March Madness Chapter Twenty-Three

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Jackson loosened his black tie before he rolled up his shirt sleeves. “First chance I had to get away.”

I pulled against the handcuffs and the metal cut deeper into my wrists. I closed my eyes for a second as pain shot through me, but I tore them open again. I would watch Jackson betray me, watch him with my own eyes, because my brothers always said that you should look a man in the eyes.

Sal leaned against the doorframe and held an ice pack to his nose. “She’s a fucking crazy Irish bitch. First she started screaming, then she beat the shit out of Donnie with a shower rod, and then she broke my nose.”

“You should have known better than to tangle with her. I warned you that she was a tough skirt.” Jackson broke eye contact with me and looked at Sal. “You fucked up, Sally. I was going to take care of her. She trusts me. She trusts that the big strong men with guns will swoop in and save the day.”

The comment stung, burned low in my stomach and chest, but that was the problem with betrayal. It hurt because the person knew you well enough to take the gut shots.

“You said today was the day,” Sal said as he followed Jackson into the room. “You told us to–”

“No, I ordered you get things ready for Tony, not to do something so fucking stupid as snatch her from her apartment. Christ, half her family’s in law enforcement and her boyfriend’s a detective. We have the entire state of Louisiana and half of Illinois looking for her.” Jackson glanced down at me. “I was going to pick her up,” he said in a soft voice. “She trusts me.”

Oh God, of course. It was a setup, a goddamned set up from the beginning and I fell for it. We all fell for it. Inside job. We thought he was a Fed working to stop the Mafia. In fact, he was Mafia working to bring down both Big Tony and the Feds. And I had trusted him. We all had trusted him.

But I didn’t stop looking at Jackson. I would watch him betray me.

“What, you were going to walk in, have some dinner, and then say, ‘Hey, let’s get you to a safe house’?” Sal rolled his eyes. “It was a stupid plan, boss. This way, she–”

Jackson turned towards Sal, his eyes screaming neon blue. “This way, she looks like a goddamn refugee and I’ve had to field a thousand phone calls and spend half the day at my office. My way, this entire situation would have gone off without a hitch, and there wouldn’t be one mark on her precious little body until we dealt with Tony.”

“She fought back. What were we supposed to do?”

“You were supposed to follow my fucking orders. In order for this to work, we need her unspoiled.”

My stomach churned at that statement.

“Of course, there’s no harm in it now that you fucked her all up.” Jackson caught my eye. As he reached behind his back and pulled out a knife, the blade winked at me in the light.

He was one of the best actors I had ever seen. This little scene was impressive in its theatricality, and his behavior over the last month deserved a goddamned award.

He broke eye contact with me and turned to Sal. “But I like them pure, Sal. You know that.”

Something made me pause. Actor. Theatrical. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe Jackson really was a Federal agent that somehow infiltrated the Mafia, and he was working to help me–

A little smile played on Sal’s face. “Yeah, I remember.”

Jackson turned back to me, his face void of any human emotion. “You know that I don’t like sharing my toys.” His voice was like evenings in the deep of a Louisiana August, the still quiet that suggested an eerie calm before torrential waters burst forth from the sky. “She better be unbroken. If she isn’t, I’ll be very… disappointed.

No. Jackson wouldn’t speak like that. Jackson wouldn’t scare me like that. I didn’t even know him. I didn’t know anything except that a Fed is a Fed is a Fed. You can always smell a Fed, and this was why Jackson never smelled Fed. He wasn’t.  

Sal paled. “No, man, I swear. We didn’t touch her. You said not to and we didn’t.”

“Good.” Jackson turned back to me and our eyes caught. I felt something burning near my back. My hands. My wrists were bleeding and the adrenaline was wearing off and I was going to scream from the look in his eyes. “Besides,” he said, a tiny smile curving on his face, “March has cock-teased me one too many times these past few months. I think it’s about time I find out if that red hair is really natural.”

His voice caressed my name so that it was half-sigh, half-whisper. Gentle, intimate, the way a lover would say a name in the deep dark night.

“Hey boss,” the Driver said from the doorway.

Jackson turned to look at him. “What?”

“Your cell phone’s ringing.” The Driver gestured the cell phone at him.

Jackson took the phone, checked the number, and held up his hand. “Jackson.” Pause. “Uh huh.” Pause. He turned and caught my eyes. “Jeremy, I’m doing everything in my power to find her.”

I struggled against the radiator and tried to scream under the tape. The Driver gave me another reproachful look before he walked out of the room.

“I traced her as far as the Illinois border, but they dumped the van.”

So we were out of Illinois, and sometime between my kidnapping and waking up, they had switched vehicles. How long had I been out?

“Right. Tell Reggianno to keep working the Bit lead. You and Walcheski get on the van.” Pause. “Right. We’ll find her, Jeremy. Don’t worry.” Pause. Flash of smile. “You’re welcome. I’ll be in touch.” Jackson hung up the phone and looked at me. “Remy’s beside himself, love.”

I felt tears start to pour down my cheeks. For once, our twin connection failed us. Remy didn’t know. How could Remy not know?

“He’s called me about…” Jackson scrolled through his phone. “Eleven times since Bit reported you missing. Reggianno’s called about eight, and then, well, there are the rest of the Sandersons to contend with.” He walked over and crouched in front of me, holding up the cell phone to my face, but I refused to pull my eyes away from his. “Do you see what I’ve had to deal with since these fucking palookas took you off?” He lowered the cell phone. “Wouldn’t it have been better, just you and me, love? You and I do so enjoy our alone time.”

I tried to head-butt him. Jackson just winked at me–all in the cheek muscles and none in the eyelids–before he stood up.

“But when you’re done…” Sal began, but Jackson turned back to him again.

“When I’m done, we deal with Tony, and you can do whatever you want to the twist. But for now, she’s mine. Is that understood, or do I need to make it clear for you?”

Sal turned a little grey. “Nah, man. It’s crystal clear.”

Whoever Jackson really was, whatever he really did, he was apparently the highest on the food chain. How long did one need to be in the Mafia to give orders? How long had Jackson worked the Feds and the Mafia, and what was in it for him?

“The Feds will be in place first thing in the morning, so we’ve got…” Jackson checked his watch. “Six hours before we have to be at Tony’s. Now get the hell out.”

He nodded. “We’re going to get some food. You want anything?”

“This may take a while.” Jackson glanced over at me, the knife in his hand.

I stared back at him and I felt my equilibrium shift and I started to lean a bit to the left. My hands were slippery with blood and I pulled at them again, trying to slip out of the handcuffs.

His cell phone rang again. “Oh Jesus Christ,” he said, glancing at the caller id. He held up his hand. “Jackson.” Pause. “Uh huh.” Pause. “Right. I’m checking satellite photos now, but it’s going to take a while.” Pause. “It’s okay, Jeremy.” He hung up and rolled his eyes. “I am so fucking sick of dealing with this shit, Sal. After this is all over, you and I are going to have a talk.”

All of the color drained from Sal’s face. “Boss, I didn’t…”

Jackson turned to him as he slipped his cell phone in his pocket. “You did. Go and get your goddamn steak and we’ll have a talk later.”

Sal stared at me, his eyes dark chips in his face. “We’ll be back in an hour or so.”

Jackson started walking towards me with careful, precise steps, the knife smacking against his leg. “Whatever am I going to do with her for all of that time?”

“I’d cut her fucking tongue out if I were you, unless you’re planning to use it for something else first,” Sal said before he closed the door behind him.

“Your brothers tried to come to Chicago,” Jackson said in a soft voice. “But I told them I would handle everything from this end.”

I struggled harder against the radiator with every step Jackson took.

“Reggianno and Jeremy are driving the interstate halfway to Canada, looking for some sign of you.”

I screamed under the tape but it muffled my voice. I was going to be raped by Jackson at knife point and I wouldn’t even be able to scream.

“If I don’t find you in two hours, your whole family’s getting on a plane,” he continued. “Knowing them, they’ll go door to door if they have to.”

Not Jackson who gave me a puppy and kept me from hitting a brick wall. Jackson who brought me to get Chicago hot dogs and gave me teasing looks and told me he made the sun shine just for me.

“But they found the van.” Jackson cocked his head at the door. “So it’s only a matter of time.”

Not Jackson. It couldn’t be Jackson.

“This needs to go down without a hitch, love. I’m afraid Sal’s put quite the kink in the plan.”

Only a few feet separated us. I leaned my head back against the radiator and stared into his blue eyes but I couldn’t read them.

Knock at the door. “Boss, it’s Donnie. I’ve got the door. You need anything?”

“Just go sit in the kitchen.” Jackson turned back to me. “They’re going to stick around to see what I do to you before they go eat. Do you know why?”

I pulled against the handcuffs again and screamed under the duct tape as the metal broke deeper into my wrists. I tried to kick him but my legs wouldn’t move and I was frozen, frozen in place.

He knelt in front of me. “Because they’re criminals,” he said, his voice a whisper. “And criminals don’t trust anyone.”

I stared into his eyes and I knew. I knew the truth and my stomach turned as the past two days tore through me with pain because I knew it was almost over, knew the second he lowered his head to whisper in my ear, the knife dangled so close to my cheek.

“Just pretend with me for a few more minutes, love. It’ll be over soon.”

I nodded at him, tears still pouring down my face.

He ripped off the duct tape in one quick movement. “Scream for them. Now.”

I screamed bloody murder.

When I sucked in a breath, I heard laughter behind the door.

“Want some help?” someone said, knocking.

Jackson closed his eyes for one brief second. “Get the fuck out of here.”

“Seriously, man.”

I heard the doorknob rattle and glanced over Jackson’s shoulder to see the knob start to turn.

Jackson’s face went blank and he shook his head at me. “Close your eyes.”

I nodded and closed my eyes, but… but I think I knew. I think I knew why he had asked so I opened my eyes to see Jackson’s right hand slashing the knife, slashing across his left arm in a quick movement. The shallow cut began to well with blood and Jackson pressed the blade to it. I closed my eyes again and choked back the cold ashes and dry, dead wood taste in the back of my mouth.

“Scream again, March.”

And this time, it was even easier.

The door opened during my second scream. I opened my eyes to find that Jackson had shifted his body in front of mine, blocking it from view.

“You sure you don’t want some help?” Sal said. “Or an audience?”

Jackson closed his eyes and put his hand on his knee, flicking out the bloody knife with careful precision. “Jesus Christ, go get your fucking steak and eggs.”

Sal closed the door as I heard laughter echoing against the walls of the room.

We sat in silence for a few minutes until we heard the sound of car doors slamming and an engine turning over. A few minutes after that, Jackson turned to me. I saw the knife tremble in his hand, tremble just the tiniest bit. As a few drops of his blood splattered on the wooden floor, I wondered if his blood would seep in, seep down into the cracks and grains and wood and if some part of Jackson would always be in this house. We lost paper, but we never lost our skin. But paper was from trees, so maybe paper was tree skin, and we lost that?

“Are you all right?” He lifted the back of his shirt and slipped the knife behind him. I saw another tremble run through his arm and sometimes we did lose our skin, and our blood, and Jackson was losing his blood and I wondered if he lost his skin, lost his skin like paper fluttering down because he was upset and I had never seen him upset.

“I thought you betrayed me and it was like the end of the book with the big scene and….”

“I’m sorry you had to see that.” He reached behind me for the handcuffs and I heard the faint metallic scrape of the key sliding against metal. He missed the lock once, then twice, and I started shivering because now he was losing the lock.

“Please get me out of here. Please. I just want to go home and my wrists hurt and I thought you were going to betray me and then I saw the look in your eyes and….”

He closed his eyes and stillness began to settle on his face. He was calming down, putting on his mask, and when he looked back at me, his eyes were different. “Did they rape you?” His voice was so soft, it took me a second to understand the question. And then, when I did understand, I felt distanced from it, from the sheer brutality of those four simple words.

“They didn’t. They threatened but…” I paused, shivering. “But I made fun of him. He stopped. Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do? Make fun of him? That’s what Jason said in the self-defense class.”

“That’s exactly what you were supposed to do. Very smart, love.” The key slid into the lock. I screamed for real when the metal brushed the rawness on my wrists.

Jackson tapped two fingers under my chin and lifted my face. “I need to go do something. Wait right here.”

I nodded and curled against the radiator, my cheek pressed against the metal, and a few minutes later, heard the muffled sound of a male scream. Someone lost his skin but it wasn’t Jackson. Jackson wouldn’t scream. He wasn’t the screaming type. It must be Donnie who had the door. He definitely seemed the screaming type. Some men scream and they–

“March?”

I opened my eyes and saw Jackson, his right hand resting behind his back before he walked over to me. I looked up in his eyes and my muscles started to spasm, first in my legs, and then down my arms. It was almost over. Almost over.

“We’re leaving. Can you walk?”

“Who screamed?”

“One of the bad guys.” He pulled me to my feet and wrapped his left arm around me. “We’re going out the back. Do exactly as I say, and do not question any order I give you.”

We were almost to the back door when Jackson paused and pushed me behind an island in the kitchen. “Stay,” he said, before he slipped from view.

He was gone for a few seconds before I heard a slight groan across the house. Another guard stationed somewhere.

A key sounded in the back door and I scooted across the floor and looked up at the island. Knife block. I stretched my arm, ignoring the pain in my wrists and I reached up and almost had a knife when…

“Hey guys.” White tennis shoes, dark jeans, white t-shirt. The man held a paper sack in one arm and keys in the other. “It’s just me. I went and got…” He paused and turned to his left.

My fingers found purchase on the knife handle the second we caught eyes.

“What the hell’re you doing?” He dropped the bag and rushed over to me.

I scrambled back on the floor and waited for him to come closer.   

“How the hell did you get out?”

I slashed out with the knife, cutting deep through his shirt. Blood began to well on his arm and his face bent with fury before he grabbed me.

I sucked in a breath as his fingers dug deep into the raw wound on my left wrist. He closed his hand tighter and I bit back a scream as the knife fell from my fingers.

“Pauly?”

And I remembered Pauly, too, from the day of the shooting. He had slammed my head against the wall.

“Over here, boss. The girl got loose. You know that?”

Jackson rounded the island and cocked his eyebrow at Pauly. “She got all the way over here?”

A little smile passed on Pauly’s face. “Yeah, she did. She get away from you?”

“Slippery as soap.” Jackson crouched down next to us.

“Look what she did.” Pauly gestured to his arm.

Jackson held up his own arm. “Got me, too.”

“Shit.” Pauly turned to look at me, his brown eyes hard.

“Let go of her arm, Pauly.”

Pauly immediately dropped my wrist and turned to Jackson. “So when we going to–”

Jackson slashed out his hand against Pauly’s throat. Pauly’s fingers scrambled at his neck as he made choking sounds. As his face started to change color–red, magenta, purple–his eyes bulged in their sockets. Just as his face began to turn darker, the noises in his throat stopped and his body slumped. Jackson tried to catch him but Pauly thudded into my lap.

Someone was screaming. Someone was screaming at the dead man on her lap.

“March.”

The sound stopped and I glanced at Jackson.

“It’s okay.”

I nodded. “It’s okay.”

“Right.” Jackson hauled Pauly off of my lap, wrapped his left arm around my waist and helped me stand.

I felt adrenaline pump through me, surge through my veins and throb at my temples and my brain shut down as my body went on auto-pilot. “What the hell was that, the ‘She trusts that the big men with guns will swoop in and save her’? You son of a bitch.” The words wouldn’t stop coming out of my mouth. They kept pouring with a speed and edge that I couldn’t control. “I can’t believe you said that to me. I’m a goddamn high school teacher. I’m not a Fed or a cop. I don’t know how to–”

“March.” His arm squeezed my waist. “Calm down.”

“What?” I tried to push back the blood pounding in my head and, just as suddenly, I deflated. I slumped against Jackson and sucked in a breath. “Sorry.”

“We’ll talk in a little while. Let’s just get out of here, okay?”

“Okay.” I leaned against Jackson as he half-carried me out the kitchen door and to the woods at the back of the house. About five minutes into the trees, the woods opened to a clearing, and Jackson’s jeep, so incongruous with the scenery around it. I half-expected to see weeds grown wild around it, trailing through the doors and the windows.

Jackson opened the door, lifted me inside, and then touched his ear while I settled into the seat. He was quiet for a moment before he looked at me. “I need to take care of something,” he said. “Stay here.”

I felt my face begin to crumple. “Don’t leave me. Please.” I couldn’t be alone. Not now.

“I’ll be a few minutes, okay?” He glanced over his shoulder for a moment before he looked back at me. “Promise.” Then he closed the door and began to walk through the woods.

My breathing became fast and shallow and I knew, any moment now, that I would hyperventilate. It had all happened so fast, and then there had been a dead man on my lap. Donne was wrong. Death wasn’t proud. Jackson was quick and ruthless.

Black dots danced in front of my eyes and I willed my head lower, tucked it between my knees and tried to calm my breathing. The smell of Armor-All and thick plastic wafted from the floor of the jeep and I stared down at the mat at my feet. I closed my eyes, forced myself to breathe, and when I calmed, I opened my eyes and sat up. The woods were empty, the trees swaying to some unknown tune, with some unfelt wind. The jeep was closed and safe.

Then, in the distance, the reverberating pow of a shotgun echoed through the trees.

My hands clenched into claws, clutching my thighs. Jackson had rescued me with only a knife. He didn’t have a shotgun.

Another blast echoed the first, longer this time, louder. Perhaps closer.

He had rescued me, blown his cover for me, just to get me safe. And now there were shotgun blasts near the cabin and all he had were a knife and his bare hands.

  I rummaged through the jeep looking for something, anything, to use as a weapon. There was nothing in the glove box or under the seats. I climbed out of the jeep and ran to the back. Nothing but a tire iron. I grabbed it and readied myself to sprint to the cabin when something tickled the back of my brain. An idea, perhaps, or just a thought brought on by too much television, too many mystery novels. Jackson didn’t seem like the type to come unprepared for whatever situation fate threw his way.

I opened the passenger door and climbed into the back seat. When I ran my fingers along the edge of the headrests, I felt something. Too much space. The seat didn’t seem thick enough to warrant such a large backing. I yanked the seats. Nothing. I yanked harder, ignoring the pain shooting through my wrists. The seats came forward with such force that I fell back into the passenger seat and then stayed there, staring in awe at the arsenal before me. Guns, knives, freaking grenades, anything a person–or a small insurgency–would want for an attack.

I grabbed a pair of brass knuckles and weighted them in my palm. I slipped them on my right hand, grabbed a set of handcuffs, and then took one of the Glocks. It was so lightweight compared to my Browning. After checking to make sure that it was loaded and the safety was on, I climbed out of the jeep, and began to creep towards the cabin.

There had been no more shotgun blasts after those first two. Instead, the woods seemed too quiet. All the birds had flown off after the first loud boom. Now the trees were eerie, shading the watery sunlight and mocking me with the new silence. When my Mary Janes crunched a large branch lying on the ground, I jumped, in spite of myself. Great, Sanderson. Wonderful job. You’re definitely dressed for covert operations. I stood still, waiting to see if anything, or anyone, would respond to that loud noise. I was about to move again when I heard something to my left.

Hide? Don’t hide? Run screaming for my life? There was no time to make a decision. A shape edged forward, and features began to become visible. Dark hair, dark eyes, gun in hand. “What the fuck are you doing out here?” he asked, but the Thug wasn’t mad. Not yet. He was just as shocked to see me as I was to see him.

He had a gun. He had threatened to rape me. He had punched me and scared me and his gun was beginning to move higher. I didn’t think. I just reacted, and the sound of the Glock firing, while loud this close, was still nothing compared to the sounds of the shotgun from earlier.

The gun fell from his hand as he stared, in dumb awe, at the blood blossoming on his right forearm. “You fucking bitch. You shot me.”

“Call me that again and I won’t remember to miss arteries.” I steadied the gun with my right hand and moved closer to him. “Kick the gun away.”

He complied too readily. He had another gun. I was sure of it.

“Now on your knees,” I said.

“Yeah. Right.” His left hand began to sneak around his back.

I sent a warning shot. It hit a tree branch and a shower of leaves fell on the Thug. “On your knees,” I said again. I was surprised when he complied. My voice was shaking so hard that even I had a hard time believing me.

I walked closer, the gun aimed at his head now. “Put these on.” I threw the handcuffs at him and they scattered a pile of leaves at his knees.

“My arm,” he began.

I lowered the gun. “Now,” I said in a soft voice.

He didn’t even have to look to know where I was aiming. He cuffed his left hand and began to cuff his right when I shook my head.

“Behind your back.” I inched closer to him. “Do it.”

He cuffed himself behind his back and fell on his side. I walked over, tested the cuffs, and then pulled away. “Don’t worry,” I said as I crouched to take the gun hidden under his shirt. “I’ll let someone know you’re out here. Just sit tight.”

“This isn’t over, you fucking bitch,” he said as I began to walk away. “Don’t you dare think that I’m going to let you just walk away.” His voice began to fade as I moved closer to the cabin. It didn’t matter. I was pretty sure I knew what he was saying. Something involving me, infinite pain, and retribution.

I dropped the Thug’s gun under a tree near the clearing. I could see the back of the cabin from this angle, but not the front. There was nothing there. No sign of Jackson, of gunshots, of dead bodies. Everything was still quiet, eerie. Whatever had taken place had happened either inside the house, or in the front of it. From the loudness of the shotgun blasts, I was sure something was going on in front.

I eased closer to the cabin, my gun low but ready. There had been many disadvantages being one of the few girls in my family. Learning how to properly hold and shoot a gun, for both disarm and kill, wasn’t one of them. Uncle Mike and Joey always said I was a natural with a gun. A crack shot. Jason, while I was sure he agreed, would never compliment me. Not after he had been shot on the job, anyways.

But while I was a crack shot, I was a lousy hunter. I couldn’t keep quiet for the life of me. My Mary Janes crunched the gravel near the porch and I froze. I waited for a good minute, maybe two, but there were no answering sounds, no raised shouts. I toed off my left shoe, then my right, and slid them in the slip space under the porch. At least barefoot, I could make some semblance of an attempt to sneak up on whoever had been shooting.

A hand slapped over my mouth as another arm snaked around my waist. “I thought I told you to stay put,” Jackson said in my ear. It wasn’t even a whisper. It was too soft to be a whisper.

I didn’t answer. Instead, I lifted the Glock in my hand. The arm around my waist transferred to my hip and he turned me towards him, his hand still over my mouth. He cocked an eyebrow at the gun. I widened my eyes, rolling them in violent motions to my right, towards the woods. He nodded, took the gun, and released me.

Jackson pointed three fingers towards the front of the house, then two fingers towards the side. Right. Three men in front, two around the corner. I lifted my arms and widened my eyes. He just shrugged. No idea what they were doing back. When he pointed back towards the woods, I shook my head. He stared at me for a moment before he tucked the Glock in the back of his pants, reached for my hair clip, and let my hair down.

It took all of my nerve, and some I didn’t know I had, to stand still. I knew exactly what he was suggesting, knew it the moment he reached towards me. But when he grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and pulled, I found myself taking three steps, four, away from him. It was an act, a farce, but too close to the recent traumas of the day, all the same. My bottom lip trembled. I felt it quivering until my front teeth bore down to make it stop.

Jackson just waited until I composed myself. When I nodded, he took the rest of my weapons, grabbed my arms, and pushed me towards the side of the house.

The first person I saw was Sal. He was standing with another man I had never seen before. “You got her?” Sal asked.

“She got all the way to the woods,” Jackson said. “You should go check on Eddie. I think she managed to hit him before I could catch her.” He dropped the gun at my feet.

Sal’s face darkened and he lifted his gun to aim directly between my eyes. “We don’t need her,” he said between clenched teeth.

“No, we don’t,” Jackson agreed. His fingers curved on my upper arm, a gentle reminder to just sit tight. He needn’t have bothered. I had a feeling he was stalling, and I was pretty sure I knew why. “She’s been a pain in the ass since day one.”

“She is the Fed, huh?” the man with Sal asked. I labeled him Accomplice. “Donnie said he didn’t really think she…” his voice trailed off as Sal gave him a hard look.

Jackson didn’t say anything. He just pulled something out of his pocket and threw it at them. I got a brief glance of an ID, with my picture on it and bold block letters at the top, before Sal picked it up. I knew what those letters said. FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION.

Even though I knew not to ask, even though I knew to just stand there and look scared for my life, part of me wanted to ask, no, demand to know how in the hell Jackson got me a fake FBI ID. More importantly, I wanted to know why.

Sal dropped the ID on the ground and spat on it. “For a second, I almost believed her back there.”

Jackson chuckled, and it was a cruel sound. “She’s a lying cunt, Sal. We’ve been over this.” His fingers gripped my arm tighter, and I tried to figure out what in the hell he wanted from me. “But she’s leverage, and until we know one hundred percent that we don’t need her, I say we just sit it out. Who knows? Maybe she’ll be fun.”

Sal regarded me for a long stretch of time. Then, he glanced at Jackson. Whatever decision he came to, I was pretty sure it involved killing me sooner rather than later. But he nodded, all the same. “Well come on, then.” He gestured his gun towards the door. “Let’s go inside and get something to eat.”

Had Jackson made one fatal mistake? He had assumed the men were going out to eat. He hadn’t known they were getting it to go. This mattered, for some reason. Maybe it was the reason why we were back at the house in the first place, instead of taking off when we got to his jeep. There were still bodies in the house. There hadn’t been any time to get the bodies out.

But Jackson pulled me towards the house before I could struggle, or make a scene. Something, anything to distract the men. We were at the back door and through it before I could even come to a decision.

Pauly’s body was gone.

“This is gonna just make my day,” Sal said as he walked towards the living room.

Pauly’s body should have been right there, where we left it. But it wasn’t.

“First the bitch, then Tony, then Aruba, here I come,” Sal continued.

Someone had moved Pauly’s body, and it couldn’t have been Jackson.

“Do we need plates?” the Accomplice asked.

Jackson hadn’t made a fatal mistake. Not at all.

“Nah. I don’t need a plate. Boss?”

“No plate for me,” Jackson said. “What about you, March? Do you need a plate?”

He had been waiting for backup.

“What the fuck?” the Accomplice whispered as we walked into the living room. The bag of food in his hand fell to the floor. One of the Styrofoam containers popped open, scattering French fries all over the carpet.

“Now,” Jackson said in my ear before he released me.

I lifted my hands. “These men kidnapped me. I’m innocent.”

There were men, swarms of men, all in riot gear. They disarmed Sal and the Accomplice before I could even finish my statement. Other men, bad men, seven, eight at least, were already on the floor, hands cuffed behind their back.

A man came out from behind the riot team, almost as if he materialized out of thin air. In the semi-darkness of the room, I couldn’t see that much of his face. Just dark hair and a wide smile. He walked over to me and gestured his hand at my arms. “We know that, pet,” he said in a thick Cockney accent. “Calm down, yeah?” Then he turned to Jackson. “And you’re not going to put up a fight, are you, mate?”

It was a small movement, almost imperceptible, but I saw it all the same. Jackson rolled his eyes at the Cockney, before he shook his head, turned around, and offered his wrists to be cuffed.

The Cockney cuffed Jackson and shoved him to the floor. As he began to stand up, his eyes caught on the bag of food. He grabbed one of the burgers and gave me an impish grin. “What a bloody beautiful day,” the Cockney said, before he unwrapped the burger and took a large bite. “Anyone else hungry?” He gestured the burger at me. “Pet?”

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