Poughkeepsie, p.25
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       Poughkeepsie, p.25

           Debra Anastasia
 

  And so, despite his better judgment, here he was. The deal was simple: eliminate Beckett Taylor, however dirty the job became. Craig had hired a crew of trained mercenaries. They didn’t come cheap, but they did come professional. And he’d never have found them without his contact.

  Craig had never planned anyone’s death before, and sometimes his hands shook when he thought of the enormity of his actions. But he was only speeding up the inevitable. Taylor would have been dead soon enough anyway, he often reminded himself.

  He pulled his Jag into a spot at the burger joint. If he didn’t pull this off, they’d finally repo this car. I might have to get a job here to make fucking money. This has to work.

  The back booth contained a nondescript man eating an equally blasé burger. He didn’t look up as Craig sat down.

  After slowly polishing off his fries and looking everywhere but at Craig, the contact spoke up. “Now’s the moment, if you’re ready.”

  Craig swallowed the burning in his throat and felt cold sweat trickle into his suit pants. I have no other options. “Go over our deal one more time,” he said, finding his voice. “Explain it like I’m a little kid.” Craig clasped his sweating hands under the table.

  “My boss will only respond to great force. You have to hit him hard and close. He has only two weaknesses that I’ve observed: his brothers. You get the brothers, you get the man.”

  The contact made a giant, crumpled ball out of his wrappers and ketchup packets. “The men skilled in the talents we discussed are on standby right now. All I need is the go from you.”

  Instead Craig finished the plan. “Then you’ll run his organization because you’re his right-hand man. You’ll sell me the strip mall and clear out the riff-raff. We’ll be partners in my new renovated section of town. Easy. Simple.”

  The contact looked bored. “It won’t be easy or simple. Don’t underestimate Beckett. I can handle my part, but you need to follow my directions to the letter.”

  “Go,” Craig said. “You have my permission.” He wiped sweat from his upper lip.

  The contact nodded, got up, and disappeared. Craig looked at the ball of trash in front of him. It would all be over soon.

  Beckett Taylor was a horrendous person. This opportunity had fallen in Craig’s lap, and he’d simply jumped on it. You have to be able to jump quickly with investments.

  Craig left the ball on the table, earning him a dirty look from an employee patrolling with a broom and an overworked rag. He sat for a moment once he was back in his Jag. One of the two brothers would be paying for their unfortunate connection to Taylor right about…now.

  Merkin smiled as he slid into a drug runner’s car. He texted the eight men he’d looked long and hard to find. His smile slipped for a moment as he stuffed down the gnawing pain that Beckett’s brothers had to be involved. He still hoped he’d need only one to force Beckett out into the open. He texted the orders to his point man. The team had kept track of the easiest brother to find: Cole, always at his stupid church.

  Merkin took a deep breath. He couldn’t second-guess himself now. For at least a year he’d been looking for a way out—with a windfall. When he’d first joined Beckett’s organization, he’d hoped to be chosen second in command. He was by far the most talented with technology. Christ, that was how he’d found Craig in the first place. Keeping watch on the local newspaper and following through with some backup hacking had paid off. He knew more about Craig’s plans and finances than Craig did.

  He hadn’t wanted to do this. Mouse was close to Beckett, but the knitter had no head for business, so his path was clear—or so he thought. He kept waiting for something to happen, for Beckett to bring him into the fold. But he never did. Then Eve had come along and condemned Merkin to eternal second class. There wasn’t jack shit she couldn’t do. And judging from the screams in the office not long ago, her pussy was made of solid gold.

  He was lucky if he was third in command at this point. Who really knew.

  The point man texted back:

  Subject in church. One female on premises. Terminate?

  Merkin rolled his head on his neck; these were the kind of quick, hard decisions he’d have to get used to. He texted his answer and closed the phone. Merkin knew he had to get back to Eve now. Everything was about to happen real fast, and he needed her far away from Beckett.

  He pulled in the parking lot of Beckett’s strip mall office to find the usual stragglers milling around. Beckett’s Hummer was gone, along with the vehicles that usually accompanied it, but a quick check of everyone’s cell phone GPS chips let Merkin know where they were. At least he was still in charge of whereabouts. Mouse was in the fucking Jo-Ann Fabrics. Beckett was at a bank downtown, and Eve was inside Beckett’s strip mall by herself.

  He grabbed the douchebag guarding the front door. “Aunt Betty’s coming to visit. Eve and I have the interior. Clear the exterior.”

  Soon the people in the lot scrambled. The code for “police on the way” worked like magic. Merkin knew this only bought him an hour or so, but he hoped that was all he’d need. He knocked on Beckett’s office door.

  “Enter.” Her voice was husky and sexy.

  She sat behind his desk, twirling a knife in her hand—flipping it from finger to finger like a secretary with a pencil.

  “Better head out, Eve.”

  “You cleared the lot for the cops?” She gathered her hair in one hand and twirled it into a bun. She slid the knife in to hold it in place.

  “I cleared it. Told the douchebags it was the cops, but it’s not.” Merkin tried not to let his voice trip. “The boss told me to tell you to leave. He’s on his way with a few new hookers. He said to tell you, and I quote, ‘I got what I fucking wanted. I’m a hit-it-and-quit-it kind of bastard. She’s fired.’”

  Eve didn’t move. No emotion at all. Merkin had been very careful with his choice of words, and he really thought he’d gotten Beckett’s curses down pat. Come on…Believe me. Get mad. Leave.

  She stood. “When does he arrive?”

  “He didn’t want me to tell you. He said, ‘She needs to be a man and leave. You play, you fucking pay.’” Merkin let the rejection marinate in her brain. “I’m sorry, Eve. I really thought you two were good for each other. He can’t be tamed, I guess.” Merkin looked at his shoes with faux embarrassment for her situation.

  Eve went to a trunk in Beckett’s office. She pulled out a huge duffle bag and began plucking guns off the wall. She grabbed fistfuls of ammunition boxes from the shelves and piled them in as well.

  “You better get out of here, Merkin. Leave now.” Eve slung two Uzis over her shoulders.

  When she turned he got a glimpse of her eyes. She was furious. Fantastic.

  She stomped out to the front lobby and cracked open the door to what Beckett had dubbed the “Oh Shit Closet.” Merkin had to look twice to be sure, but she had pulled a rocket-propelled grenade launcher out of its depths. Holy fuck.

  The actual rockets came next. Eve held the warheads with an unsettling expertise. She propped up the launcher and positioned the rocket with a sliding, metal-on-metal click. Watching her tuck the two other large rockets into her belt was almost comical—if they hadn’t been fully equipped to blow everything to hell and back.

  She kicked open the glass doors and headed for the center of the parking lot. Merkin jumped in his car. He realized that when Eve had said leave now earlier, she’d meant, “Leave at this moment. I’m not warning you again.” Merkin floored the car and didn’t even let himself look back. Eve just might do this job for me!

  Cole finished making two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread. He added two cold cans of orange soda and put it all on the tray Father Callahan sometimes used as a table to watch TV while he ate in his room.

  After laughing and kissing and promising, he and Kyle were starving. He’d left her in his room, waiting, with the door closed. Saturdays were Father Callahan’s time to visit the housebound members of his congr
egation, offering them communion and prayer. Cole knew he had the church to himself for at least another three hours. He’d put two and two together and figured Livia had diverted the Pew Crew. He had to remember to thank her later. After investigating the parking lot, he knew her car was now gone.

  He tried not to topple the tray as he hurried down the hallway to his small room. Kyle was all his for a few more hours. He let the happiness come from his feet to the top of his head.

  But then the hallway felt wrong. There was too much air, lack of a barrier somewhere. His bedroom door was open.

  Kyle probably had to use the bathroom.

  That made sense, so Cole wasn’t sure why his internal alarms were still going off. He could have done so many things differently in that instant—whether or not it would’ve changed the outcome, he’d never know—but he proceeded calmly. This was his safe, comforting church. His soul had finally found the arms of his beloved. Kyle.

  The splintered doorframe changed his mind from human to reptilian. He threw the tray through the doorway and entered with a scream.

  Two men held Kyle, who’d been silenced with thick duct tape over her mouth. Focused on her, Cole never noticed the man just inside the doorway. The taser hit him in the neck. He fell, numb, but started flailing as soon as his body hit the ground. Animal. Primal.

  Another stun blasted him.

  “Fuck—is he on crack or something?” one of the men asked. But Cole looked only for her.

  His limbs tingled and refused to cooperate. The men in the room wore surgical masks. He screamed again. His own name coming from the stun gun operator stopped his flailing.

  “Cole, calm down or we’ll do more than kill her.”

  Rage nearly melted his brain. He saw the set of plastic ties just before his wrists were bound together.

  Oh. God. No. My hands. I can’t. Kyle.

  She seemed to be nodding, calm for his benefit. Duct tape with a gag attached was wound around his head. They pulled him to his knees and bound his ankles. He almost looked like he was praying.

  Cole willed himself to have superhuman strength and strained against the ties.

  The man who’d tied his bindings whispered in Cole’s ear. “Fun being the brother of a mobster, huh?”

  Cole could not look away from Kyle’s eyes. The whispering man pulled Cole’s cell phone from his pocket. He scrolled through the options before pointing the phone at Cole. The phone’s camera was still factory-programmed with a happy “Say Cheese” before the sound of a camera shutter.

  “Now that’s just lovely,” the man sneered. He turned the phone to show Cole the image of himself, bound and gagged. “I’m gonna send that to a special recipient when the time is just right.”

  Beckett, of course.

  It was a message, a warning, and a threat with the press of a single button. Cole was bait.

  The picture-taker hefted Cole over his shoulder. Cole lost sight of Kyle’s eyes.

  “Did you get anything back from him? What’d he say? Kill her?” asked one of the attackers.

  I love you. Dear Jesus. I love her. No. No.

  Cole knew what the chemical smell on the cloth over his nose meant. He took one breath, and his last conscious thought was simple: Kyle.

  29

  Don’t Give Up on Me. Please.

  LIVIA CRINGED AT HER father’s words and looked over at Blake. He’d stopped his practice handshake mid-swing. Livia watched hope die in his eyes. Blake had wanted to meet John man to man. But now…

  Blake tried to smile at Livia, but only one side of his lip went up. Livia interrupted her father before he could say anything else.

  “Dad, I have my friend, Blake Hartt, here to meet you.” Livia tried to convey warning and begging with her eyes.

  John stepped in and took off his hat. Livia felt every emotion her heart could hold when Blake stepped forward to greet her father, despite the words he’d just heard. John assessed Blake while rubbing a thumb over his mouth. Livia reached out to touch Blake’s lower back. She outlined a heart with her finger. I’m proud of you, no matter what happens here.

  Livia knew where to start—she’d learned from Blake’s wonderful manners.

  “John McHugh, this is Blake Hartt. Blake, this is my father.” Livia left her hand on Blake’s back, hoping to convey her attachment and acceptance.

  Blake nodded and held out his hand, which John grasped firmly. “Sir, it’s a pleasure to see you again. I owe you such gratitude for your many acts of kindness.”

  John stepped back from their handshake. “It’s no problem,” he grumbled.

  Livia looked from one man to the other. Her father looked embarrassed, and Blake’s shoulders showed a certain slump Livia recognized from before they’d first spoken—when they had just her smiles between them.

  “Wait—hold the phone. You two know each other?” Livia felt a little lightheaded.

  John shuffled his feet and observed the movement as if it was endlessly fascinating.

  Blake turned to Livia. “We were never formally introduced. When your father sees me at the train station from his patrol car, he often stops by later in the day with a bagged meal that he refuses to let me turn down. You, Livia, inherit your generous nature from him.”

  Blake did his best to seem cool and collected, but irony coated the room, thick and palpable. Blake ever buying an oven seemed a reckless dream. His homelessness came into sharp relief.

  Livia held tight to her heart. This doesn’t change anything. Blake’s the right person for me.

  John twisted his hat in his hands and stayed silent.

  “Dad, thank you. I had no idea. I wish I’d been smart enough to do that very thing for Blake sooner.” She grabbed Blake’s hand with both of her own and put a kiss on the back of it, forcing a jaunty wink and smile.

  He looked at her, but he was only a shadow now. Livia gave him a warning look. He shook his head sadly and in total defeat. Standing in the house of a man who’d brought him food, with his daughter holding his hand, seemed to break some sort of honor code for Blake.

  Livia felt her heart beating in her ears. “Don’t give up on me. Please,” she said softly.

  He nodded and took a deep breath.

  Livia looked at her father’s uniform as if for the first time. His badge had just a number, nothing that said John McHugh and no way for Blake to know he’d been about to meet a benefactor who’d seen him at his worst and taken pity on him.

  Livia watched Blake crumble like ash from a burnt cigarette. One stiff wind and he would disintegrate.

  John seemed to note Livia’s distress. “Hey, did you guys eat? Should I order a pizza?”

  More food offered to Blake. Livia knew what he was thinking—that he hadn’t earned it. Crap.

  “No. Thank you, sir. Livia was kind enough to make me a meal. I appreciate the offer. I would imagine you might wish to spend some private moments with your daughter right now.” Blake made a motion for the door.

  Livia squeezed his hand. I’m not letting you go.

  Blake turned to John. “I know you already know this, Mr. McHugh, but your daughter is the most exceptional person I’ve ever had the honor of meeting. She’s a testament to your dedication as a parent.” He squeezed Livia’s hand back.

  “Livia and her sister always do me proud. I only want the best for them.” John said the words with kindness, but Livia heard them through Blake’s ears. Disappointment and suspicion were sandwiched around fatherly pride.

  “Again, sir. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Blake leaned in and shook John’s hand once more.

  Livia looked at her dad. “I’ll be right back. I’ll whip you up something for dinner. Don’t order in.”

  She watched as Blake slid the mask out from beneath her sunglasses and pocketed it discreetly. He held the door open for her and followed close behind. She smiled a little when she felt him sniff her hair. Under the little awning over the front door, Blake remained in the shade.

  He seemed t
o be drinking in her face, looking at her instead of into her.

  “Stop. Stop that. This isn’t goodbye.”

  Blake pulled her left hand to his mouth and kissed her ring finger. “I’m still glad it’s empty. He never deserved you. Of that, I’m very sure.”

  Livia saw moisture in his eyes. “You’re saying goodbye. No. Here’s what I’m sure of. I’ll walk away from this house right now, wearing only what I have on my back and be happy. With you I can taste forever—it’s right here.” Livia pointed at her lips and then kissed his.

  Blake allowed the kiss, but mumbled a question as well, “How many shotguns does he have?”

  “Not enough to get me away from you.” Livia traced his jaw.

  Blake took her hand and kissed her palm, then her forehead, “Livia, go in there and let him talk to you. He’s a father. I’d want to talk to my daughter at a moment like this. Let’s give him that respect.”

  “I will not go in there. Where will you go?” Livia felt a gentle tug on her heart. She was torn. She wanted to comfort her dad and get him to understand who Blake was, but in as little time as possible so she could get back to Blake.

  “My inamorata, you know where I’ll be: where I’ll always be. Waiting. For you.” Blake began putting the mask on.

  Livia looked around wildly, feeling close to irrational. “I don’t want you to go.” These words were inadequate to express her need.

  Blake smoothed her hair away from her face. “I’ve often wished I had a father. Let me help him be that. He needs you to himself for a just a little while.”

  Livia’s love for her dad gave her the strength to step back and nod. She stood on the porch and watched Blake’s retreating form. Every once in a while he turned to wave, and just before he reached the end of her street, he stopped to look at her. Neither of them waved this time.

 
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