Nick’s right hand throbbed. His body ached. A strong smell of pine disinfectant filled his nostrils. Overhead he saw a white plaster ceiling with brown water stains. He looked down at his feet hanging over the end of the hard cot and struggled to sit up. A wall of steel bars faced him. Grabbing the bars with his left hand, he eased himself up into a standing position. The knuckles on his right hand were swollen and covered with dried blood. Beyond the bars, he saw two more cells on the other side of the narrow room. Loud snoring came from one of them. Light filtered in through a narrow rectangle of glass in a gun-metal gray door to the right.
He shuffled over to a toilet and small stainless basin in the corner of the cell. After urinating, he splashed water on his head and used his filthy tee-shirt to wipe his face. Sitting on the cot, he leaned his aching head against the cold block wall and tried to remember how he ended up in a jail cell.
The sound of a lock turning startled him. The metal door swung open and his grandmother bustled in, followed by the tall, hulking form of Police Captain Brannigan and another younger officer. Brannigan and his grandmother had been friends for years. The captain was a regular guest at the police functions his family’s restaurant hosted. Nick also knew him from some of the scrapes he and his friends had gotten into when they were teenagers. Brannigan was a tough man, but fair.
“Nickie, you all right?” Nonna gripped the bars, her small face pressed against the rungs.
Nick hung his head, too ashamed to meet his grandmother’s eyes. She shouldn’t be in this place, he thought. Though he had little memory of last night, the twisting in his gut told him he had done something terrible. He remembered seeing Katie from the window of the police car. At least he hadn’t killed her.
“Let him out.” Nonna motioned to Brannigan.
“I can’t, Rosa, I told you. I’m not even supposed to let you see him.”
“Humph, some captain you are.”
Brannigan shook his head. “These are serious charges, Rosa. It’s not like when he was kid smoking cigarettes in the park or egging a house on Cabbage Night.”
His grandmother turned back to the cell. “Nickie, what happened? They say you beat up someone? Is this true?”
Nick mumbled, “I don’t remember, Nonna.” He leaned forward on the cot and covered his face with his hands.
“See?” Nonna turned to Brannigan. “I told you. He’s sick. Nickie wouldn’t do this thing you say he did. Let him out. He needs to see a doctor. Maybe he’s hurt.”
The younger officer snorted. “The other guy’s the one who’s hurt, lady.”
Nonna spun around and shook her finger in the patrolman’s face. “Chiudi la bocca! Idiota!”
The cop stepped back and shrugged at Brannigan. The captain stood with his arms crossed, one hand covered the smile on his face.
“The lady asked you to bring the chair over to the cell, Lepkowski,” Brannigan said.
The officer picked up the single straight-backed chair and placed it next to the cell. Nonna settled into it, clutching her floral-print, brocade bag in her lap.
“Five minutes, Rosa. That’s all. And no passing anything into the cell, you hear me?”
Nonna straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Bring my grandson something to eat.”
Lepkowski grinned at Brannigan. “Pushy old lady, huh?”
“She’s right, by law we need to feed him. His arraignment isn’t until after noon. Go make a take-out run,” Brannigan said.
“Asino di cavallo,” Nonna waved her hand at the young cop.
“What did she say?” Lepkowski asked.
“Get him a burger and fries.” Brannigan grinned.
“I didn’t know you spoke Italian, Cap.” The two left the room and closed the door behind them.
“Nickie, come here,” Nonna said.
He slowly stood and took the two short steps to the bars. Nonna reached into her purse and pulled out a gold cross on a long chain. “Take this, Nickie. I had Father Santore bless it this morning especially for you.” She reached a thin arm through an opening in the bars and pushed the medal into Nick’s hand. “Put it on.”
He dropped the chain over his head. The cool, metal cross slid under his tee shirt.
“Tell me what happened. I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me,” Nonna said.
Nick laid his forehead against the steel bars. “I can’t remember, Nonna. Please, go home. I feel terrible seeing you in this place. I’ll be all right.
They both looked up when the metal door opened.
“Rosa, you’ll have to leave now.” Brannigan held out his hand to help her up. “Nick has a visitor across the hall.”
“What visitor? Who?” Nonna asked.
“Katie?” Nick asked.
“An attorney.” Brannigan unlocked the cell and held up a pair of handcuffs.
“What you doing?” Nonna grabbed Brannigan’s arm. “He’s my grandson, not some criminal!”
The captain eyed Nick. “Do I need to cuff you?”
Nick shook his head. The captain kept a strong grip on his arm as he escorted him across the hall to a room with tables, chairs and two barred windows. Nonna followed and squeezed her way into the room past the uniformed officer standing guard.
Inside, a slender, brunette woman dressed in a white blouse, black skirt and jacket sat at a table sorting through the contents of her briefcase.
“Take a seat, Nick.” Brannigan motioned to a metal table with two chairs tucked under it. Nick dragged out one of the chairs and sat.
“Rosa, c’mon, let’s go,” Brannigan said.
“No! Not until my grandson tells me his side of the story.” Nonna crossed her arms and turned her back to the captain.
“Don’t say anything, Mr. Tera.” The brunette stood and walked across the room. Her high heels rapped like small hammers on the tile floor and echoed in the low-ceilinged room.
Nonna moved between Nick and the woman. “Who are you?”
“Lydia Cambridge.” She held out her hand. “Ruby International Promotions retained me to represent Mr. Tera.” Lydia arched one manicured eyebrow. “And you are?”
“Rosa Cipazzio, Mr. Teravelli’s grandmother.” Nonna ignored the woman’s outstretched hand and turned to Nick. She gestured over her shoulder. “You know her?”
Nick shook his head. “The agency must have hired an attorney.”
“That’s a good thing, Rosa. He’s going to need a lawyer,” Brannigan said. “Let me take you home so Ms. Cambridge can do her job.”
Nonna looked the attorney over from head to toe. She cupped Nick’s stubble-covered chin in her hands. “She don’t even know your name. If this puttana doesn’t get you out, I find you a real lawyer. Don’t worry, eh?”
“Rosa.” Brannigan took her arm. “She needs to talk to him before the arraignment. Maybe they’ll post bail and get him released, I don’t know.”
“Nickie, you come home as soon as you get out.” She poked her head back inside the door as Brannigan tried to close it. “Come home!”
Lydia settled into the chair across from him, holding a silver pen and a yellow legal pad. “So, Mr. Tera, tell me everything that happened last night.” Her ice-blue eyes studied him over narrow, dark framed glasses.
“I don’t remember much. I tried, but all I remember is being at my apartment. Then being roughed up by some cops, shoved into a patrol car and brought here.”
“Were you drinking or doing any drugs at your apartment?”
“I don’t do drugs. I might have had a beer or two.”
“Might have had, or did have, Mr. Tera?”
“I told you I can’t remember.”
“Well, did you consent to a Breathalyzer or blood alcohol test?”
“I don’t remember!”
Lydia pursed her thin lips and stood. “All right. I’ll check with the front desk to see if they administered a sobriety test.” She walked to the smaller table and shuffled through a manila folder in her briefcase. “According to the police report, you assaulted a Mr. Jon Gerber in the parking lot of Saint Mary’s Hospital.” She paced around the room holding the report. “Do you know a Jon Gerber?”
“Sort of,” Nick mumbled. “He works with my fiancée.”
“Mr. Gerber is currently in Saint Mary’s Hospital, listed in serious condition. Concussion, broken nose, dislocated jaw, one dislodged tooth, multiple facial lacerations, two requiring stitches, two blackened eyes, one broken rib and multiple contusions on his upper body.”
“God.” Nick pressed his palms against his temples. “I did all that?”
“According to the eyewitnesses, yes. And they are, Andrew Walker, a security guard at the hospital and Katherine Harrington, a registered nurse, also employed at the hospital. Do you know either of them?”
“Katie, um, Katherine Harrington, is, or was, my fiancée.” Nick sank lower in the chair. “Katie’s pressing charges against me?”
“No,” Lydia said. “Actually, she refused to press assault charges against you. The security guard, Mr. Walker, told the police, quote ‘when Ms. Harrington attempted to pull you off Gerber, you violently shoved Ms. Harrington into a parked car, then proceeded toward her in a menacing way’, end quote. However, when questioned by police, she denied the statement. Said she tripped. But she is still an eyewitness to Mr. Gerber’s assault.” Lydia looked at Nick. “You don’t recall any of this?”
“No, I swear I don’t. Is Katie hurt?”
“There’s nothing in the report about any injuries to Ms. Harrington. And she declined offers for medical evaluation.” Lydia continued to read from the document. “Three officers already at the hospital escorting prisoners for medical treatment responded to Mr. Walker’s 9-1-1 call. All three confirm in their report they saw you standing next to Mr. Gerber with bloodied fists. In addition, they claim you resisted arrest and struck a police officer.” She paused and turned to the second sheet of the report. “An Officer Lepkowski wrote in the report, and I quote, ‘appropriate force was used to restrain the suspect’. Do you recall being hit by any police officers?”
Nick stood. “Don’t I get a phone call? I need to call Katie and make sure she’s okay.” His mind swam with thoughts of Katie alone and vulnerable, while he was locked up, helpless to protect her.
“As your attorney, I would strongly advise you not to contact Ms. Harrington.”
“But I have to—”
“Mr. Tera, you have to appear at an arraignment at the courthouse in less than two hours. We have a lot of work to do.” She pulled a cellophane-wrapped package from her case. “First things first,” she said, tossing the package onto the table.
Nick grabbed the new, white dress shirt and hurled it across the room. “What the hell is it with you people? I’m in a damn jail and you’re still obsessed with how I’m dressed!”
Lydia clasped her hands behind her back and rocked on her heels. “Personally, I don’t care how you dress, Mr. Tera. I do, however, prefer my client not appear in front of a judge with the blood of the man he’s accused of assaulting splattered all over his tee shirt.”
She opened the door and signaled to the uniformed policeman standing outside. “This officer will escort you to a washroom. Clean yourself up. Change your shirt.”
“So, what did all that mean in there?” Nick asked Lydia as they climbed into her car in the courthouse parking lot.
“You’ve pled not guilty to the charges and you’ve been released on bail. Mr. Ruby posted the one-hundred-thousand-dollar bond.”
“Hundred grand? Shit.”
“Aggravated assault is a serious charge in this city.” Lydia backed her navy-blue BMW out of the parking space. “Depending on the judge, and prosecutor, it could carry up to a seven-year prison term.”
Nick sat stunned. “I-I’m going to prison?”
Lydia smiled for the first time since Nick met her. “Not if I can help it.”
“What happens now?”
“Well, the bond stipulates you can’t leave the city. There’s usually a series of hearings to determine the exact level of charges against you; motions will be filed on either side, and then a judge will set a trial date.”
“Trial.” Nick leaned his head back against the head rest and closed his eyes. “Seven years, I’m screwed.”
“I don’t plan to let this go that far, Mr. Tera.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Well, right now we’re heading to Mr. Ruby’s office to discuss our options.”
“It doesn’t seem like there are any options.”
“There are always options, Mr. Tera.”
Lydia led the way down the hall to the conference room, located at the opposite end of the corridor from Ruby’s office. Through the large glass window, Nick saw Victor Ruby seated at the head of a long, rectangular conference table. A half dozen men and women sat around the table scouring through papers and typing on laptop computers.
“Lydia,” Ruby said, rising from his chair as the two entered. “Lovely to see you.” They embraced and then Ruby escorted her to an empty chair on his left.
“Nick, sit.” He tapped the chair on his right with his nails. “Looks like you’ve had a rough night.”
Nick sank into the chair and scowled at Ruby. After what Ruby had done to Ray, he wanted to grab his throat and squeeze until Ruby’s eyes protruded from his skull and he took his last gasping breath. But he had to play along or end up in prison. “I’ll pay you the hundred grand you put up for bail.”
“No need, I’m sure we’ll resolve this, and my bond will be refunded. It’s all part of my job.” He winked and flashed his toothy smile. “This is the entertainment industry, you’re not my first client who’s gotten into a bit of a mess.”
Nick snorted. “A big mess. I seriously injured Gerber.”
“Allegedly,” Lydia said.
“You read the list of his injuries on the police report,” Nick said.
“And police reports never lie,” Ruby said. He and Lydia looked at each other and laughed. Ruby thumbed through folders on the table. “Now that you’re both here, let’s see what we have.”
Nick read Katie’s name on one of the folders. “Why do you have a folder with Katie’s name?”
“I have a file on all parties involved,” Ruby replied. He slipped Katie’s file to the bottom of the pile. “Phillip, what have you found?” Ruby stared at a balding man with wire-rimmed glasses.
“Still checking, Mr. Ruby.” Phillip’s voice quivered and his bald head shone with sweat.
“You’ve had three hours. I need information now,” Ruby said.
“Well, sir, uh–I–uh—”
A knock on the glass window interrupted Phillip’s labored reply. Ruby strode over and opened the door to a young man with spiky dark hair. His faded red tee shirt looked a size too small, with That’s How I Scroll printed in white block letters across the front. He carried a tablet and spoke in a low voice to Ruby.
“Phillip!” Ruby barked. “You’re done. Go.”
The bald man’s head jerked up. Sweat trickled from his forehead “A little more time,” he pleaded.
“I said get out.” Ruby flipped his thumb toward the door. Phillip started to close up his laptop.
Ruby placed his hand on the lid. “Leave it.”
Phillip shuffled to the door. He turned and opened his mouth to speak, but then exited. The others at the table kept their heads down and their eyes intent on their work.
“What did you say your name was?” Ruby asked the young man.
“Justin. Justin Gray,” he answered.
“Have a seat, Justin,” Ruby motioned to Phillip’s empty chair. “Is this machine suitable?” He tapped a pointed fingernail on Philip’s abandoned laptop.
“Sweet. More powerful than my tablet.” He fingered the keyboard as he slid into the chair.
“How long do you need?” Ruby asked.
“A minute or two to get set up,” Justin said.
Ruby smiled and elbowed Lydia. She looked over her glasses at the young man who busied himself plugging USB cables into a remote console in the center of the table.
“There’re refreshments if you’re hungry, Lydia, Nick.” Ruby pointed to a table in the corner laden with wrapped sandwiches, bags of chips, soft drinks and a silver coffee urn.
Nick took one of the black ceramic mugs adorned with a metallic red Ruby International Promotions logo and filled it with black coffee.
A hulking man dressed in a grimy denim jacket and black knit cap walked in the door without knocking. Ruby greeted him with a smile and immediately led him to the food table. The man bypassed the stack of plates and napkins and grabbed two wrapped sandwiches and a can of soda. He settled into an upholstered chair in the corner of the room, jammed the soda can between his knees and ripped open a sandwich.
Ruby helped himself to a small bag of potato chips.
“Ready, Mr. Ruby,” Justin said.
“Excellent.” Ruby flicked off the light switch. A large screen lit up on the wall.
It displayed a grainy, black and white picture of a parking lot. Seconds later, Jon Gerber and Katie appeared in the image.
Ruby sat next to Nick and ripped open his chip bag. His dark eyes glittered, intent on the video, as he shoved a handful of chips into his mouth.
Gerber opened the passenger door of his sedan and Katie slid inside. A third figure bolted across the screen and swung his fist into Gerber’s stunned face.
“Jesus, that’s me,” Nick whispered.
Ruby chuckled, leaned back in his chair and crunched the chips between his teeth. Tiny flakes flew from his mouth onto the table.
Although thankful the video had no sound, Nick cringed when he saw himself fling Katie into the side of the car. His stomach knotted at the sight of the dark stains on Gerber’s face and shirt. Three policemen ran into the scene with their guns pointed at Nick’s chest.
Lydia asked, “Is it possible to get a closer view of these next few frames?”
“Sure,” Justin said. The screen froze as Nick took a swing at one of the police officers. Justin tapped a key and the image enlarged in increments before continuing. The same cop turned and punched Nick in the stomach.
“Police brutality?” Ruby asked with a grin. He ran his long tongue around his mouth collecting the chip fragments and then smacked his lips.
“Possibly, although Tera swung first,” Lydia said.
They watched until the cops loaded Nick into a cruiser and the orderlies rushed Gerber away.
“That’s enough, Justin.” Ruby stood and turned on the lights.
“Without audio, I can’t be certain, but I’m thinking these cowboys never read him the Miranda,” Lydia said. “Do you remember hearing your rights read to you in the police car, Mr. Tera?”
Nick shook his head. “I don’t remember.”
“That would be too easy,” Ruby said. “Justin, what kind of security system is this?”
“The cameras are an older analog system converted to download the video onto a PC. I hacked into their mainframe and then into the video feed. It’s all kept on one dedicated server. Not smart.”
“Can you erase this portion?” Ruby asked.
“Yeah, sure. Or, if we have time, I can edit it. Add or delete people or fill in the time block with images from another night.”
Ruby stood behind Justin and patted him on the shoulders. “Congratulations, Mr. Gray. You’ve just been promoted. Head of IT.”
Justin tipped his head back and grinned up at Ruby.
“Experts could tell the video was tampered with, couldn’t they?” Lydia asked.
Justin cocked his head and smiled. “I used to fool my instructors in school all the time,”
“I appreciate your talents, but just make it disappear this time,” Ruby said.
“Without video, that leaves the witnesses and the victim,” Lydia reached for the manila folders.
Ruby bent and whispered in her ear. He sat and gathered up the folders.
“Andrew Walker,” Ruby read, “retired cop, seventy-four years old. Medical records indicate he had a triple bypass six years ago. And he’s a smoker.” Ruby flashed a wide, white smile. He nodded to the man in the knit cap. The man rose from his chair holding the second partially eaten sandwich in one meaty fist, adorned with crude tattoos of letters, dots and spider webs. He reached in front of Lydia’s face, and grabbed the folder from Ruby’s hand.
Ruby passed Katie’s folder along with the security guard’s.
Nick jumped up. “Hey, wait! That’s Katie’s file.”
“Calm yourself, Nick. A simple mistake,” Ruby said. “Give me back the second folder.”
The man tossed Katie’s folder on the table. Two sheets of paper slid out. One with text and another with an enlargement of her hospital identification photo. His mouth twisted into a leer revealing tufts of chewed bread poking between yellowed teeth.
A sharp jolt ran up Nick’s spine. He recognized the man’s ugly, grinning face from the vision of the men in the van Ruby had projected on the elevator walls. He slammed his hand down on Katie’s folder. “Who the hell is this guy?”
“Easy, Nick,” Ruby said. “Mr. Jones is a private investigator I employ.”
Jones grunted and returned to his seat. He glared stony-eyed at Nick, ripped off a chunk of sandwich and chewed with his mouth open. One corner of his mouth hiked up in a taunting sneer. A knife sheath strapped to his ankle stuck out above one dirty work shoe. The zipped hoodie he wore under his jacket thinly concealed the gun-shaped bulge at his waistband.
Lydia cleared her throat. “What about Gerber, do we have any intel on him?”
Ruby waved his hand in disgust. “That’s what Phillip was working on.” He looked around the table. “Anyone?”
A woman raised her hand. “He’s an ER tech. Hired in the Emergency Care Department one month ago at Saint Mary’s Hospital,” she said.
“We already know he’s a fucking ER technician!” Ruby glowered at the woman. She dropped her gaze and bit her bottom lip.
“Who are we looking for info on?” Justin asked.
Ruby slid Jon’s folder across the table to Justin. “Jon Gerber, the victim.” He rapped the table with his knuckles. “We need a publicity angle for Mr. Tera. Ideas?”
Another younger woman spoke up. “Obviously it’s a crime of passion. Jealous rage, over the woman in the video, I presume. It fits Tera’s image.”
Nick stood and paced back and forth behind Ruby, annoyed that they spoke as if he weren’t in the room.
“Sheer genius, Paula,” Ruby sneered.
“Well, um, until we find out more–”
“Shut up, Paula.” Ruby banged his fist on the table. “I have a lot of time and money invested in Nick Tera. One of you had better come up with a way to make this work to my advantage. Fast. The media already has the police blotter info.”
“I don’t think the jealous rage angle will work, Mr. Ruby,” Justin said.
“Why not?” Ruby asked.
“I found Gerber’s Facebook page. He goes by Jonny Gee online. His real name’s hidden in his profile. According to this, Jon Gerber’s gay.” Justin frowned at Nick. “Unless, Nick Tera’s gay, too?”
“Gay? Fucking wonderful!” Ruby pointed a tapered fingernail at Nick. “The press simply adores crucifying celebrity gay bashers.”
“Gay?” Nick asked. “But I thought . . . shit.”
“Shit is correct, Mr. Tera. And if it hits the media fan, it will destroy everything I’ve built for you. What else did you find, Justin?”
“His partner is a guy named Lyle Ross. Owns a fancy salon on the Upper East Side. They have a townhouse nearby. Exclusive neighborhood. It looks like Ross’s business isn’t doing well. He filed chapter eleven papers two weeks ago.”
“There’s our in,” Lydia said. “Pay Gerber’s medical bills and pay off the boyfriend. I know a real estate agent in Hollywood. Maybe we can relocate them to an upscale salon on Rodeo Drive? If he agrees to drop the charges, that is. Fresh start for them, no victim for us.”
“I like it.” Ruby patted Lydia’s hand. “Now, how do we handle the PR on Tera?”
“Spaghetti press?” a slim, grey-haired man called out.
Ruby blew out a long breath and nodded. “Probably our only way out. I’ve already called Janis Ford to meet me here for an exclusive. The rest of you, start working on the releases for the other media outlets. I want to review them in one hour.”
“What’s spaghetti press?” Nick asked.
“We send out several versions of the incident simultaneously. There’s so much confusion conflicting information, and media speculation, the truth never surfaces. Politicians do it all the time. Eventually, our sanitized version will stick. I’ll give Janis Ford the lead. The Entertainer has the lion’s share of print and cable news. People will believe them. In the meantime, buy off the victim, massage the witnesses, and erase the video evidence. The police will have no choice but to drop the charges.”
“Leave Katie out of this,” Nick said. “Lydia said she refused to press charges. I’ll talk to her.”
Lydia nodded. “That’s true. It’s in the report.”
“Very well, Mr. Tera,” Ruby said, baring his teeth in something between a smile and a snarl. “I’ll leave Ms. Harrington as your responsibility. I’m positive she won’t pose any problems, correct?”
A chill crawled across Nick’s scalp. “No, Katie won’t be any problem at all.” Nick glared at Jones and then Ruby. “I’ll take her folder.”
Ruby raised his eyebrows, shrugged and then slid the folder to Nick.
“Excuse me,” Nick said. “I need to use the rest room,”
“My office is the closest,” Ruby said. “You really need to do something about that nervous stomach of yours, Nick.”
Nick sprinted down the hall to Ruby’s office. His cell phone was dead. It had been in a police evidence envelope all night. He picked up the receptionist’s desk phone and dialed his brother.
“Sal, it’s Nick. I need you to do something important for me.”
“Shit, oh man, are you calling from jail?”
“No, I’m out on bail. I need you to walk Katie home from the hospital tonight at seven o’clock.”
“I’m supposed to be helping Dad in the restaurant—”
“Screw the restaurant! This is life and death. I’m depending on you, Sal.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay, Nick. What’s going on? Why can’t you pick up Katie?”
“I can’t talk now. Make sure she gets inside her apartment and locks the door. Promise me.”
“All right, geez, I promise.”
As Nick hung up the phone, he saw the door to Ruby’s private office stood slightly ajar. He glanced down the empty hallway and then hurried to Ruby’s door. Nick eased the door open a few inches and peeked inside. The green glass shaded banker’s lamp on the desk illuminated the desk. The rest of the room silent and shrouded in shadows.
Nick laid Katie’s file on the desk and pulled open Ruby’s bottom file drawer. The drawer kept rolling outward as Nick walked backwards. The length extended three times the width of the desk and emitted a luminous red glow. “This isn’t possible,” he whispered. He crouched as his fingers frantically combed through the thousands of files crammed into the drawer.
“What are you doing?”
Nick jumped. He stared up at Janis Ford, dumbstruck, his heart thumping in his throat.
Not waiting for an answer, Janis shrugged off the strap of her over-sized shoulder bag. She knelt on the floor and searched through the opposite end of Ruby’s drawer.
“Are the files alphabetical?” she asked.
“No.” He struggled to grasp the tabs of the tightly packed folders and slide them up to read them. Ruby leaving his door open was an amazing stroke of luck. If he could only find his contract and destroy it, Ruby would have no power over him. He searched for Chris Turner’s file as well. He would destroy it to honor Chris’ last request in his suicide letter.
The eerie red light lit Janis’ face. “I can’t make any sense of his filing sys—”
“I hear Ruby.” Nick leaped to his feet and ran to the door.
Janis shoved papers into her bag and then pushed the drawer closed. She grabbed her shoulder bag and rushed over to Nick, who stood with his ear against the door.
“He’s down the hall talking, but coming closer,” he said in a low voice. “What files did you take?
“If you say one word to him about this . . .” Janis shot Nick a wicked stare and then grabbed the knob and let herself out.
He grabbed Katie’s file and then slipped out, quietly pulling the door shut.
Janis ran into the bathroom and Nick leaned against the receptionist desk with his arms crossed. He pulled in a deep, shaky breath to calm his racing heartbeat.
As Ruby entered the door, Janis burst from the rest room and confronted Nick, waving her hands in his face and shouting, “Asshole!”
Ruby looked from Janis to Nick. “Problem?”
“He barged into the rest room without knocking.”
“It never occurred to you to lock a public bathroom door?” Nick shot back at her.
“Enough!” Ruby held up his hands. “Nick, in my office. Now.” He strode to the door and slipped a key into the lock. He hesitated and glanced over at Nick before pushing open the door. “Janis, give us a minute.”
She flopped into a chair in the waiting area.
Ruby shut the door and faced Nick. “You’re in luck, Mr. Tera. Unless there’s any other unexpected details, I believe the charges will be dismissed. Needless to say, don’t leave the city.” He walked to his desk and examined the items on it, touching each one. Then he stared down at his desk drawers.
Nick held his breath when Ruby leaned to open a drawer. In their rush, he feared they may have left papers sticking up from the folders.
Ruby pulled a package of cigars from his top drawer and lit one.
“I’m negotiating your movie deal. I don’t need your jealous antics screwing it up.” He exhaled a stream of smoke into Nick’s face. “Are you striving for the celebrity-death knoll trifecta? First, pedophile, now homophobe. All we need is a racist slur and you’ll be finished in the public eye.”
“Fuck you and fuck your movie deal! You had Ray shot and tried to shoot his grandmother. He’s probably fucking paralyzed! War heroes and little old ladies, that’s what you said!”
“I saw the news report. How unfortunate. They were friends of yours?”
“You know damn well who they are, you heartless bastard!”
“Perhaps you’ll heed my advice, before more people get hurt.” Ruby’s lips pressed into an ugly smile. “Girlfriends and grandmothers.”
“You have me trotting to all of your events. That sick freak Artie and God knows what else takes over my body and my mind. You got what you wanted. Leave my friends and family out of this!”
“Sometimes my demons get overzealous. I’m helping you out of this incident.”
“What if I’d killed Gerber? Then what? I’d rot in a cell with Cullen while you destroy someone else’s life?”
“You didn’t kill him, Nick.” Ruby sat on the edge of his desk. “What concerns me is this jealous rage over Katie. It’s time to remove her, so you can focus on more important things.”
“I broke up with Katie. Your demon attacked Gerber. I don’t even remember driving to the hospital.”
Ruby eyed him, twirling his cigar between his fingers. Whips of smoke swirled around his head. “The movie premiere for Night Birds is in ten days.”
“So, you will be there. You’re my hottest property at the moment. We’re announcing your film debut next year.”
“My best friend is paralyzed. I don’t give a shit about a damned movie.”
“It’s not all about you, Nick. There are others to consider. Artie has graciously stepped back and allowed the others to use you. Apparently for drinking and fighting. So base, so unimaginative. It’s not fair to poor Artie. I made him a promise.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“On premiere night we’ll announce the winner of the Dream Date Contest with Nick Tera.”
Nick rubbed his hand over his mouth. His forehead was slick with sweat and his hands trembled with pent-up anger. “Once again, I have no choice but to go along with this or you’ll threaten me with . . . what?”
“On the contrary, Nick. I’m giving you a choice. Free will. Isn’t that what He touts?” Ruby pointed to the ceiling with an ugly sneer. “You see, the date is for Artie, to fulfill my promise. But I’ll let you choose. Either a girl from a random drawing, or Katie? The decision is yours.”
Nick stared as Ruby’s words sank in. “You’re picking a girl from a drawing for Artie to torture and murder? And you expect me to let him use my body to do this sick—”
“You catch on fast, Nick.” Ruby sank into his chair, leaned back and grinned. “So, tell me, who do you choose? A random stranger, or your darling Katie?”
Nick’s breath caught in his throat and his mouth turned bone dry. “Neither. You can’t force me to commit murder.”
“Actually, yes I can. Ask Joe Cullen. Although you’ve done surprisingly well in suppressing your demons. So much so, Artie has appealed to me for help. You can’t stop both of us, Nick.”
“I refuse to let you or, that . . . deviant use me to murder anyone!” Nick kicked over the guest chair and headed for the door.
“Don’t be so selfish. I’ve kept all of my promises. It’s time for you to fulfill your contract. I’ll give you some time to think it over. I don’t give everyone choices. But I like you, Nick.”
Peals of Ruby’s vicious laughter followed him out the door. He slammed it behind him.
Janis started in her chair at the sound. “What happened?”
Nick stormed past her and headed for the door.
“Oh, Nick,” Ruby called from his doorway.
Nick whirled around.
Ruby dangled a set of keys in his hand. “Your Mustang is in the lot. I had it towed for you. I take excellent care of my clients.” He tossed the keys to Nick.
Nick’s hands shook as drove to his family’s restaurant. A faint glow of light shone from the open kitchen door at the back of the closed restaurant. He found Sal dumping the mop bucket in the fenced grassy area.
“How’s Katie? You did walk her home, right?”
Sal put the bucket down. “Yeah, she’s fine. Well, she’s upset about you beating up that guy. She cried a lot. You all right? You look like hell. Nonna’s going bat-crap crazy worrying about you.”
“Tell her I’m out of jail and not to worry. I’ll call her. Nothing happened on the walk to Katie’s apartment?”
“No,” Sal paused. “Well, some assholes in a van slowed down and whistled and stuff, but they kept on going. Katie’s cute. Guys probably whistle at her all the time.”
Icy fingers choked Nick’s heart making it skip a beat and then race. He gripped his brother’s shoulders. “What did the van look like?”
“Some old, green, beat-up van. A Ford, I think, why?” He shrugged off Nick’s grasp.
“The men in that van are rapists and murderers. They’re after Katie.”
Sal’s eyes widened and his mouth gaped open. “Holy shit. How do you know that?”
“I just know!” He paced around the enclosure, clenching his fists. “Dammit.”
“I wouldn’t ever let anybody hurt Katie,” Sal said.
Nick spun around to yell at Sal for sounding so naive, but when he looked into his little brother’s eyes, he saw the same fearless, sincere expression he’d seen in Ray’s eyes many times. He hooked his arm around Sal’s neck and sighed. “I know you wouldn’t, Sal.”
“I’ll walk Katie home until you guys work out whatever’s going on between you two.”
Nick pictured Jones’ blank, evil eyes and despised himself for even considering his brother’s offer. Sal could end up like Ray, or more likely, dead. “No, Sal. It’s too dangerous.”
Sal straightened his shoulders, pushing his chest and chin out in his signature cocky stance. “I can take care of myself. And Katie.”
Nick sighed. Frustration and fear twisted in his gut. He had no other options. “All right. But I’ll follow you in my car and stay out of sight. Don’t be a hero, understand? These bastards have guns and knives. It’s not a boxing ring, Sal, they don’t play by any rules. If you see that van again, or anything suspicious, call 9-1-1 right away.”
Sal slapped him on the back. “Don’t worry. Nobody’s gonna mess with Katie when I’m around.”