Nick woke late the next morning and fixed a pot of coffee. He sat at the kitchen counter rubbing his temples to ease the throbbing pain. Empty beer bottles from the previous night cluttered the counter. He had to stop drinking, but alcohol numbed his frustrations and sent him into a dreamless black void. Drinking himself into a stupor had become his nightly ritual. Worse, he wasn’t sure if the whispers encouraging him to drink came from the demons or his own mind.
He jumped when his phone rang. Ray’s older brother, Louis, sounded encouraged on the other end. “Ray’s coming out of it. He should be fully conscious by this afternoon. You can visit him then.”
“Can he walk?” Nick asked.
“They still can’t get a clear picture. The surgery caused more swelling. They’re gonna tell him about the possible paralysis when he wakes up.”
Nick choked back a sudden flood of tears as he thanked Louis for the call and hung up. The thought of Ray in a wheelchair for the rest of his life tore at his gut. Ruby had him shot because Nick asked him to protect Katie. Now, he’d put his little brother in the same danger.
His cell rang again. He sucked in a ragged sob before answering.
“Good news, Nick,” Lydia said. “Jon Gerber was discharged this morning. He’s not pressing charges. He and his partner accepted our offer. They’re relocating to the west coast.”
“Thank God. Is Gerber gonna be okay?”
“He’ll heal. The money Mr. Ruby paid him will go a long way to ease his pain.”
“What about the cops? And the guard?”
“This morning, the police discovered the security camera in that sector of the parking lot isn’t recording. There’s no video evidence. All they have is three cops who saw you standing near Gerber. Our story is, you injured your hand when you fought off his attacker. He fled the scene. You tried to help Gerber and came in contact with his blood. Plain and simple, they arrested the wrong man. I’m filing to have the case dismissed. I don’t expect any blow back. If they do, we’ll counter with you don’t recall being read your rights and the police used excessive force when they falsely arrested you.”
“But the security guard saw everything.”
Lydia paused. “I’m told he no longer works at the hospital.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you spoken to Ms. Harrington? If we have to push back, her testimony as the only eye witness is key. She’s not going to contradict our story, is she?”
“No. Don’t worry about Katie.”
“Then, it’s settled, Mr. Tera. The media thinks you’re a hero. Try to stay out of trouble.” Lydia hung up.
Nick didn’t understand why Lydia said the media considered him a hero. He turned on his laptop. The home page of his website touted new headlines of how he intervened in a robbery and assault while visiting a sick friend at a local hospital.
He Googled ‘Nick Tera’ and found two other versions of the story. In one, he beat up a female friend’s abusive boyfriend, and the other stated he had a confrontation with an unnamed man over an unnamed woman. He was relieved that neither article implicated Katie. The second version rumored Bethany Grant, the movie actress, as the woman in question and her co-star, Lee Woods, as the man. Photos of him and Bethany leaving the cocktail party were splashed across the page, along with a picture of Lee Woods sporting a bandaged nose and two blackened eyes.
Returning to his website, he saw the space which had previously advertised The Nick Tera Fan Club was conspicuously missing. A new animation of a cartoon cupid shooting an arrow at a throbbing red heart took its place. Bold red text appeared, ’Win A Dream Date With Nick! Enter Contest Here! The winner of the contest will be chosen in a random drawing at the upcoming premiere of the movie, Night Birds.’
He tapped the back arrow and returned to his browser’s default page with local news. The top story headline read, Three Officers Gunned Down In Drug Bust. The name Lepkowski leapt out at him. He had been killed at the scene and the other two officers were in guarded condition. The three policemen pictured in the article were the same three who had arrested him.
His stomach spasmed and he spat the sour-tasting bile that rose in his throat into the kitchen sink. Leaning against the refrigerator door he downed a bottle of beer in one long gulp, and then reached in and grabbed another. He pushed the coffee mug away and huddled on a kitchen stool clutching the bottle. His hand trembled as he brought it to his mouth. He wasn’t going to jail because everyone involved had been paid off, wounded, or dead. All, except Katie. How many more innocent people would end up dead or hurt because of his contract with Victor Ruby? He had to find a way out.
A voice told him to have another beer.
Nick staggered down the hospital hallway toward Ray’s room. The nurse sitting at the station desk looked up from her computer screen.
“Can I help you? Sir?”
“Wanna shee my friend.” He pointed to Ray’s room door.
“Are you all right, sir?” she asked, standing.
“Juss hard to shee im like dis.” Nick wavered on his feet as the nurse studied him.
“Five minutes only.” She gestured toward Ray’s room as she made a note on a pad.
Ray’s eyes fluttered open when Nick dragged a chair across the linoleum floor to the side of the bed and dropped heavily onto it.
“Nick,” Ray said in a hoarse whisper.
Nick swallowed hard. “S’how ya doin’, buddee?”
Ray grunted and closed his eyes. Nick sat, watching him breathe.
“Promise me,” Ray whispered.
Nick leaned over the side rail of the bed. “P-promish what?”
“If what they say is true,” Ray paused and opened his eyes. “If I can’t walk. I’ll need your help.”
“Anythin, man, anythin. You don havta ask.” Nick swiped his sleeve across his face to catch the tears.
“My bedroom’s on the third floor.” Ray’s voice deepened. “I won’t be able to get up the stairs. My guns are up there.”
“Whadda ya shaying?”
“I’m not living in a goddamn wheelchair. Promise me.” Ray’s steely gaze fixed on Nick.
Nick shook his head. “No, Ray, I c-can’t. Pleash, don’ ask me ta—”
“You’re the only one I can ask.”
“But dey don even know for shure if you’re pa-paralysed.” Tears streamed down Nick’s face. “Even if . . . ya can’t give up. Ya juss can’t.” Acid burned his throat as beer roiled in his stomach.
“Time’s up,” the nurse announced from the doorway. She scowled at Nick, grabbed a plastic pan from a cabinet and rushed to the bedside. She positioned it under his chin just in time to catch the vomit.
Nick nodded at the nurse as he exited the rest room and walked past the station.
She shook her head. “Did you drive yourself here?”
“No, my ride’s downstairs,” he lied and then mumbled, “I’m really sorry about, um, thanks.”
The numb sensation from the alcohol had worn off leaving a hollow feeling in his stomach and head. He leaned in the corner of the elevator as it descended. Ray’s desperate words played in his mind.
He walked down the hospital steps and rounded the corner to the parking lot. Sal had told him Katie had the day off. He wanted to at least drive past her apartment to check on her as best he could from the road.
A small group of people and a security golf cart blocked the narrow sidewalk. Flowers and candles filled the cart. Propped in the driver’s seat, a framed picture of a smiling, white-haired man.
Nick excused himself as he edged past the group. An older woman standing in his path turned and offered a sad smile. “Did you know Andy?” she asked.
“He was a security guard here for eleven years. Someone broke into his house last night. Killed him. Poor dear.” She blotted her eyes with a tissue. “Bludgeoned to death in his own bed. So horrible.”
Cold pin pricks ran down his spine. “I-I’m so sorry.” As he cleared the crowded corner, he broke into a run, remembering Lydia’s terse comment about the guard no longer working at hospital. Inside his car, Nick laid his head on the steering wheel. The old man was only doing his job, like the cops who arrested him. Now they were dead and two other cops in critical condition. He sat until his tremors calmed and then started the car with a shaky hand.
His cell rang as he waited to pull out of the hospital driveway. Rosa’s Ristorante displayed on the screen. He hit the button and before he could talk, a deep, somber-toned voice on the other end spoke, “Nick, there’s trouble at the restaurant. Your family needs you. Hurry.”
An anxious flutter caught in his throat. “W-who is this?”
“Father Santore. Rosa asked me to call. She wants you to come home right away.”
A horn beeped behind Nick. He ignored it. “What is it, Father? Is Nonna all right?”
“Yes, but please, come as quickly as you can, son.” The call ended.
Nick threw the phone down and hit the gas pedal. He gunned the Mustang into a narrow gap in the traffic and then braked hard when the rear lights of the car in front of him suddenly flashed red. Sirens wailed and two ambulances sped around the corner in front of them, headed in the opposite direction toward the hospital.
He broke from the slow, heavy traffic and turned onto the same side road the ambulances had exited. Taking a short cut to the restaurant, he ran stop signs and swerved through the narrow residential streets at twice the posted speed.
Spinning red, yellow and blue lights blinded him when he turned the corner onto his street. Police cars and a fire truck blocked his view of the restaurant. He pulled into the alley next to the corner florist shop, jumped out and ran down the street.
A fireman in a yellow coat swept broken glass from the sidewalk. Bright yellow police tape cordoned off the sidewalk in front of the building. Groups of people stood gawking on the other side of the road. A policeman yelled for him to stop just as Nick’s waist breached the tape.
“I live upstairs. This is my family’s restaurant.”
The cop raised his palms. “Step back, sir.”
“What happened? My grandmother. My brother and my father—are they okay?” Nick shouted at the cop.
“I called him, officer. He’s the eldest son.” Father Santore’s shoes crunched over remnants of glass glistening on the wet sidewalk.
The cop nodded at the priest and then raised the tape so Nick could duck under it. “Go ahead.”
Father hurried him to the door leading upstairs to the apartment. Nick stopped. The front picture window of the restaurant had been shattered. Jagged shards of glass dangled precariously from the top of the window frame. Wisps of acrid-smelling, white smoke drifted out the gaping black hole.
“Father, what happened? Where’s my family?”
“Upstairs.” The priest jogged up the steps at a rapid pace for a man of his age.
Nonna stood in the kitchen grasping a handkerchief. “Nickie!” She ran into Nick’s arms.
“Nonna what happened? Where’s Sal and Pop?’”
“The ambulance. It take them away.” She sobbed into her wet hanky and shook her head.
Nick looked at the priest, his heart thumping in his throat. “No, Nonna. Are they—?
“Someone drove by and shot out the front window,” Father said. “They threw firebombs inside. Molotov cocktails, the police called them.”
“Sal? And Pop?” Nick stood, searching the priest’s dark brown eyes for answers.
Father Santore grasped his arm. “Flying glass hit Salvatore. He has cuts on his face and arms. He’ll be okay. Your father, one of the bullets hit him. Here.” The priest patted the left side of his chest.
“No, but he lost a lot of blood.” He glanced over at Nonna and then whispered. “It’s serious.”
Nonna grabbed onto Nick. Her small frame shook in his arms.
The priest waited a few moments and then laid his hand on his shoulder. “Nick, you should go to the hospital. I’ll stay with your grandmother.” He pulled out a chair. “Please, sit down, Rosa.”
She sank into the chair. Nick squatted in front of her. “Do you want to come with me?”
Nonna nodded and rose. Nick gripped her shoulders as she keeled sideways. He helped her back onto the chair.
“She’s too upset, Nick. Better if she stays here.” He leaned down and spoke in her ear. “We pray, okay Rosa?” He repeated it in Italian. “Preghiamo, si? Tomorrow morning, we will light a candle.”
“Si, si.” Nonna’s glassy gaze fixed on Nick. “Nickie, you come home after? Please, I need you here.”
Nick bent and kissed her cheek. “Yes, Nonna. I’ll come home.”
A nurse directed him to a curtained alcove in the Emergency Room where he found Sal lying on an examination table. Stephanie stood next to him holding his hand while a nurse cleaned and dressed his cuts. Black thread held a deep gash on his forehead closed. The nurse dabbed antiseptic on the shallower wounds on his cheeks and arms with a gauze pad.
Sal bolted upright when he saw Nick. With wide, frightened eyes he asked, “Nick, how’s dad?”
“In surgery. It’ll be a while. How are you doing?” Nick walked over to his brother.
Stephanie smiled at Nick. “He’s going to be fine.” She stroked Sal’s hand.
Sal sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the cot and stared at the floor. The nurse handed him a plastic bag with gauze pads and medication. “There’s instructions inside. Follow up in about a week with your doctor to have those stitches removed, all right?”
Sal nodded. Fat tear drops splashed onto the bag he clutched in his hands. “Is dad gonna die, Nick?”
“Pop’s a tough guy, Sal.” Nick stopped short of reassuring him their father would be fine. Every nerve in his body vibrated with his own fears. Ruby was intent on killing everyone he loved, and Nick couldn’t stop him. Only his grandmother and Katie remained unscathed from Ruby’s wrath, so far.
The nurse made notes on a clipboard. “We have all of Salvatore’s information. Will you be taking him home?”
“Yes,” Nick said. “Thank you, nurse.”
She nodded and hurried off to another curtained room.
The three walked through the hallway connecting the ER to the main hospital building. Stephanie and Sal embraced for several minutes in the front lobby. The tenderness of their exchange surprised Nick. Their relationship had obviously deepened since the last time he observed them chatting at the kitchen table. Stephanie gave Sal a long kiss, waved to Nick and then exited the glass doors.
The two brothers rode the elevator to the fourth floor. Nick walked with his arm around Sal’s shoulders to the OR waiting area, a small room with mint green walls, mismatched furniture and white linoleum floor tiles worn to a dull grey. He paced the perimeter of the room, stopping every few minutes at the double swinging doors to peer through the tiny windows. Fingerprint smudges and crosshatched wire embedded in the glass offered a murky view of the hallway leading to the operating suites. Sal slumped in a chair with blue vinyl cushions and dabbed at his eyes with one of the gauze pads from his bag. A dozen other men and women sat huddled in small groups; some held Styrofoam cups, others stared blankly at a muted television on the wall or talked in hushed tones while they waited for news of their loved ones.
Two hours passed before a thin man in green scrubs and mussed gray hair entered the room. All eyes in the room turned toward him. “Anyone here for Dominic Teravelli?” he asked.
Sal jumped to his feet.
Nick strode across the room. “We’re his sons, Sal and Nick,” he said. “How is he?” His heartbeat quickened as he waited for the doctor to answer.
“Your dad’s a lucky man. The bullet missed both his heart and left lung by barely two centimeters. I removed it. Stitched him up. He’s in Recovery, until the anesthesia wears off. You boys should go home and get some sleep. You can see him in the morning. They’ll have him settled into a room by then. Barring any unseen complications, I’d say he’s going to be pretty sore for a while, but he’ll recover.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Nick shook his hand and then patted Sal on the back. “See, I told you the old man’s tough.” He forced a weak smile for Sal’s benefit, yet his insides quaked.
Sal gulped back a sob as he attempted to smile. Tears poured from his eyes and he rubbed his shirt sleeve across his face.
Father Santore met them at the kitchen door when Nick returned home with Sal.
“Your nonna’s finally asleep in the living—”
“Salvatore! Thank God!” Nonna rushed into the kitchen and threw her arms around Sal. “Come, sit.” She pulled out a chair, hugged him again and then turned to the refrigerator and began pulling out casserole dishes, plastic-wrapped platters and bowls. She stared at Nick with red-rimmed eyes. “Your papa?”
“Pop’s gonna be okay,” Nick said. “They operated and got the bullet out. It missed his heart and lung. He’s resting now. I’ll go see him in the morning.”
Nonna put down the dish she held and blessed herself. “Thank you, God.”
“Yes, thank God.” Father walked to the door. “It’s a miracle everyone is all right. At least there were no patrons in the restaurant.”
“Stay and eat, Father,” Nonna said.
“No, thank you, Rosa. It’s been a long night. You and your grandsons be safe. I’ll come by for you tomorrow morning and we’ll go to the church. Get some rest.”
Nonna’s eyes locked onto the priest’s. “Si, si, tomorrow. Accendiamo la candela.”
Nick walked Santore downstairs to his car. He wanted to inspect the damage in the restaurant. Several business owners from the block approached hauling ladders, hammers and sheets of plywood to board up the gaping hole where the plate glass window once stood. They told Nick the police had given them permission to cover the window and start the clean-up. Each man shook Nick’s hand and expressed their concern for his grandmother, dad, and brother before going to work on the window.
Father Santore waved from his small, compact sedan as he pulled away. Nick helped the four men install the boards over the opening and then invited them inside for a drink.
He opened the breaker box and flipped on the lights. Broken glass crunched under their shoes as they walked through the restaurant. A harsh burnt odor hung in the air and black soot stained the cream-colored stucco walls and ceiling. Smoke and the water from the fire hoses caused most of the damage. Many of the heavy wooden tables and chairs showed scorch marks. They can be sanded and refinished, Nick thought. The stone tiles on the floor had charred areas that rubbed off when Nick scraped them with the toe of his boot. Water from the force of the fire hoses had toppled chairs and tables, shoving them into jumbled clusters. Soaked, blackened table linens, silverware and broken condiment containers lay strewn among the shards of plate glass on the floor.
Nick picked up the framed photograph of his grandmother and grandfather from the grimy, wet floor. The picture was taken over fifty years ago on their grand opening day. The smiling couple stood in front of the now demolished front window with Rosa’s Ristorante painted on it in curly red and green letters. He wiped soot and droplets of water from the glass with the hem of his tee shirt and set it on an upright table.
At the back of the dining room, Nick stopped short at the corner of the pizza counter. A large puddle of dark red with smaller puddles surrounding it dotted the tile floor. Blood. Some of the blood had seeped into a wad of raw pizza dough on the floor turning the edges a sickening pink. The light dusting of flour on the floor contained the blood in neat, oval-shaped pools.
He pictured his father standing behind the counter putting on his usual show, throwing a spinning circle of dough in the air and then deftly catching and twirling it as he stretched and kneaded the pliable disk with his fists before tossing it high above his head again.
One of the men looked down at the floor where Nick stood. “Holy Jesus,” he muttered and gripped Nick’s shoulders with both hands.
“Who would do this to Rosa and Dom?” another asked, shaking his head.
Nick stepped around the blood to get to the cooler. He passed bottles of beer over the counter. He felt no desire to drink tonight. While the men righted a table and chairs and sat, he went into the kitchen and filled the mop bucket with hot water, soap and disinfectant.
He sopped up the blood on the floor and then dipped the long, red-stained tendrils of the rag mop between the rollers to wring out the bloody water. The sudsy water turned a deep crimson.
Carrying the bucket out the back door, he dumped and refilled it. He scrubbed the same few feet of floor until the men finished their beers, stood and said their good nights. Nick thanked them and locked the front doors behind them.
Retrieving a broom from the back, he pushed large swaths of the wet, sooty, glass shards into a pile at the front of the store. He squelched down the rage he felt for Ruby and focused his fury on sweeping the debris. He vowed to deal with Ruby later.
His grandmother touched his back, startling him. With the sound of the glass scraping across the stone floor, he hadn’t heard her come in the side door.
“We clean it up. Make it nice,” she said. Her voice sounded strong. She walked the dining room silently surveying the damage while Nick herded the green-tinted glass chunks and debris to the front of the room. She paused to touch the portrait of her and her husband and then walked to the back counter.
Nick joined her and put his arm around her shoulders. She bowed her head and said a short prayer as she stared at the shiny wet, tiles behind the pizza counter and the bucket of soapy water.
“I’m so glad you’re home, Nickie.” She patted his hand. “It’s late. Come upstairs. Rest. We start to fix this in the morning.”
Upstairs, Sal sat at the kitchen table with a full plate of food in front of him.
“Why you not eating?” Nonna clamped her hand on his forehead. “You feel all right?”
“I’m full, Nonna. This is the third plate you gave me. I can’t eat anymore.”
“Then go to bed. Sleep. You stay home from school tomorrow.”
Sal kissed her and then turned to Nick. “Dad’s gonna be okay.” He nodded his head up and down as if reassuring himself. “I’ll help you fix up the restaurant.” He threw his arms around Nick and held him in tight embrace. “I’m glad you’re here.” He released his hold and gave Nick one of his big, crooked grins. “Your old room’s empty. Did Nonna tell you I got Steph at job at Eddie’s? She’s living in the studio apartment over the gym. I painted it for her.”
“Better she not under the same roof with him,” Nonna said, jerking her head at Sal.
Nick knew Sal could spend unchaperoned time with Stephanie if she were not staying in the same house. He winked at his brother. Sal climbed the stairs to his room.
While Nonna made coffee, Nick cleared the table and put the leftovers into the refrigerator.
“I do this. You sit,” she said.
“No, Nonna. You need to sit and rest.” He took the coffee pot from her hand, poured two cups and carried them into the living room.
Nonna settled into her chair and sipped her coffee. She put the cup down on the end table and rested her head against the back of the chair. With her eyes closed, she pulled her rosary from her apron pocket and rolled the small baby-blue beads between her thumb and forefinger.
Nick sat on the big, overstuffed ottoman at her feet with his legs stretched out in front of him. He had sat there countless nights as a boy listening to her recite the rosary. A calmness filled him as he cradled the warm coffee cup between his palms and listened to his grandmother’s whispered prayers. The cross she had given him felt cool against his skin beneath his tee shirt. He closed his eyes and mouthed a Hail Mary along with his grandmother. Demons didn’t plague him here, but the guilt of knowing Ruby attacked his family and best friend to manipulate him, consumed him.
His grandmother had always tried to instill in him her unshakable faith in God and the power of prayer. But his faith hadn’t been simply shaken, it had shattered when his mother died. An insidious darkness had taken root in the very cracks of his soul. The demon seeds Ruby planted flourished into vines in those inky crevices, and nourished by his weakened faith, they grew stronger each day.
Overwhelmed by guilt and shame, he covered his face with his hands and blurted, “It’s my fault. Pop and Sal. Your restaurant. I’m so sorry, Nonna. I-I don’t know how to stop him.”
She didn’t reply. Turning, he saw her head tilted to one side and her eyelids closed. Her hands lay still in her lap with the rosary beads entwined through her thin fingers. Stress had deepened the lines in her face. Despite her dominant personality, she was a frail, old woman. Guilt dragged on his heart until the heavy weight felt as though it would crush his entire body. He could never bring his grandmother into a fight with the devil. This was his battle and he could never let her know. He stood and picked up the soft, crocheted afghan from the sofa and tucked it around her.
Entering his old bedroom felt both strange and comforting. The wooden floorboards squeaked when he walked to the desk. He found an old phone charger in a drawer and plugged in his cell. Sitting on the bed, he pulled off his boots. The soft, white cotton sheets had the familiar, clean scent of his grandmother’s favorite detergent. He stretched out, his feet hanging over the end of the bed, and allowed the tears that had bit at his eyelids all evening to finally flow. Ruby ruled his life and his demons controlled his mind and body at will. He thought about the deaths of the police officer and security guard. Ray’s grandmother hurt, and Ray most likely paralyzed. Jon and Stephanie, both beaten. Now, the restaurant destroyed and his father and brother narrowly escaping death. All of it because he wanted Ruby to make him rich and famous. Becoming a best-selling author meant nothing to him now, he was consumed with figuring out a way to destroy Ruby.
A warm glow from the streetlight below the window illuminated the figure of Jesus as He hung on the bronze cross on the wall, His head tilted to one side and His eyelids closed.