Markus wrestle Bourgeois down. My guardian killer fought them, fought them in what my brothers would call a barroom brawl style, all head and teeth and flying fists.

That was the way they taught me to fight. A woman’s biggest strength in a fight is surprise, Jason and Joey told me again and again. Always go for the element of surprise, because once you lose that, you’ll be outmatched in sheer strength.

And apparently, Bourgeois knew that as well, because he was able to break free of Markus’s grasp, able to pull away and struggle to a kneeling position.

My sob grew tighter, almost constricting my throat, and I struggled against Jackson, tried to break free of his unbreakable grasp to help, somehow. “Let me go.”

“Not a chance in hell.” He pulled me back against him and rested his chin on my head as I calmed, partly because of his iron grip around my waist and partly because I remembered that a woman’s biggest strength in a fight is the element of surprise.

            “How did Bobby know?” I asked Jackson.

            “Apparently your twin’s not the only one with gut feelings,” he said. “Markus said something didn’t sit right, but he didn’t know what to do about it without scaring him off. So he called Bobby. And then the phone call to me helped quite a bit. Very smart, love. Very smart indeed.” His arm squeezed lightly around my waist and I felt his breath, warm on my ear. “Reggianno’s going to flip that you did this, but it was a nice move all the same.”

             “I didn’t do it on purpose.”

            Bourgeois broke free of Bobby’s grasp now and pulled back, his hand balled into a fist. He was left-handed, too. When Bobby doubled over, his hand curled over his nose, the guardian killer rolled away before Markus grabbed him again.  

And then Dominic came out of the house, running across the street and towards the fight. He and Bourgeois caught eyes before the guardian killer began to struggle again.

            “Why aren’t you helping?” I asked Jackson.

            “This is Reggianno’s deal. Let him make the arrest.”

            Bourgeois and Dominic stared at each other, one kneeling and one standing, and the guardian killer tried to stand up.

            “But what is he…” my voice trailed off as Dominic pulled out his gun. The guardian killer’s eyes widened when Dominic pointed the gun at him.

And then everything slowed down as a light rain began to fall. I saw the drops separate and distinguish, crash to the ground with an audible splash. Dominic’s knee moved up in a graceful motion, towards the man kneeling in front of him, while the gun still pointed at his head. Dominic’s knee connected with Bourgeois’ jaw, and it was almost beautiful amidst the silver rain, the subtle movements of the last two officers running towards the street. Bourgeois’ eyes caught mine before he fell back in slow motion, pain and blood etched on his face, separate from each other until…

And then time functioned again. Bourgeois crashed to the street and Dominic rolled him over. His knee pressed into Bourgeois’ back and he clicked the handcuffs around his wrists. I held Jackson’s hand as I watched Dominic’s mouth move. I couldn’t hear the words, but I knew. I knew it was almost over.

Jackson’s arm loosened around my waist and I leaned back into him, into his solidness and warmth and comfort. “Really good job, love,” he whispered in my ear. “You never cease to impress the hell out of me.”

            Element of surprise. I broke away from him and ran over to the street as Dominic pulled the guardian killer up and shoved him towards a cop car.

            “Wait!” My right hand moved up, unbidden, to cradle my raw throat.

            Dominic turned to look at me. “Go inside.”

            I shook my head and skidded to a halt in front of the car. “Why me?” It sounded like begging, even to me. My eyes caught with Bourgeois’ and his were glazed over with pain, pain and something else. They were unfocused for a second before they sharpened. I waited for some emotion to run through them. Hatred, anger, some emotion that signaled that I betrayed him, that he blamed me for his arrest.

            But what I saw instead was fear.

            His hazel eyes were panicked as he struggled against Dominic. “There’s someone after you, not–”

            Dominic shoved him into the back of the police car and slammed the door, cutting off the rest of his sentence. “Go inside, March,” Dominic said, his voice hard. “Now.”

            I felt Jackson’s arms around me, pulling me away from the street and towards the house. Of course they would pull me away now.

“Jackson, don’t you see?” Even to me, my voice sounded hysterical. “This is the moment of the big reveal. Right as the guardian killer is about to tell me that–”

“Calm down, love,” Jackson said, his voice even.

But I didn’t stop looking. Bourgeois sat in the back of the police car, staring at me out of the window, and before the car pulled away, before Jackson dragged me back inside, I saw my stalker mouth three words, his eyes never leaving mine.

“Christ,” Markus said, walking over with one hand cupped to his jaw. He was followed by Bobby, who clutched his left hand to his nose. “What did he tell you?”

“He said…” but my voice trailed off and my hand went to my throat. It was too painful to speak, on so many different levels I didn’t know where to begin.

He told her he loves her,” Jackson said for me. I hadn’t even realized he had seen Bourgeois’ mouth move.

Three of us stood there like some hellish caricature of the “no evil” monkeys, clutching some pained body part or another, when Jackson leaned over and lifted my chin with a gentle hand. “He did a number on you, love,” he said in a soft voice. Then his hand hovered just above my skin, trying to gauge the span of David’s grip, trying to match up thumbprint to thumb, fingerprints to fingers. It was a useless gesture, since Jackson’s hands were much bigger than my ex’s, and a rather disturbing gesture, because I didn’t know quite what to make of it.

In the end, I pulled away and shook my head. “Don’t touch.”

A slight smile passed over his face. “I wasn’t going to, Ms. Paranoid. Go to the hospital. I’ll meet you back at the station.”

“Get Mrs. Cunningham to watch Artful, would you?” I glanced over his shoulder to where my landlady still stood, Faye in her arms, Artful at her feet. When she caught my eye, she lifted one hand in a wave. I waved back. And then, I let Bobby and Markus shuffle me towards a car and bring me to the hospital.

#

“You ready, kid?”

I looked up to see Dominic standing in the entrance of his cubicle. He had spent the better part of the morning dealing with my ex-husband, and he looked as exhausted as I felt. “Sure,” I said as I stood up. “But I could just take a cab.” It was the same argument I had used for a half an hour now, but apparently, no one was letting me go anywhere alone.

“I’ll bring you home. I just need to get back here and deal with Bourgeois.” Dominic turned with an abrupt movement and headed towards the door. I had to sprint to catch up with him, and the funny gnawing feeling in my stomach was back.

I shoved it aside and concentrated on staying awake long enough to make it to Dominic’s car. When I did, I collapsed in the seat and rested my head against the window. It was all I could do not to fall asleep then and there. “So it’s over?” I asked as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Mystery solved?”

He nodded. “Bourgeois moved here in May, right before you did. We found his apartment, surveillance equipment, hundreds of pictures of you and–”

“Hundreds?” I shuddered, long and full, with the thought of anyone watching me that intently, for that long.

“Don’t worry about it anymore. Remember, mystery solved.” He was utterly exhausted, too. “It would have been easier if I could flip to the back of the book.”

            “Not all mysteries end in the last chapter,” I said as my eyes began to close and then jerk open of their own accord. “Some end in the middle, just to throw the reader off.”

            “Then what happens at the end of the book?”

            “Something bigger and scarier.” My eyelids fluttered closed and this time, stayed closed. “Usually a betrayal or something unexpected. Like King Lear, or Julius…” my voice trailed off. Of course. This was about betrayal, but not mine. Big Tony’s. He was Lear, or Caesar, and the Family was staging a coup d’état.  I was about to tell Dominic about my King Lear and Gasconi discovery, but he spoke before I could.

“March, I need to ask you a question.”

            “Mmm?” I asked without opening my eyes. 

            “Did you sleep with Jackson?” Dominic asked, his voice very soft.

            Every breath expelled from my body as consciousness slammed into me with a jolt. I even jerked straighter as my eyes opened. “What?”

            The car had stopped for a full minute before I realized we were outside of my building. Dominic put the car in park and turned towards me. “Did you sleep with Jackson?” he asked again.

            I drew in another breath. “No, I didn’t.” My voice was a harsh whisper in the dead space of silence between us and every one of those three words hurt on so many levels, I didn’t know where to begin.

            “But something happened between you two.”

            I tried to see what he saw, understand the things he understood. Jackson and I were comfortable around each other, more so after the weight room incident than anything else. But more importantly, I had called Jackson during the scene with Bourgeois. Dominic thought it was about trust, that I trusted Jackson more than I trusted him. “He was the last person I called,” I said instead. “I just hit talk.”

            Dominic’s eyes widened and he sank back against the driver’s seat. “That’s really a bit unnerving. You know that, right?”

            My hand clenched against my thigh. The freaky perception thing, my ability to read him so easily. How could I read him so easily? “Where is this coming from?” My voice was cracking now, breaking with the effort to sustain a conversation after everything that had happened, and I was all out of ice chips and excuses and energy.

            He ran a hand through his hair, his face grim. “I don’t know. I just… I just need to think about this, that’s all.”

            We were no longer talking about trust. We were talking about the incident in the weight room, which Dominic knew about, on some instinctive level. He had marked his claim on me, and that claim had been invaded. I didn’t know which part of this whole sad, sorry affair pissed me off or upset me or was a strange combination of both. “Dominic….”

            He took a deep breath. “We need some time apart, I think.”

            One tear rolled down my cheek as my throat burned, my stomach clenched. “I didn’t sleep with Jackson. I had a breakdown. He was there. I didn’t mean for anything to happen, but it did.”

            The muscle ticked in his jaw. “I know you didn’t, but I don’t play well with others, and I don’t share my toys. I’m possessive, I’m greedy, and I sure in hell don’t like sloppy seconds.”

            I sucked in a breath between my clenched teeth. “What did you say?”

He must have been more exhausted than I knew, because I was sure he wouldn’t have said those words aloud. But he had. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

            There was a still calm corner of my mind, a place I retreated to when things were too raw, too painful. That place beckoned to me, now, begging me to let go of my rage and reach serenity. But I wanted rage. I wanted to be angry at him. Otherwise, I would burst into tears, and he didn’t get to see me weak. Not now. “I may be sloppy seconds, but at least I didn’t drag you around Chicago as bait.”

            He stared at me, his eyes a little wide. “Jackson told you?”

“He didn’t have to tell me. I figured it out. Really enjoyed the museum, Dominic. That’s one date I won’t ever forget.” My hands clenched inwards, the fingernails digging into my palms. But my eyes burned as I stared hard at Dominic, and for one brief moment, his face wavered, distorted, trapped in a water bubble. I clung to the pain in my palms, the anger gnawing my stomach, the hurt, God, the hurt deep in my chest. “What other dates did we go on where you used me? How many dinners have we had together that were bait cover?” Halfway through this emphatic speech my right hand lifted to cradle my throat. Any minute now I would lose the power of speech and this would all come tumbling down.

            “It wasn’t like that.”

            “I’m sorry, but weren’t you the one who just called me sloppy seconds? Because I kissed Jackson after my ex-husband tore down everything I’ve tried so hard to build, after I found out the guy I was dating was actually using me to catch a killer, and you expect me to fall for ‘it wasn’t like that’? You get one or the other. You don’t get both.”

            His eyes burned and he looked like he was about to say something, apologize perhaps, and I would have accepted his apology, and apologized in return. We both screwed up a tentative attempt at a relationship, and neither of us was innocent.

            But neither of us spoke, and the twin accusations hung in the air between us, almost tangible, almost palpable.

            He looked away first. “If it makes you feel any better, I hated doing it.”

            “If it makes you feel any better, I would have gone along with it had you just asked.” And my voice cracked on that last word and I knew that no matter what, this conversation was over. I wouldn’t be able to continue any verbal communication, anyways.

            His fingers clenched the steering wheel before he pried them off and opened the door. “Get your things. I have to go.”

            I couldn’t respond, but then, I didn’t have to. This was done. We were done. I should have been surprised, but I wasn’t, not really. The art of losing isn’t hard to master, and if anyone was an expert at it, it was me.

            After I picked up Artful from Mrs. Cunningham, something sparked in my brain halfway up the stairs. The memory of triumph in Brian Bourgeois’ eyes, perhaps, or the odd look on Bobby’s face after Bourgeois was taken away. Bourgeois had set this up. He had planted a seed of discontent, spreading vile hate and distrust through us like a harbinger of doom. Or an abusive lover. He had isolated me from two of the few people I trusted in Chicago. And he had done it on purpose.

When I got inside my apartment, I glanced at the clock. It was 10:30 a.m. There was so much to do I didn’t even know where to begin. I had to call my family and tell them to let Maria go. I had to call Big Tony and make sure he was okay. I had to get my voice back to do all of that, so maybe I had to make some tea with honey like the doctor suggested.

But instead, I walked into my bedroom to get some clean clothes, and my bed looked soft and inviting, comfortable, livable, mine. This was my room, my apartment. Everything inside of it was mine. I had picked out the cranberry and cream color scheme in here, the brighter reds and whites in the kitchen. Everything in my apartment was to my tastes and preferences, including the featherbed on top of my mattress.

I sat down on the edge of the bed and bounced, just a little. No matter what else had happened, they hadn’t ruined my bed for me. No one had stolen my featherbed, but what if they had taken away my soft pillows? I lay down to check. No, those were still the same, too.

I rolled onto my back and stared up at my ceiling. The surveillance cameras were gone. My bed and pillows were still here. My stalker was in jail, my ex-husband was being shipped back to Baton Rouge, and I had lost my voice, my attempt at a new relationship, and had to get re-stitched, all in a week’s time. Maybe Jason was right. Maybe I was the black hole of fortune, the Typhoid Mary of good luck, trailing destruction and chaos in my wake. Or maybe, I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, tried to get an old man to the ground before he was shot, and ended up getting into the worst mess of my life. Bigger than Tiger Stadium. Bigger than Maria Dugas.

The bed gave a little and I glanced over to see Artful trotting across the mattress to me. He curled into a ball next to my hip and closed his eyes. I ran a hand over his head, scratched the secret spot behind his right ear, and closed my eyes as well.

As if on cue, my phone rang. My hand moved to answer it but stilled halfway there. What would I say? How would I even talk? I opened my mouth to try to say something, anything, but nothing came out.

The phone stopped ringing, and then five seconds later, started up again. I pressed a kiss to Artful’s head, stretched my arm out, and turned the ringer off, silencing the phone in mid-shrill.

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