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Blessing in Disguise

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OK - All feedback welcome. I'm happy with my cover, but would want to maybe add a one line blurb to it.

My target audience is females ages 20 - mid thirties. I'm not sure what to include in terms of work. This is for a book I am writing that currently has a little over 60,000 words. I think it will end up being close to 90,000 when I am complete. I've shared the first three chapters below. Thanks!

Here is my blurb:



Janey Bennett 

I was sent to Blessing, Virginia. From the bloody lips of a dying man, on the night my life in New York fell apart, I was told to run. 

I did everything I was told. Kept every secret and followed every order given to me to keep myself safe. And alive. 

All I want is to rebuild a life I recognize. 

Then I meet Bobby, and he builds for me a new dream. Makes me believe in a new life and all its possibilities. 

I just don’t know if he’ll let me live long enough to see it. 

Bobby Michaels 

I came to Blessing, Virginia for revenge. Haunted by the crimson pools of blood that ended my life in New York as I knew it. 

I did everything I was told. Kept every secret and followed every order because that’s the life I chose. But it wasn’t enough to keep her alive. 

All I want is to make someone pay. 

Then I meet Janey, and I don’t intend to ever approach her. Perhaps in my former life, but that life is over now. 

Except that I’m not the only one watching Janey. 

She makes me believe I can be a man worthy of a woman like her. 

I just don’t know if I can keep either of us alive.

Chapter 1: Bobby

 

“Janie slid into a car last night
In a parking lot she gave her soul away
To breakaway”

 

Breakaway by Bruce Springsteen

 

There's a trick to becoming invisible. Don't ever think that running from the problem, moving to a new place, will save you.

Because you're out there somewhere. And everybody knows it.

As long as you're alive, you can be tracked.


Hunted.

 

Found.

 

The only way to disappear and remain breathing is to become someone new and blend. The more you try to become invisible, the more your desperation reeks.

 

And any scent can be picked up by an animal.

 

It's why I'm at this bar, on the busiest night this town has seen in years, to watch some former punk rocker turned folk singer that I couldn't give a shit about perform. I'm blending. I'm the guy next door. Staying home during an event like this would stand out.  Draw attention. So I show up and I shoot the shit with the bartender and I wink at the waitress. I stop to chat with some neighbors.

 

Then I settle into my dark corner booth.

 

Forgotten.

 

And that's the goal. Because until I'm dead, I'll never be invisible. And neither will you.

 

But I am easily forgotten. And that's the goal.

 

This is what I want to tell her within 5 minutes of laying eyes on her. A group of them blow in through the bar's heavy double doors moments before the show is set to begin, giggling and pushing at each other, tugging on their skirts and fluffing their hair. A half dozen or so carbon copies of a stereotypical 20-something year old girl, all high pitched and trendy.

 

And her.

 

While they're all high heels and skirts, she's boot cut jeans and Converse sneakers. They've all got backless blouses, or low cut tanks, skin everywhere. She's nicely filling out a plain black fitted tee. It barely meets the top of her low rise jeans, and that thin sliver of cream colored skin that peeks out around her hips might as well be a flashing neon sign. Her friends are done up, makeup and hair spray. Over the top. Like they're ready for the stage production version of life.

 

Her honey-colored hair flows down her back, the breeze from the doorway picking it up in places and swirling it for a moment around her head. She reaches up with one hand to drag it over a shoulder, looking sheepish and biting her lower lip that, while shiny, is absent of lipstick. In a swarm of girls coated in mascara and eyeliner, her large brown eyes look fresh, innocent, and deep enough to lure a man in whole without him ever looking back at what he might leave behind.

 

I sip my whiskey and shake my head.

 

She keeps her hands in her pockets and gives the babbling redhead next to her a smirk and a roll of her eyes as they approach the bar. Half the group shouts out orders while the other half heads towards the stage to stake a claim on the floor. Her companion tugs at her arm, trying to convince her of something, but she keeps quietly shaking her head. She tucks a lock of her long amber hair behind her ear. She waves her hands dismissively enough times that the redhead finally grabs a bottle of beer and heads off to meet the others near the stage.

 

She wanders off to the side of the room coming to a stop near a low wall that separates the bar area from the floor that leads to the stage. She folds her arms across her chest and starts scanning the room, slowly, her eyes darting from face to face in the crowd before reaching down to clutch the edge of the low wall at her side. Tension knits itself through her features. It knots her shoulders.

 

But she never looked in the corners. Never searched out the darkest edges of the bar. That's her first mistake.

 

Always look into the darkness, sweetheart. You'll never survive if you're too afraid to do that.

 

After a moment or two she seems to loosen up a bit because she heads to the bar alone, buys a glass of something amber colored, and then darts back to her wall off to the side. 

 

No beer or margherita for her. She’s waited until her friends aren't around to see her ask for the heavy stuff. Her eyes continue to nervously scan the crowd, darting around like a bird ready to take flight, while she takes a slow sip of her drink

 

You're standing out, passerotto.

 

In another lifetime, I might have stood and slowly made my way over. I'd give her my name and buy another drink. My hand would find its way to her hip and we'd enjoy the show together. I finished my whiskey and imagined reaching into her back pocket to grab her phone, whispering in her ear as I save my phone number.

 

I wonder what her hair smells like.

 

Then I shake my head, ridding myself of those pipe dreams. That life is over.

 

Instead I sink a bit further into the shadows, and turn my head when I hear the bar doors open again, only to sit up again right away.

 

The man who walks in deserves to be shot in the knee just for being so fucking obvious.

 

This asshole is wearing a suit. Only tourists in this town wear suits, but none come close to touching the price of the suit he's wearing. He's a bit shorter than I am. I'm 6' 2" and put him at about 5' 10". His hair is slicked back, his eyes never stop darting around, and his piece is bulging at his back.

 

This pudgy fuck probably needed butter to grease that gun enough to fit it down the back of his pants.

I ready myself for his eyes to land on me. He's here for someone, and I can't for a second pretend it's one of the other residents here at the bar. Not the lifetime residents anyway. Not the ones with the Southern twangs who rushed to change after a hard day of work in order to make it here in time for this evening's show.

 

No, he's definitely here for me. Maybe for one of my associates.

 

But surprise, surprise.  He also never searches the darkest corners of the room. Further proof that he's a shitty amateur.

 

Later it occurs to me that maybe he never searches the dark because she never could have hidden there. No dark corner could ever contain her.

 

She holds too much light.

 

But right then I hadn't yet imagined that she was his mark. Until he reaches the bar. Then his eyes land on her and he smiles. Not a happy smile. Or a relieved smile.

 

He throws money down, orders a drink, and his thin lips curl into a sick, satisfied grin.

 

Fuck. Me.

 

I look back at her, reluctant to take my eyes off the prick, but half expecting to see her running for a back exit.  If she's still searching the bar I know she's got to have seen him.

 

But she's not searching. Her eyes are glued to the stage as the semi famous folk punk whatever singer struts out to squeals and whistles, clapping and hooting.  He launches into some song about a romance with a young Parisian, and the girl's hips softly sway, her fingers still clutching her drink, while the dickhead at the bar licks his lips.

 

I run both my hands through my hair before grabbing my cell phone and dialing. I pause a second before hitting send and think about home. I think about what it used to mean and what it means now. I glance back and forth between the girl and the grease ball and I think about Grace and blood, second chances and failure, redemption and grief.

 

It takes but a second.

 

Then I hit send and wait for an answer.

 

"Yeah," I sigh. "I think we've got a problem."

 

 Chapter 2: Janey

 

“I saw you standing there with your hair down low
A kink in your step that made me want to know
If you would like to take me home”

 

To Take You Home by Frank Turner

 

I did everything I could to calm my nerves and convince myself that coming out tonight was ok. I deserved a night out with my new friend. I deserved the chance to make other new friends. I wanted a shot at being carefree and surrounded by music. Even for just one night.

 

I'm only 26 and at some point my life derailed.

 

I wish I could point to one tragic moment as the cause, but I've had enough time to think, to marinate in every tear I've shed. I know it was a series of tiny missteps that led me astray. Each one dragging me further and further from the path on which I'd set out, until one day I looked in my rear view mirror and couldn't begin to recognize the wasteland I'd left behind.

 

My path was gone. Nothing but a memory of a dream I once had. It could no longer be mapped.

 

It's been 6 months since I arrived, pulling into a local motel parking lot as a pale pink sliver of dawn snaked across the Virginia sky. I paid cash for a room in the back, away from the road. I grabbed my duffle bag, opened the door to my room, and stumbled into the bed. There, in a semi-sterile room, in a state I had never before visited, my bare cheek resting upon the scratchy comforter, I finally let my tears fall. My knees curled up into my chest, my hands pulled at my hair. I sobbed until it hurt and just kept sobbing.

 

I cried for a father I never met and a mother who held my hands tight to her chest as she slipped away. I cried for the 18 cancer-free years we shared and the two years of illness and the lifetime I faced without her. I cried because even at the end she tried to hold onto me.

 

My tears soaked the collar of my black pea coat. Tears shed for the memory of his hands on me and the way he overwhelmed my senses and seemed to force out every bit of sadness that clung to my bones. And then I cried for the way those hands became strangers, hurting me in ways I never imagined possible.

 

I wept over the betrayal. Then wept some more for the choices I made.

 

The hours ticked by and I know there were moments I drifted off to sleep. But every time I woke the tears continued. There was no steady slowdown. They didn't ratchet back up like the slow clicking of a roller coaster car headed towards a precipice. Each time I awoke they began again with the same intensity, exploding from me like shattered glass.

 

I wept for the life I left behind. For the life I faced ahead.

 

For the lives that ended.

 

I rolled onto my hands and knees on the bed, and tried to rise. The weight of all I'd lost, and all I'd risked, pulled me down and for several hours I thought that is where I would take my last breath. Surely nobody could survive this pain.

 

But the next day the sun rose. And the day after that. For two days I mourned. I never opened the curtains. I didn't eat. Occasionally I used the bathroom, cupping my hands under the faucet in the sink and scooping sips of lukewarm water to my chapped lips. 

 

Eventually I found my way outside. And then to the public library. And then to the few scattered appointments I made to view available rentals in town. And finally back to the motel to pick up my duffel bag and check out.

 

I moved into a 2 bedroom home on the outskirts of the tiny downtown district. It is rundown, old and drafty, but cheap. More than that, it's cozy enough for me to imagine the families that may have lived in it over the decades. I conjure up stories of love and hope and sometimes walk the short hallway that leads to the back bedrooms, my fingers lightly dragging across the hunter green wall as I go. I imagine years of love have soaked in to the very walls themselves and allow myself to pretend it will somehow keep me safe.

 

I got a part time job where I met Claire, my fiery new friend. She's originally from Boston and giggled when she first heard my New York accent. Five minutes after we met she pulled me into a hug. I stood there stiff and trying to breathe while she exclaimed that she knew we were going to be friends.

 

"Us Yankees need to stick together," she proclaimed.

 

The town of Blessing, Virginia turned out to be mostly comprised of residents who moved from other states. It was rare that I heard a Southern drawl. I didn't get out much, but even at the local market where I worked, I was typically faced with an eclectic mix of transplants from across the country.

 

I was relieved to feel as if I might fit in. And while I confess to having little interest in socializing or rebuilding my life right now, I am at least grateful for the chance to rest and figure out what I could do to move forward.

 

But sometimes, I just wanted to feel young.

 

And free.

 

So when Claire came running into the market a few weeks ago, squealing and spinning me around as she told me that Frank Turner's tour was stopping in Blessing to perform for one night before rolling out to a weekend engagement in Richmond, I caved. I reasoned that it was just one night and I'd be with Claire and all her friends. I didn't have to show ID to purchase a ticket at the small venue. I wouldn't let my guard down. No drinks. I'd leave as soon as his show ended. I would stay vigilant.

 

I'd already broken the rules.

 

Everything about the evening felt wrong, and the seams that held together my sense of wellbeing were slowly unraveling. I felt desperate. Out of control. Vulnerable.

 

I couldn't bring myself to join Claire and her friends down by the stage. The crowd was larger than I anticipated and my stomach lurched with the thought of hands grabbing me, plucking me out of the writhing mass of people mid-concert. I feared nobody would notice.

 

I stood off to the side, near a low wall that I clutched until my fingers ached. I searched the crowd, for what I wasn't sure. But I felt as if I was being watched and I half expected to find someone staring back at me from the crowd.

 

I couldn't slow my heart down.

I headed to the bar and bought a whiskey, ignoring my no alcohol rule in favor of trying to soothe my nerves. I hurried back to my spot near the wall, thankful nobody else had taken it over. It made me feel anchored. I felt as if I could grab it if needed and hold on for dear life and ride out any attack that might come my way in this unfamiliar venue.

 

As the whiskey burned down my throat and warmed my belly, Frank Turner took the stage. The crowd erupted in applause and whistles. I focused on the spotlight and felt the first few notes of one of my favorite songs rush over me. He sings of capturing the heart of a Parisian girl and longing to take her home. I close my eyes and feel a sting in the back of my throat. My head tilts back and towards the end of the song I take a deep breath to try and center myself.

 

Every time he sighs the word "home" I feel another tendril of panic shoot its way up towards my heart.

 

And that's when I feel the hum of warm breath on my neck.

 

In the second that I stiffen I hear a deep voice ask "Are you ok?" And even though the crowd is applauding and Frank is laughing into the mic as he announces the next song he'll be playing, I hear the question just fine. Because it's whispered into my ear.

 

In the next instant, several things happen all at once. And some part of me knows that it takes just a moment, but everything - time, movement, my heart and lungs - seems to have screeched to a halt.

 

I whip around and press the back of my legs to the wall behind me. I look up at the man, who now stands inches from me, and push myself back some more until I'm wedged into a corner. His hair is black and blue lights reflect across its waves. His green eyes are the color of the sea and rolling hills, envy and confidence, mercy and menace.

 

Holy shit I never heard him coming. Didn't feel him until it was too late.

 

My glass falls forgotten from my hand, landing with a thud on top of the low wall to my right. His arm shoots out and grabs it before it rolls to the floor. He bends a bit with the action, bringing his face closer to mine. His eyes never leave my face. 

 

I see a strong nose with the slightest kink in it. A dark five o'clock shadow. A smirk with a hint of a dimple.

 

And that's when my knees start giving out. Because I'm not breathing.

 

His hands grab my upper arms and lift me up against the wall at my back. Like I'm nothing. I'm a limp ragdoll in his hands and this is so not good. My vision starts to blur and my whole body burns as it starts to lock up. I gasp for air and shiver and I can't stop staring into his eyes because I don't know yet if I'll make it out of his arms alive. I at least want to drift off into my final sleep afloat on that seafoam green.

 

"Shit, I'm sorry," he says. Shouts actually. The next song has begun but my ears are ringing too loudly to recognize the lyrics. He leans in, his breath hot on my ear lobe. "I didn't mean to scare you."

 

He leans back again and looks me in the eyes. "Breathe," he tells me.

I can't.

 

Somehow I must have said that aloud, because his fingers start massaging my upper arms and he says, "Yes you can. You can breathe. You wouldn't be able to speak if you couldn't."

 

I want to run. I want to scream for Claire to help me and also scream for her to run so she's not a casualty of my mistakes. But the music is so loud and my lungs are now taking in only tiny amounts of oxygen in short, hysterical bursts.

 

The man straightens up and pulls me away, swiftly, then turns me towards the stage. His left hand is suddenly on my lower stomach and it feels as if that's all that keeps me upright. His right hand starts tracing circles on my upper back. The entire back of my body is on fire, awash in the heat of his body up against mine. He's almost a foot taller than I am and I can tell his broad shoulder is just behind my head. He leans down and I feel the lightest touch of his scruff against the shell of my ear.

 

"I didn't mean to scare you," he whispers again. "I'm not here to hurt you. Listen to the music. And breathe. Just breathe."

 

His hands keep their hold on me, one steady against my core and the other swirling patterns across my back. Every few seconds he whispers to me again, urging me to breathe with him. Shushing and soothing me. His breath remains a feathery, warm breeze across my neck carrying the soft scent of whiskey and honey. The first deep breath I manage draws in a light scent of wild grasses, pine, and cotton.

 

He's everywhere. Not one part of me isn't fully aware of only him. 

 

"My name is Bobby," he murmurs. Before I can stop myself my eyes close and I lean back, my head resting in the hollow directly below his collarbone. His hand on my back stills, then slowly slides down my right arm. His fingers, calloused but gentle, slide over the back of my hand and work their way into the tight fist at my side. My fingers loosen up a bit as his thumb caresses my knuckles.

 

"Janey," I whisper. And I hope he realizes it's my name because I haven't the breath yet to explain anything else.

 

I just gave him my name. If he wasn't sure it was me, I just confirmed it for him.

 

He never even had to ask.

 

"Watch the show with me, Janey. You're going to be fine."

 

I'm not sure I believe him, but right then I don't care. I only know I'd die a thousand deaths in a row if he held me through each one.

 

 Chapter 3: Bobby

 

“There's gotta be a record of you some place
You gotta be on somebody's books
The lowdown - a picture of your face
Your injured looks”

 

On Every Street by Dire Straits

 

Janey. I expected something a bit more punk rock. Oddly, it fits her.

 

She seems to be calming down, but I still feel like a shit heel. Not the smoothest way to introduce myself to a woman. Despite my guilt over causing a panic attack, I'm ok with how things played out. She's so focused on trying to breathe that she doesn't notice the scuffle at the bar. Thankfully, since the show began, most of the patrons have migrated closer to the stage, away from the bar.

 

All except the grease ball. 

 

After our telephone conversation, Nunzio came down from his office upstairs. I chance a peek over my shoulder and lock eyes with Vinny, who leans casually behind the bar and slowly dries a glass with a white rag. He gives me a nod and I know the coast is clear.

 

I bend down a bit and whisper again in her ear. "You hangin' in there, Janey?"

 

Her hair smells like strawberries.

 

She's staring at the stage and nods without speaking. I notice she's trying to pull her hand from mine. I let go but rest my hand on her right hip instead.

 

"You're not from here," she says, and licks her lips. Her voice sounds stronger, less breathy. "Are you from New York?"

 

"Has my accent given me away?" I reply.

 

She doesn't answer. Instead she starts trembling. Her hands are fisted again.

 

Interesting.

 

"Hey," I whisper, and then I lift my hand from her stomach to cup her cheek, turning her head so she looks at me. "Let me buy you a drink to try and make up for giving you a heart attack."

 

I smile and do my best to convey kindness. Innocence. Convince her I'm just an average guy in a bar trying to hit on a pretty lady.

 

I'm not sure I succeed.

 

She does blush a bit though, and I'm guessing she's a little embarrassed about freaking out like that in public. She rolls her lips together and I realize I'm staring at her mouth.

 

I grab her hand and head over to the bar.

 

I lead Janey to the end furthest from the stage, down near the door. Near where her stalker had been a few minutes ago. Vinny heads over and greets me by name, asking what he can get us. We both ask for whiskey, and I throw some money up on the bar.

 

I glance over and she's staring at me, her face pale and fingers knotted together.

 

"Have you lived here long?" she asks me.

 

"A couple years now," I answer. I notice she exhales with a shaky sigh and her shoulders seem to relax a bit.  "How about you?"

 

"Just moved down a few months ago," Janey says. Then, after looking down at her fingers as they fidget in her lap, she whispers, "Also from New York."

 

"No shit," I reply.

 

Oh shit.

 

I ask her what part and she tells me she was raised on Long Island, but living in Queens just prior to moving.  "What brought you down here?" I ask.

 

I wonder if she knows on any level how important her answer is. Or how it could change everything.

 

She shrugs. "I guess I just needed a break from New York." She hesitates before continuing. "And New Yorkers."

 

Vinny places our drinks in front of us on the bar and backs away. I barely look up at him. Instead, I stare at her. She reaches over and takes a gulp of the whiskey, then looks at me to meet my gaze. Her eyes are wide and curious and I think maybe she's convinced herself I'm not a threat. For a moment I am lost, drifting away in the warm brown pools flecked with gold that pick up the lights from above the bar like a lake at sunset.

 

And then I almost convince myself that she's right. That I'm not a threat to her.

 

I shake my head a bit and ask "You needed a break from New Yorkers? Why is that?"

 

Janey tilts her head to the right a bit and shrugs. "They're bossy."  She says it like any idiot knows it.

 

I laugh. "Yeah, I guess so."

 

She offers me a weak grin, then looks toward the stage. The concert is still going. She reaches into her back pocket, pulls out her phone, and starts typing away. When she's done she reaches for her drink and downs it. Then turns to me.

"Thanks for the drink. I'm going to head home." She starts to slide off the bar stool, so I quickly rise and manage to end up standing between her legs. She freezes, one hand clutching the bar, the other on the back of her stool. Her eyes drag their way up my chest, throat, and land on my eyes.

 

I lean down until my cheek is next to hers.

 

Strawberries.

 

"I didn't mean to ruin the concert for you. Stay until it's over."

 

She pulls back until her eyes are level with mine again. "You're being bossy," she says. Her voice waivers.

 

I smirk at her. "Yes, I am."

 

She lifts a hand and places it on my chest, the lightest trace of pressure. I concentrate on keeping my heart beat steady. Like her hand there doesn't affect me.

 

Her hand on my chest does not matter.

 

I'm not sure it works. Especially after I let my hands fall on the tops of her thighs.

 

Her eyes stay locked on mine and she licks her lips. I watch as she swallows and takes a deep breath. Then she says, "I want to go home, Bobby. Are you going to let me leave?"

 

I know that this question is as important as the one I asked her about leaving New York. I know her truth goes a lot deeper than simply wanting a break from bossy New Yorkers. And depending on how the rest of my evening plays out, I know someone is going to have to get the truth from her. Whether or not she will allow that someone to be me will largely depend upon my answer to this question.

 

She has to believe she's safe with me.

 

So I grin. I take a step back and shove my hands into my jean pockets.

 

"Of course, Janey. I just feel bad that I ruined your evening. Did you drive here?"

 

She relaxes a bit back into her seat and grins back at me. It's not a huge smile, but it's genuine and her face looks at ease. "No," she replies. "I'm going to call a cab."

 

"Sit tight," I tell her. "Vinny calls for people all the time. He'll get a cab here in minutes." Before she answers, I raise my hand in Vinny's direction and he sidles over. I put my hand on her back and say "Vinny, could you call a cab for my friend Janey?"

 

There's a slight hitch in his step, something I'm sure she wouldn't notice, before he nods and reaches for his phone under the bar to make the call.

 

That's right, Vinny. My friend.

 

Before dawn, no matter what happens with the douchebag Nunzio dragged out of here earlier, word will have already spread that she's not to be touched.

 

"Thank you Bobby," she sighs.

 

I look down at her. "No problem. It's the least I can do." And before I can say anything else, her friend, the redhead, appears at her side.

 

"Janey! I got your text!" she exclaims, almost bouncing around Janey's bar stool. "What do you mean you're leaving? The show's not even over!"

 

Janey looks sheepish and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. She glances at me and then looks back at her friend. "I know Claire; I'm just not feeling well. I didn't want to interrupt you; I just wanted you to know I was heading out so you don't worry. Go back and enjoy the concert."

 

But by the time she's done Claire's eyes have flicked over Janey, me, my hand still on her friend's back, and a slow grin has been spreading across her face.

 

"Riiiiiight," she says. She sticks her hand out to me. "Hi. I'm Claire. And you are?"

 

I smile and take my hand from Janey's back to shake Claire's proffered hand. "I'm Bobby. Bobby Michaels. Nice to meet you."

 

"You look familiar," she says, squinting her eyes at me. "Where have I seen you?"

 

Janey's eyes are wide as she glances back and forth between me and Claire. "I'm not sure," I reply.

 

"Well, I'll figure it out. Maybe I've just seen you downtown," she says. Then Claire turns to Janey without even attempting to hide the huge shit eating grin on her face. "So you guys are headed out?"

 

Janey's face flushes pink and she shakes her head as her eyes widen. "No," she says as she glances up at me. "No, just me. I'm just leaving. It's not like that."

 

Not yet, passerotto.

 

Claire looks over Janey's head at me. I grin and shrug, a typical guy trying to pick up her friend.

 

"Well it was nice meeting you Bobby," she says. "Hope to see you around sometime. Janey, text me when you get home so I know you got in ok."

 

Claire turns and heads off towards the stage. Janey rises and my hand returns to her back as we head towards the door. She takes a step to the side, putting a little space between us. I lean over and whisper in her ear. "I'm not letting you stand out there alone to wait for the cab.  Friends look out for each other."

 

She nods, her hands in her pockets. She looks up at me from beneath her lashes. "Thanks," she whispers. I get another shaky grin out of her.

 

I open the door for her and the cab pulls up just as we are approaching the curb. "Wait here," I tell her. I head over to the driver's side of the cab and lean down.

 

I pull a hundred dollar bill out of my pocket and slip it to the driver. His name is Craig or Greg, something like that. He's been working with Johnny for a while now. In a low voice I tell him, "Stay until you know she got in safely. Then circle around a few times to make sure everything looks fine. Call Vinny with her address."

 

He doesn't bat an eye. "You got it," he mumbles.

 

I head back to Janey. She looks at me with a question in her eyes. Before she can ask I tell her, "I asked him to stay until you are safely inside. I took care of the fare."

 

"Oh no," she protests. "I can't let you do that."

 

"I scared the shit out of you, Janey," I argue. "I ruined your whole evening. You're leaving early because of me. Yeah. I can do this. I just did it."

 

She looks past me at the cab, like she's trying to decide something. Finally she looks back up at me. I take a step towards her so we're almost toe to toe. Under the street lights, the flecks of gold in her eyes look like grains of sand. I could swear I'm standing on the shore just then, because the ground beneath me seems to be shifting.

 

"It's not your fault," she says in a steady voice. "You have nothing to make up to me. This isn't my first panic attack. Probably won't be my last. I'm sorry that you had to deal with that. I ruined your night too, you know."

 

It's the most she's said to me all night.

 

I reach up slowly, pull a lock of her hair in front of her shoulder and twirl it, before tucking it back behind her ear. I never take my eyes off hers. I'm surprised she hasn't backed away.

 

"You definitely didn't ruin my night," I say. "Who the fuck is that guy performing, anyway?"

 

She lets out a shocked laugh and I know that no matter what else happens tonight, this is my favorite part of the evening.

 

"Frank Turner?" she asks, sounding shocked. "He's the best! His lyrics are amazing. Why are you here if you don't know him?"

 

"I know you haven't been here all that long," I answer with a laugh, "but you have to know by now that nothing else is going on in this town tonight."

 

She rolls her eyes. "Ok, good point." She takes a step back. "Cab's waiting. Thanks again. For everything."

 

I reach out and take her hand. "Give me your number."

 

"Why?" she asks. She keeps backing away.

 

"So I can see you again," I answer. And I don't grin. I don't whisper. My voice sounds rough, even to me. Because at some point she's going to see the real me. Know everything I am. Of this I'm sure.

 

Maybe if she sees a peek now and then, it won't be such a shock.

 

Doubtful, asshole.

 

"No!" She answers so forcefully it almost comes out as a shout. "Thank you, but no," she says quieter. She pulls her hand from me and moves to walk past me towards the waiting cab.

 

"Do you have a boyfriend? A husband? Whose ass do I need to kick for leaving you alone on a Saturday night?"

 

She keeps walking. "I have neither. But if I did, you could forget that ass kicking bullshit. We don't live in caves, you know." She climbs in the cab and shuts the door.

 

I lightly rap on the window. I see as she reaches over and locks her door, but there's a hint of a grin and she rolls down her window halfway. She raises her eyebrows expectantly.

 

"Give me your number, Janey."

 

"No," she answers. Then she looks straight ahead.

 

I bend down so my face is level with hers. She doesn’t take her eyes off the windshield before her, like there’s a movie playing up there or something.

 

"Why?" I ask.

 

She turns to look me in the eyes.

 

"Because you're being bossy." Then she rolls up the window, signals the driver, and they leave.

 

*************

 

Ten minutes later I pull down a quiet alley, my headlights off. Nunzio is leaning against the brick wall smoking. He wears a black tank top and jeans. His work boots are perpetually untied.  Down his right forearm is a tattoo. The word "Justice" in a gothic font. Next to him is the back entrance of Johnny's garage. The cab stand is two blocks away.

 

I stop in front of him.

 

"It's a bigger fucking problem than you thought," he says quietly. "His name's Gino. It's not personal. He was hired to find her. Get rid of her. And he recognized Johnny."

 

"What the fuck?" I hiss.

 

"Took Johnny a while to remember his name," Nunzio replies. "The fucker didn't want to share it with us. Willingly, anyway."

 

I run my hands through my hair and stare up at the stars. I remember how many there were when I first arrived in Blessing. More than I'd ever seen from the streets of New York. I don't know if it's because of the lone light in the alley, or because of the gold flecks in Janey's eyes that made me feel like I was drowning, or because of the visitor tucked away in the dark of Johnny's garage, but the sky looks a lot emptier.

 

Like it is caving in above me.

 

"So does Johnny remember anything else about him?" I ask.

 

"Only that he was just a soldier under Frankie's regime," he mumbles.

 

I give a low whistle. "That far back?"

 

"You gotta remember, Johnny's been down here since ‘88. That guy in there barely had nut hair back then. That's why Johnny didn't recognize him right away."

 

I look at Nunzio. "But he recognized Johnny?"

 

Nunzio stared back at me before slowly nodding. "Right away, Bobby." He looks down at his feet, then back up at me. "They never forget. We know that."

 

"I'm going in to handle this," I answer after a pause.

 

"Figured you would," he says as he pushes off the wall with his foot. He puts his hand on the door knob leading inside, then turns back to me. "What about her?"

 

I look him in the eyes and take a breath before answering.

 

"I got her," I reply.

 

He shakes his head and looks down. Then opens the door and softly says, "Figured that too" as I pass him and enter the garage.

 

When the door shuts behind us it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. There, in the middle of the 4 car bays typically used to maintain Johnny's taxi fleet, sits a chair. Gino is strapped to it with duct tape. His lip is split. One eye is swelling. His hair is sweaty and limp. Blood stains the front of his suit.

 

The chair sits in the center of a blue tarp. I see dark splotches on the ground around the chair.

 

Johnny emerges from the darkness behind Gino and walks towards Nunzio and me. He lifts his chin in greeting. He's wearing gray slacks and a white dress shirt that's unbuttoned at the top. His sleeves are rolled up and his belly hangs over his belt. His knuckles are red and raw, but his white shirt is spotless.

 

Almost old enough to be my father and the guy hasn't lost his touch.

 

"You got this?" he asks.

 

I nod at him. "Nunz caught me up."

 

He claps me on the shoulder and smiles. "Text Nunz when you're ready. I'm fuckin’ starving. We'll go grab a bite to eat."

 

They leave without another word.

 

I walk around Gino and the tarp and grab another chair from the office. I carry it over and place it in front of Gino. Close enough that he and I can chat, but far enough away that he won't be able to reach me with his mouth if he starts feeling brave.

 

Or desperate.

 

He sits with his head staring at his lap.

 

"Gino," I say quietly.

 

"Go fuck yourself," he answers, sounding like rocks are banging around in the base of his throat.

 

"Gino. I need you to look at me." Then I pull my phone out and turn on the screen, aiming it at my face. I want him to be able to see clearly.

 

He looks up and his good eye widens. "Are you shitting me?" he rasps. "What the fuck is this place?"

 

I knew if he'd recognized Johnny, he'd recognize me as well.

 

"That doesn't matter to you anymore," I answer. My voice is steady and I lean forward so my elbows rest on the tops of my legs. I shut the light off from my phone, but Gino and I still stare at each other.

 

"Do you have a family, Gino? Anyone you love?"

 

He laughs quietly. Then he speaks without malice. Very matter of fact. "Seriously. Go fuck yourself."

 

I don't take it personal.

 

"Gino, we both know how this is ending. Before I offer you the only options you've got left in this life, I want you first to imagine the person you love most in the world. Maybe it's a pretty woman who runs her hands through your hair when you fuck her. Or maybe you've got a kid somewhere who thinks the sun shines out of your ass."

 

Gino twitches.

 

Bingo.

 

"Boy or girl?" I ask him.

 

"Fuck off," he replies.

 

"You really want me looking into it?  You want me getting close enough to your son to break his fucking legs? Or maybe I'll pay my friendly neighborhood pedophile to search out your daughter's address and-"

 

"A daughter!" he shouts. "And you're a sick, sick fuck."

 

I smile.

 

"What happens to that kid when you don't come home? Ever again. Did you ever take the time to get shit in order in case you were to disappear?"

 

Gino stays silent, but I see shit is spinning behind his eyes.

 

"Christmas going to be lean this year if Daddy's not around? Maybe college is no longer an option."

 

I chuckle.

 

"Maybe her home gets lost to the bank. Or someone even less forgiving."

 

"What the fuck is your point, asshole?" he snarls.

 

"Gino, I thought we lived by a code," I whisper. I lean over a little more so I'm sure he hears me. "I joined because of that code. You know who I am. So you probably know my story. You probably know I didn't follow a father or uncle into this life. I followed the code. It was the only thing that made sense to me."

 

Gino tilts his head. Then he leans forward and quietly asks, "Are we on fucking Oprah? You gonna suck my dick soon?"

 

I look down at the floor and shake my head.  I start speaking so softly, you'd think I sat hunched in church praying to God.

 

But there's no room for God here.

 

"Gino, the next few minutes of your pathetic life are going to determine the rest of your kid's life.  Don't forget that. Not even for a second. Because if you fuck with me again you're going to end up in the freezer. And I'll deliver a piece of you to your daughter every goddamn year for her birthday and Christmas. I'll never stop hunting her down."

 

I look up and stare into Gino's eyes. One almost swollen shut and the other wide with fear.

 

"I have nothing to live for anymore. I know you know that much about me. So keep fucking with me. Please. Because I'm itching to have a purpose in life again.  She'll never get away from my special deliveries. A finger one year. A shriveled nut another year. I'll save your blackened fucking heart for last. Or maybe your head."

 

Gino shudders.

 

Glad we got that straightened out, you useless dickhead.

 

"You're going to answer all my questions. If I think you're lying, I'll start preparing your body for your daughter's surprise deliveries while you are still alive. We'll take it nice and slow so you know exactly what she'll get for her birthday each year for the rest of her life. Because we both know she'll kill herself before I ever run out of gifts."

 

Gino looks up at the ceiling.

 

"Look at me you fat sack of shit," I growl at him.

 

His eyes meet mine again and I soften my expression.

 

"But if you tell me the truth, I'll make it quick. And I'll also make sure that the only delivery your daughter receives is a payment. A sum of money large enough to ensure she can live in the lifestyle to which she's grown accustomed. Better, even."

 

Gino is already shaking his head.

 

"I'm not a moron. You really think I'm some kind of moron?"

 

I sigh. "I do think you're a moron, but I'm not fucking with you. Why would I do that? I still live by that code. It's not dead to me like it is to the fucks who ended my life as I knew it. I don't want to kill you. But we both know I have to. So I'll do what is right by your family. If you cooperate."

 

Gino stares at me for a minute. I've got all night.

 

"How do I know she'll get it?"

 

I smile and stand up, patting Gino on the shoulder.

 

"You're smarter than you look, Gino," I tell him.  Then I bend a bit to speak into his ear. "I'll be right back with my laptop."

 

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