Copyright Amy L. Montz
I sat on the floor, my knees clutched close to my chest, and watched the men go, group by group, through the door. All of them were handcuffed, and all of them were led by two men in riot gear. Feds. I had picked up on that pretty quickly. All of them, despite their riot gear, acted like suits.
Except the Cockney.
He followed the men out, hamburger in hand, smile on his face. “Yeah, that’s right, get your asses in gear.” When he reached the door, he paused and turned back to Jackson. “Take her to the Office, yeah? Get her cleaned up?”
Jackson stood up. “I had planned on it.” One of his hands came loose from the cuffs. He was unlocking the other wrist when the Cockney closed the door behind him.
“Who is he?” I asked as I watched Jackson free himself.
“Someone I work for.” He put the cuffs in his pocket and helped me stand. “Are you okay to walk?”
“Yeah. Sure.” I let him lead me by the elbow, through the back door and back into the woods. “So is he a Fed? He doesn’t act like a Fed.” I should know. I had a few cousins in the FBI back in Louisiana.
Jackson said nothing, not about the Cockney, not about why he had been cuffed, not about anything until we reached his jeep once again. He gave the back seat a brief glance before he closed his hidden arsenal and helped me into the passenger seat.
“Get on the floor, love,” he said as he got behind the wheel. “Just to be safe.”
I did as I was told. It was warm on the floor of the jeep, almost too warm. Beads of sweat began to form on my forehead and upper lip. When I wiped them away, my hand was smeared with watery blood. I didn’t know if it was mine.
When the bumps on the road smoothed out, and it seemed like we reached a paved road, Jackson pulled out his cell phone. “Voice ident: Jackson, Logan Christopher.” Pause. “Pomegranate. Persuasion. Persephone.” Pause. “Right.” Pause. “He’s leaving there now. Just don’t let them fuck this up. I’ve had enough of their shit.” He closed his cell phone and glanced down at me. “We’re far enough away. You can get up now.”
I scrambled to the seat. “What–”
“Not now, love.” He dialed another number. “Jeremy, I got her.” Pause. “No, she’s okay. A little banged up, but….” Pause. “Sure, hang on.” Jackson passed the phone to me.
“Remy?” I whispered.
“Nat, are you okay? God, I was so worried and–”
“I’m fine. Jackson has me.”
Remy paused. “You’re not fine. Your voice is–”
I handed the phone to Jackson. “Tag.”
Jackson gave me a curious look before he took the phone. “I’m going to get her cleaned up. Come on back to the city. We’ll be there soon.” Pause. “Yeah, me, too. I’ll call you later.”
He hung up the phone and we rode in silence for a good two hours before the scenery began to change, become more familiar. The Chicago skyline climbed closer and closer to us and when we entered downtown, I was so relieved I forgot to be claustrophobic. We pulled into an underground parking garage. Jackson flashed a card at the security gate and it swung open with a speed that surprised me. He pulled into a parking space, shut off the engine, and he turned to me.
“Come on, love. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
I hadn’t showered since the night before. I was caked in dust and sweat from the van ride, my jaw and head throbbed from bruises, my lip stung every time I opened my mouth, and my cheek was coated in a flaking dryness that I was pretty sure was someone else’s blood. I had been knocked unconscious, forced to endure my worst nightmare of darkness and immobility, handcuffed and beaten. They had threatened me with fists, guns, and rape, and had laughed at me when I fought back. And to add injury to much insult, I had shot a man. Well that part, I didn’t mind much.
I sat trembling in the seat before I sucked in a deep breath and nodded at Jackson. “Let’s get me cleaned up.”
We took a service elevator to the eighth floor of the building. As we stepped into a deserted hallway that smelled of recycled air, I felt something pull at me. The building seemed empty, but there was the impression of bustle and movement contained behind the walls. Jackson unlocked a black door and we walked into an office.
Blue lights danced under the desk and along the floor to reveal a stark room in tones of gray and black and chrome. There were no pictures on the desk, no art on the walls, no post-it notes on the expensive, flat-screen computer monitor. Government safe house. Not an office. I was sure of it.
Jackson flicked on a lamp and I blinked against the light. No specks of dust floating in the air. Apparently, government safe houses were very clean.
I followed Jackson to a stark white bathroom and eased onto the closed toilet when he gestured. He rummaged through the cabinet and pulled out an impressive first-aid kit. Government issue. Not from the drugstore.
He washed my arms first, with careful fingers and firm ministrations, and even gentler touches when he reached my wrists. After he dried off my arms with a towel that smelled of bleach and linen, he wrapped white gauze around both of my wrists.
I watched blood begin to dot the white bandages with pinpricks of candy-apple red. “Logan?”
Jackson knelt in front of me. “What’s that, love?” He lifted a white facecloth and began to wipe off my face.
“How did you know I was claustrophobic?”
He met my eyes for a second before he continued washing my face. “The day you were kidnapped, the first kidnapping, you said that you hated being locked up, that it was like being grounded all over again.” He wiped off my nose with the warm, wet towel and it was a familiar gesture. My mother used to do the same thing to me when I came inside after playing football with my brothers, the inevitable busted knee or head knock proving that I was playing as rough as they could.
“I suspected that your teenage rebellion was a little more than that,” he continued. “I put two and two together.” He brushed the cloth over my cheeks. “I was worried that if they went too far… so, I told them.” He dropped the facecloth in the sink and rummaged through the first-aid kit.
Jackson dabbed a cotton ball with alcohol. “How’d you get the lip?” he asked.
I sucked in a breath between my teeth when the cotton ball pressed against my cut. “Sal. He punched me in the jaw, too.”
He nodded before he moved to my cheek. “And this one?”
“That one’s from the Thug, I think.” I put my hands on his shoulders to steady myself. “Who was the Thug?” At his look, I lowered my eyes. “The guy in the woods.”
“Eddie. Donnie was the driver.”
“Donnie was nice to me.”
Jackson dabbed at my cheek with a clean towel. “He and Eddie underestimated you. People tend to do that, don’t they?” He put a band-aid on my cut before he brushed my hair back from my face and probed the bruises with light fingers.
“Sometimes. Why didn’t you tell me what was going on? Why didn’t you give me some kind of signal?”
“I tried, love.” He eased me to the side so he could check the back of my head.
Of course he did. Skirt, twist, palookas. “You were using slang.” Jackson was a reader, too. He and I had talked Chandler and Hammett and Christie over coffee and sandwiches the day we kissed.
He probed a tender area at the side of my head and I winced. “I don’t think you have a concussion, but you’ve had one before. Does it feel the same?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
He put his hands on his knees and pushed himself into a standing position. “I’ll be right back.” He left the bathroom and came back with two shirts in his hands: one a white dress shirt and one a black t-shirt. “Give me your arm, love.”
I lifted my left arm and then my right as he eased the dress shirt on me. As he ran professional hands over my arms, shoulders, and legs to check for broken bones and reopened shoulder wounds, I stared at his face, his eyes, and tried to pull the missing pieces together. He would tell me soon, but I had some suspicions I needed to work out.
And I was tired, so goddamn tired.
When he was done, he turned my chin to the wall. I resisted and stared up at him until he sighed and stripped off his shirt.
I sucked in a breath. “Jesus Christ.”
“There were a few complications.” Jackson took off the bloody bandage on his left side and washed off the cut with alcohol, only the faintest hiss leaving his mouth when the liquid touched the wound. It was still oozing blood and the bright red slash was a stark contrast to other, older cuts–to so many faded scars on such a beautiful body. He finished bandaging the cut with fresh gauze before he poured alcohol over the cut on his arm.
I eased off of the toilet and sat on the floor, my undamaged cheek pressed against the cool tile wall. “Logan?”
“What’s that, love?”
“Why did you do that?”
He paused for the briefest of seconds. “They were expecting blood. There was no time to take off the other bandage.”
I closed my eyes and sank a little lower down. “I’m sorry you had to hurt yourself.”
After he shrugged into the black t-shirt, he reached a hand towards me and helped me up. There was a gentleness about him that seemed unfamiliar and recognizable, all at once. It worked. I wobbled to my feet, gripped his hand, and let him lead me back to the office. When he handed me a Kleenex, I realized I was crying, but silently, as not to disturb him.
He held my hand as we both sat down on the couch. I clutched it like the lifeline it was, and used it as a guide. The closer I got to Jackson, the harder I began to shake until I was against his chest. Still, he didn’t touch me except for that grip on my hand. When I rested my head against his shoulder, I felt his stiffness, his discomfort, his inability to express an emotion so simple as sympathy. But as soon as I recognized those things, Jackson relaxed, just a bit, and rested his other hand on my back, awkward and comforting at the same time.
Jackson murmured soothing strains above me, his voice muffled behind my whimpering. Every once in a while, I would catch a string of words I couldn’t understand. He was speaking in another language, not Spanish or French, but something more guttural. I didn’t know what that meant about him, and the harder I tried to listen, the harder it was to understand. Everything was still too raw.
I pulled away from him and leaned back against the couch. I tucked my feet under me and trailed my fingers on the edge of the dress shirt. From the way it swamped me and the fresh linen scent drifting up from it, I knew it was his. “What language was that?”
He was quiet, so quiet that I realized the soothing strains had been unconscious. Jackson hadn’t even realized he had spoken aloud. After a minute, he shook his head. “I’m sorry this happened to you. You weren’t supposed to get involved anymore.”
My fingers found a loose thread on the shirt and I tugged at it, watching the stitching unravel around the sleeve cuff. “But you told the men that you were going to come get me.” I glanced up at him. “Oh. Well, of course. You said that so they wouldn’t come after me themselves.”
“That’s why I switched places with the original bodyguard in the beginning. I wanted to make sure no one else was watching you.”
“But they thought I was the Fed.” The thread grew longer and longer in my hand. Jackson shouldn’t buy this brand of shirt anymore. The stitching didn’t hold up.
When he pried the cuff out of my hand, I realized that I had said that thought aloud.
“When you jumped in front of the bullet, the men thought that you were a Federal agent and assumed that someone had leaked info on the hit. So they went underground to buy some time and figure out who the snitch was. It worked to the Feds’ advantage.” His face flashed concern for a second.
I pulled my hand up to my face and started chewing on the sleeve until my teeth stopped meeting the resistance of fabric. Jackson leaned over and gently pulled the shirt out of my mouth. “And they thought Brian Bourgeois was part of the plan?” I asked, spinning one of the buttons on the cuff in my fingers, a little proud when it popped free from the thread.
“That’s what complicated things. They were waiting to see what Bourgeois confessed. When they realized he wasn’t part of the deal, they decided to move ahead with the assassination.”
I started spinning another button but it proved harder to free than the first. I nibbled on the thread, trying to break it apart. “I… I didn’t really save Big Tony, did I?”
“Your intentions were real, love. That’s all that mattered.”
My bottom lip trembled and I saw Jackson’s face flash real emotion. I was doing that to him. I was making him lose his mask and I didn’t know how to fix it. “I was an idiot.”
“No, you weren’t,” he said in a soft voice. “They just didn’t expect you to interrupt the hit. Tommy was ready to do it. He had a vest.”
Flashes from that morning rushed back to me. Tommy holding the door open. Tony’s face slightly amused before it flashed real concern. Tony brushing the hair away from my eyes. “So Tommy came to y’all with the info on the hit, and y’all put everything into motion? Why weren’t they happy with Tony? He’s so sweet.”
“That’s the problem, love. Tony’s an old school mobster. He inherited the Family from his father, and his father ran things the old way: no drugs, little to no prostitution, and absolutely no women, no children. Tony tried the same thing, but the nephews wanted to make the Family more… contemporary: guns, drugs, the works.”
“And his wife wanted him out.” I traced my finger along the scars on the back of his hand, over and over again. A constellation. Maybe Orion.
“So the Feds had men integrate themselves in the Family, but they never could catch them in the act. The men weren’t all that trusting, to be honest.”
I stared at his hand in mine, memorizing the scars. One ran deep against the vein and I wondered what had caused it. “A Fed is a Fed is a Fed,” I said in a sing-song voice, repeating the phrase I had heard a thousand times, from all my police officer relatives. “You can always smell a Fed.”
Jackson snorted. “Right. Gasconi’s men didn’t trust any of them.”
He was doing it again. He never said “us” or “we” when he spoke of the Feds. He always said “the Feds” or “them.” He laughed at my song and had told me, “You keep using that term, love,” and…. Everything slid into place with an almost audible click in my head.
“That’s it,” I said. “Tony’s boys didn’t buy the infiltrators, because a Fed is a Fed is a Fed. But you don’t look like a Fed. You’ve never looked like a Fed, and the men didn’t trust the Feds and yet they trusted you? The Feds couldn’t infiltrate the Mafia but you could?” I glanced at his face and I knew. I knew the reasons for the blank expressions, the lack of emotion, the scars.
“You’re black ops,” I said, my voice a little awed. “You’re not a Fed. FBI is just your cover job. You’re some secret branch of the government that does shit like this.” The code words on the phone, the ability to switch in and out of character, his omnipresence, even the odd office building that looked too expensive and deserted to be funded by mere tax dollars.
I watched Jackson’s face grow immobile as his entire body almost… shut down.
“When the Feds couldn’t infiltrate Gasconi’s Family, they farmed out the job to your organization and you went deep undercover as rogue Federal agent turned Mafioso lieutenant. But that meant that you weren’t working for the Feds. They were working for you because you have higher–”
He reached over and ran a gentle thumb over my lips. “Your brothers said you call yourself a USO kind of girl,” he said in a soft voice.
I understood. “Loose lips sink ships.”
“I’m a Fed.”
“You’re FBI. That’s what it says on your tax returns.” I repeated the explanation he had originally given me. “What was your excuse?”
“Money and disenchantment. They really wouldn’t buy anything else.”
I inched back away from Jackson on the couch so I could stare him full in the face. “And so you decided that I was the best way to draw them out. You and Dominic used me as bait to catch the Mafia, not to catch Bourgeois. You two dragged me from one place to another, trying to get them to try something, all the while telling me I was perfectly safe. But I wasn’t. If you really wanted to keep me safe, you would have put me in a safe house or ship me off to Baton Rouge.”
As his face grew blank, void of emotion, anger burned deep in my stomach, anger and something else, something small that started to build in crashes and crescendos.
Jackson looked me in the eyes for a long moment. “Not Dominic,” he said in a quiet, still voice. “Me. It wasn’t his decision. I outrank him, and I was calling the shots. But you were never unsafe until now. After the first kidnapping, you were protected every minute of every day. We would have never let anything happen to you.”
“But something did happen to me! They kidnapped me and dragged me across state lines so you could make your bust!” As my arms and legs began to tremble, I knew that the adrenaline was wearing off. I was going someplace new, someplace I had never been before. The room started to darken, and I struggled to hold on to my anger.
“That was unexpected.”
“Of course it was.” My voice was flat, just like his, and I was losing emotion, just like he did. We really were more alike than we gave ourselves credit for. “It wasn’t part of your master plan.”
Jackson was quiet, immobile.
“You played me,” I whispered. “You played me like a goddamn pawn. Everything that’s happened, it was all for the job. Everything.” I had been wrong. It was a betrayal, but I wasn’t an effect, and I certainly wasn’t Caesar or Lear.
I was both the red herring and the MacGuffin all along.
“Not everything,” he said in the same, soft voice.
“You assigned yourself as my bodyguard so that the conspirators thought I was being watched by one of their men. You let them think that I was the Fed because it took the heat off of you, even made up a fake ID for me to prove it. You let me be paraded around town completely unaware that they were out to get me. You let me think that Dominic was at fault.” I started ticking off his plots with my fingers. I was on four now. “You pretended to be my friend so I would trust you. Jesus, you even gave me a goddamn dog so I would have warm fuzzies towards you.”
That was six. “You sent Tommy to watch me so that the conspirators would be even madder at Tony, and even madder at me. You flirted with me and teased me and made friends so that you could control the entire fucking situation. All so that…” I deflated then. It was too much.
He stared at me with Della Robbia blue eyes. “I never lied to you. Not about the important stuff. I just withheld information.”
“But how do I even know, you Machiavellian son of a bitch?” I sucked in a breath. “How can one person be so manipulative? Do you even have a drop of human emotion inside of you?”
It was the cruelest thing I could have said at that moment. I knew it the second I saw Jackson’s eyes shadow, the bright blue darkening, just a bit. He had risked his life, had almost blown his cover, to save me. He did have human emotion, just like the rest of us. And he had proved it, back at the cabin, had killed to get me to safety. But why?
A droplet of water rolled off my chin and splashed on the sleeve of the white dress shirt I was wearing. I watched, fascinated, as the fabric darkened, just slightly, the white turning gray. I was crying, but whether it was for myself, or for Jackson, I wasn’t sure. “How does this happen, again and again?” My hand lifted of its own accord, wiping away the tears on one cheek, then the other. “I don’t even know you, but I do. I shouldn’t trust you, but I do. Somehow, along the way, this became us, didn’t it? But how?”
Jackson was quiet for a long stretch of time. Finally, he sighed and ran a hand over his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never get close to my cases, not after…” He paused and there was something unwritten on his face. Something entirely new. I labeled that one “regret” and “sorrow.” There was a story there, one I knew, without checking, I couldn’t ask about. “But I think it was the day you teased me about grammar. Something just… clicked between us.” He looked at me with those bright blue eyes. “That was the day we became friends.”
“Yes,” I said. “I think it was for me, too.” I wiped at my nose with the back of my hand. “You moved the timeline forward, didn’t you?”
“You were a distraction,” he said. “They were getting too interested in you. I never thought they would do this.” His eyes had lightened, just a bit, but his face was still so stoic, so cold.
“You rushed this to protect me.” He had used me, machinated plans that put me in danger again and again, but in the end, he had done it all to keep me safe. Not a guardian killer, but a protector, all the same. My arms went around my head as I lowered it, closer to my chest. “I’m so tired of being in danger, Jackson. It has to stop.” I willed my eyes open and looked at him. His face had changed, softened somehow. The Logan buried deep within the mask. I saw him. I recognized him. Despite whatever had happened before, with him and that “after,” he had pushed through it to become my friend. “It is over, isn’t it?”
Jackson reached forward and pulled my hands away from my face, exposing it to the pale sunlight creeping through the windows. “Yes, March,” he said. “It is.”