I was having a bad day.
The ugly thug facing me readied himself for the next swing. “What did you say, bastard?” His red-splattered knuckles were ready for the next round; my body wasn’t.
“I’m haffin a fah fay,” I managed to repeat through a mouthful of saliva and blood.
That made Julian Ragazzo, former welterweight boxing champ and top bodyguard to the city’s prime Italian Mafia family, smile. His wet beard glistened with sweat beads around stained teeth. Glad one of us was happy.
I took stock of the damage Ragazzo had already done. Broken nose, check. Split lip, check. Swollen eye, check. Broken rib, double check, and the list went on and on. It could have been worse. The injuries, though painful, weren’t enough to put me in the hospital. Sure, I’d hurt for a week or four, but I’d live to tell the tale outside of a body cast. I knew that, and Ragazzo did, too. This was a game we’d both played before … not that I’d gotten any better at it.
I caught a reflection of myself in the glossy surface of a cabinet door. My messy mop of brown locks was matted with blood on one side and the five o’clock shadow had a hard time concealing a fast-bruising chin. One eye was swollen shut and the other had a pale blue, haunted orb dancing amidst a sea of red veins. I was a mess, and not a hot one.
I closed my good eye and waited for the next blow. The bodyguard didn’t disappoint. A second later, he delivered a power punch and I saw stars. It didn’t help that I was tied to a chair and my already sore shoulders screamed in protest at the added strain. In a noise that only I could hear, my body cried out, ‘How in all the hells was this part of the plan?’ Fair question—it wasn’t.
In truth, there may have been a few glitches here and there. Like those two extra guards at the office building’s back entrance, plus that wrong turn I took on the fourteenth floor. Yeah, okay … the plan was just as screwed as I was.
Ragazzo followed up his haymaker with another kick in the guts. It would have ripped a scream out of me if I’d had any breath left for it. Instead, my lungs just took in short, choppy gasps I couldn’t control.
“Well, well, well … look what the cat dragged in,” taunted an Italian-lilted voice.
I recognized the lazy drawl and opened my good eye to confirm my suspicions. Sure enough, Alonzo Vitorini, Cold City’s resident wannabe kingpin, stood near the entrance in a dark-green pinstriped suit. Shit, looking at his ugly get-up hurt worse than any of Ragazzo’s blows.
Vitorini sauntered into the room, smiling as he noticed my stare. “Like the suit?” he asked, doing a little pirouette to show off this walking insult to fashion.
I wasn’t going to reply, but the second my eye caught sight of the finishing touch, a pair of black-and-white spectator shoes, my mouth kicked into gear on its own.
“Al Capone called,” I wheezed out. “He wants his brogues back.”
Vitorini laughed, the corners of his muddy-green eyes wrinkling. Not sure if he was laughing at the crack or the fact that he was going to kill me for it in another minute or two.
I’d just got out of the shower when she showed up. Same entrance as usual. One second she wasn’t there; the next, she sprawled languidly on my bed. That always gave me the creeps. And how in all the hells could she always have such perfect timing? But I knew better than to question how she appeared from nowhere, disappeared without a trace, or knew the things she knew.
We were old acquaintances and she had seen into my soul and beyond. I had no problem with her seeing my nakedness. And even if I did, I was too worn down to care anyway. I flicked the bedside table lamp on, walked past her, ass-naked, and reached for a shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Someone else may have tried to educate her on social behavior, but I’d long ago given up on the hope that she would ever come to grips with a concept as trifling as privacy.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight,” I said as I shrugged the clothes on. My sore shoulder protested and I winced.
“Why would you?” she replied with a slight accent that was impossible to place.
I glanced at her for clues. Her hair was loose and dark brown again. She had a little makeup on, looked to be anywhere between twenty-five and forty. Her feet were bare and she wore a long and oh-so-thin black dress.
I recognized the look. It was the one I’d dubbed “the Mediterranean” and I knew what it meant. She sat up and her gaze darkened to a coal shade as she took a good, long look at me.
“I’m not in the mood,” I said as I finished pulling down my shirt. I tried hard not to notice the movements her dress made against her feminine curves. But I was a man and no straight man in his right mind could resist giving the attention demanded by that oh-so-perfect cleavage.
“You do not get to choose, mon Bel-Ami,” she said.
Hearing her use my name like that did things to me that no human being could have ignored.
“Or have you forgotten how this works?” she added.
“I haven’t, but no amount of French-silver-tonguing will make me like it,” I retorted. It was a weak protest and we both knew it.
She laughed, a deep, throaty, sultry sound that did things to me I wish it didn’t. Then she moved again, seeming to undulate as she stood to her feet. In two steps she was in front of me, ripe for the taking, temptation personified. She was beautiful, every man’s dream, and she knew it.
“What do you want?” I asked, throat dry.
“A man died tonight,” she murmured. “I want you to investigate.”
The change of topic helped me get my mind off … other things. “For God’s sake, why? Certainly, you would know what happened.”
She remained stock still. It was as if I hadn’t said anything, and maybe I hadn’t as far as she was concerned. She sure had a tendency to only hear what interested her.
I glanced at the clock and saw that it was just past three a.m. “Look,” I told her, “I’ve had a lousy day that doesn’t seem to want to end. I’m more banged up than a crash test dummy right now. So why don’t you and I make an appointment for next Thursday, when I’ll—”
That would be the part she heard clearly. She was on me in a second, swift as a viper. Her cold fingers laced themselves around my throat, pushing me backward until my back hit the wall. The pain of the injuries, which I kept finding new ways to aggravate, registered this time. Must have had something to do with how I felt my feet lift off the ground as she kept me there, pinned like an insect.
“You signed a contract with me, Bellamy Vale,” she hissed. “Your life for a favor. It was granted to you, thus I get your life.”
Her gaze bore into me and her vice-like grip did not relax. I tried to struggle, but she was as immobile as a statue.
“You are mine,” she said. The sexy accent was long gone, replaced by something darker and deadlier. “I see the tapestry of life and I hold your string in one hand and the scissors in the other.”
I’d have swallowed if I could. Instead, I started to suffocate, spots clouding my vision as my heartbeat took up a staccato rhythm. In spite of all that, her arm remained rigid.
“I will cut it when it pleases me,” she continued. “Until then, you are mine and you will do as I command.”
Blood thumped in my ears and I could feel my heart slowing down. I nodded; it was all I could do.