The morning of the premiere, Nick woke from a nightmare-filled sleep, soaked in sweat. For the first time in weeks he didn’t suffer from a hangover, but instead, ached all over from the body-slam Ruby delivered last night. Limping into the kitchen, he glared at the beer stocked inside the refrigerator. The bright white interior turned to red as his anger grew. After a short but violent bout of rage, his vision cleared. Broken brown glass covered the floor and sudsy puddles of beer sloshed around his bare feet.
He gathered his letter to Katie and Stephanie’s demo CD he had hidden in his desk drawer. While coffee brewed, he aimed the shower head onto his back and let the hot water beat against his sore muscles. Clutching a bar of soap in his hand, he shuddered at the memory of seeing his charred finger bones.
His cell phone rang as he finished dressing. He picked it up, not recognizing the number.
“Hello, Nick? It’s Janis Ford. I need to talk to you.”
He hit the END button and slammed the phone down on the kitchen counter.
It rang again. Seeing Janis’ number, he let it ring until the mailbox picked up. He poured coffee and as he took a sip, the phone sounded again. He finally answered it to stop the ringing, “What the hell do you want?”
“We need to talk. Maybe we can help each other.”
“What has Ruby put you up to now?”
“Ruby doesn’t know I’m calling you. Can I come to your apartment?” Janis blew out a long breath. “I understand why you don’t trust me. I don’t blame you. Please, give me a chance. I can explain.”
A glimmer of hope flickered in Nick’s mind. Janis had stuffed papers from Ruby’s file drawer into her bag. By some miracle she might have his contract, though he worried what she would demand in return.
He sighed into the speaker. “When?”
“I can be there at eleven.”
Nick glanced at the wall clock. “All right.”
He gulped down his coffee and then packed his laptop into his gym bag. Grabbing the letter and CD, he hurried out of the apartment.
The bank presented him with a long succession of papers to sign in order to close out his account. He slid a cashier’s check in the amount of two-million, nine-hundred and ninety-seven thousand dollars into the envelope with Katie’s letter and sealed it.
At ten-fifteen, he waited inside his car in the parking lot of Eddie’s Gym and called Sal’s cell for the third consecutive time.
Sal ran down the outdoor staircase from Stephanie’s apartment, shirtless, barefoot and buttoning his jeans. He shoved his uncombed hair back with both hands as he approached Nick’s car.
“What’s the big emergency, Nick?”
Nick passed the envelope out the window. “Give this to Katie tonight.”
“Um, listen Nick, Katie’s really pissed off. She told me last night not to dare show up and walk her home anymore.”
Nick got out of the car and slapped the envelope into Sal’s hand. “You have to meet Katie at the hospital tonight and make sure she gets home safely. Especially tonight. Do you understand me?” He gripped his brother’s arms and shook him.
Sal stared at Nick’s fingers digging into the flesh on his upper arms. “Nick, what the hell?”
Nick released his grip. “Swear to me you’ll be there tonight and give her this envelope.”
Sal rolled his eyes. “I swear, okay?” He glared at Nick through the hair which had fallen over his eyes and rubbed his hands over the red finger imprints on his arms.
“I’m sorry,” Nick threw his arms around his brother. “I love you, Sal. You know that, right?”
Sal’s tensed body relaxed. He hugged Nick back. “I know. I love you, too.”
Nick reached into the car for the padded brown envelope. He had taken Chris’ suicide note out and left only the compact disc inside. He handed it to Sal. “This belongs to Steph.”
“What is it?” Sal examined the slim package, flipping it over in his hands.
“Her demo CD. She left it at my place.”
“Whaddya mean a demo CD?”
“A CD of her songs. It’s what singers send to music studios to get recording deals.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Sal’s mouth. “I didn’t know Steph was a singer.”
“Yeah. A good one, too. Mostly country songs, some ballads.”
Nick hurried to the trunk of his car and unlocked it. He motioned to Sal.
Sal approached as if expecting to see a dead body stashed inside. “What’s that stuff?”
“Grandpa’s chef knives. Take them to the restaurant.” Nick laid the leather case in Sal’s outstretched arms. He slung the strap of an overnight bag on Sal’s shoulder. “This is Katie’s. Give it back to her, okay?” He left his gym bag inside and slammed the trunk lid.
Sal adjusted the strap on his shoulder. “Why don’t you take the knives to the restaurant? You haven’t even seen it since it’s all finished. The whole neighborhood’s talking about how awesome it looks. And, Pop’s coming home tomorrow. Nonna’s been trying to call you. She wants to have a big grand reopening party—”
“I’m glad Nonna’s restaurant is all fixed up. Thanks for finishing it.” He grasped Sal in a bear hug. “Please, don’t let me down, Sal. Stay close to Katie tonight. And watch your own ass, too, you hear me?”
“You’re freaking me out, Nick. What’s going on?”
Nick slid into his car. “Be good to Steph, she’s a sweet girl. I’m glad you two are together.”
Sal stood holding the two cases as Nick pulled his car into the street and drove away.
Nick greeted Janis at his apartment door with a terse, “What do you want?”
“I need to ask you some questions.”
“I’m in no mood for one of your fucking interviews,” he said, slamming the door behind her.
“You wanted to know why I was at your girlfriend’s apartment. I’ll tell you, if you tell me some things. Deal?”
He sighed, trudged into the kitchen and poured himself a mug of coffee.
“Yes, please, I’d like a cup.” Janis smiled for the first time that Nick had ever seen.
He handed her an empty mug.
She inspected it to see if it was clean and then poured coffee into it. “Got any milk?”
“In the ’fridge.” He sat at the counter.
She rolled her eyes. “Fine, I’ll get it.” Janis tiptoed through the beer and broken glass on the floor, giving Nick a curious sideward glance. She pulled a carton from the refrigerator and opened it. The stench of spoiled milk made her gag.
Nick jumped up, took the carton from her hand and dumped it down the sink drain. He ran the hot water to dissolve the curdled mass in the strainer.
“Black’s fine.” Janis fanned away the lingering sour odor with her hand. She looked down when a piece of glass crunched under her shoe but didn’t comment.
He studied Janis while he sipped his coffee. Her facial expression looked pleasant but guarded. “You knew about Ruby’s contracts. Do you have a contract with him?”
Janis ignored his question and strolled into the living room. “Nice place you—” She frowned at the busted, big-screen television dangling from a bolt on the wall. “Humph, maybe you do need an anger management class.”
“I heard on the news Bethany Grant was found murdered in Florida. I-I just lost it.”
“Yes, I heard about that, also. Brutal scene. You whisked her off from the cocktail party last week. Does that make you a suspect, or simply a person of interest?”
“I didn’t kill her.”
“Maybe you punched out your TV because she dumped you for her fiancé in Florida?”
“Everything’s a lurid headline to you, isn’t it?” Nick slammed his mug down on the coffee table. “I knew Bethany, or Mary, for all of twenty minutes. I gave her a ride downtown. She wanted to get away from Ruby. I offered to drive her to the airport, but she didn’t trust me after reading all the lies printed in that piece of trash you work for. She got into a cab and drove away.” Nick glowered at Janis. “Another decent human being is dead. Two, including her fiancé. I guess me having feelings doesn’t fit your sleazy tabloid stereotype, does it?”
Janis sucked on her upper lip and looked down at the coffee mug in her hands. “I’m sorry.”
Nick snorted, picked up his mug and stalked back to the kitchen to refill it.
Janis followed. “Victor Ruby hired me to interview your girlfriend. He wanted to know anything that might present a PR problem. Relationships, police records, financials, drug habits, etcetera. Lots of employers do it. It seemed like a reasonable request, considering the money Ruby planned to invest to promote your book.”
“You talked to Katie? When?”
Janis stared at him with her mouth open. “Well, duh—you said you saw us talking outside her apartment. You’ve badgered me with phone messages ever since. Has alcohol impaired your short-term memory?”
“No-o-o. I said I saw you talking to her roommate, Tara.”
Janis pulled her phone from her blazer pocket and scrolled her finger on the screen. “Here. Look. This is the woman I interviewed at the apartment, Katie Harrington.” She held up the phone.
Nick took the phone. “This is Tara. I don’t know her last name. She’s Katie’s roommate.”
Janis snatched her phone back and jabbed her finger at the screen. “She said she was Katie, your fiancée. Dated you since high school. She knew everything about you. Answered all my questions without hesitation.”
Nick sneered at her. “Nice work, Lois Lane. Katie didn’t go to my high school. She only moved to the city when she got the job at Saint Mary’s. That’s when I met her.”
Janis’ cheeks flushed red and her eyes glinted with anger. “I’m a professional journalist—”
“Yeah, right, The Entertainer is a real Pulitzer Prize winner.”
“Damn it! I worked at the Daily Record for six years as their top Breaking News Reporter. And at the Glen Haven Journal for five years before that. I always check my sources. I don’t understand how she could have lied, and I didn’t catch it.”
“Tara’s nuts. Every word she says is a lie. I can only imagine the shit she told you about me.” Nick sighed and poured more coffee into Janis’ cup. “So how did you go from the Daily Record to a rag like The Entertainer? That’s a big step down the journalism ladder.”
Janis’s hands shook as she tore through the pages of a small spiral-bound notebook. “Here. Tara Burns.” She drummed her fingers on a page of scrawled notes. “Katie said you were sneaking around having an affair with her roommate, Tara.” She yanked folders from her over-sized bag and riffled through them. She held up a page. “The nurse in this picture, isn’t she Tara?”
Nick stared at the photograph of a group of young women dressed in nursing uniforms. Hand drawn red arrows pointed to two women in the photo, one was labeled Katie and the other, Tara.
“This is wrong, you have their names switched,” Nick said.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure. She’s my fiancée. Or, was.” Nick tossed the photo on the counter. “Who gave you this picture?”
“Katie, or now you’re telling me it was Tara, gave it to me the day I spoke to her at her apartment. This is a copy of the photo I gave to Ruby in my report.”
“Ruby knows what Katie looks like. He met her at the VIP party. Didn’t he question it?”
Janis shook her head. “No . . . but I’m not sure he even looked at it. His snotty girlfriend Talon grabbed the file and snooped through it the day I delivered it. She was half-naked and draped across his desk like a cheap coat. Ruby was distracted, to say the least. He shoved the file into a drawer, handed me a check, and told me to go.”
Janis flung the folder on the counter. Papers slid out and fluttered to the floor. Nick stared down at a paper copy of The Entertainer’s front page. A close-up of Stephanie’s battered face with a black rectangle superimposed across her eyes stared back. The headline loomed in huge block type, Nick Tera: Pedophile! Fourteen-Year-Old Victim Tells All.
He snatched up the paper and crumpled it. “This is a fucking lie! This is going on your front page?”
“No, relax. It’s a mock-up. A fake. I put it together myself to show Ruby. He told me to have it ready.”
“Ready for what?” He swooped down and scooped up the other papers from the floor.
He unfolded another tabloid-sized page showing a collage of pictures of himself and Bethany at the cocktail party running from reporters. The headline, Jilted Nick Tera Slaughters Bethany And Her Fiancé In A Fit Of Jealous Rage. He threw his hands in the air. “I’m screwed. Ruby’s got me tied to every dirty—”
“Shush. Listen to me, Ruby gave me the Bethany story three days ago.”
Nick sat with his elbows on the counter and his head in his hands.
“Did you hear me? That’s two days before Bethany’s murder was even discovered.”
“That’s your big revelation? I know Ruby’s a killer. And God only knows how many other killers he has on his payroll.” Nick lifted his head. “What do you want from me? And why were you snooping in Ruby’s contracts?”
“Can I trust you?” Janis asked.
“I don’t care if you trust me or not. I know I don’t trust you.”
She gripped the edges of the counter, her fingertips white. “This is what Ruby wants. He creates distrust, paranoia. He isolates people inside their own fear. Until they feel like they have no one to turn to, no way out.”
“You think I’m paranoid? Slaughter’s dead, Steph’s been beaten, my best friend’s probably crippled for life and my father’s been shot. He also tried to kill Ray’s grandmother and my little brother. They’re alive by sheer luck. He murdered a security guard and a cop. Two more cops are in critical condition. Now, Mary and her fiancé are dead. And Ruby is threatening Katie and my grandmother. He’s systematically destroying everyone I care about. It’s not paranoia, it’s the fucking nightmare my life has become.”
Janis stared down at her fingers squeezing the edge of the countertop. “My girlfriend, Casey. I was searching for her contract.” She glanced up at Nick and let out a long sigh.
“Where is she?”
“Dead. Three years now. She was twenty-three. Wanted to be a rock star. Infuriatingly stubborn. Talented, beautiful, and . . . I loved her more than anything on this earth. I’ve been investigating Ruby ever since.”
“So, that’s why you wanted to win his contest so badly.”
“I’m a journalist, not a fiction writer. I plagiarized a horror story I found online in order to enter his damn contest. When that didn’t pan out,” she shot a burning glance at Nick, “I went to work for the tabloid trash. It gave me an in with Ruby.”
“You didn’t answer me. Did you sign a contract?”
“No. So far I’ve managed to fool Ruby into believing I’m loyal. That I’ll write up whatever crap he hands me. As for The Entertainer, well, shit, they’ll print anything. The more shocking and salacious the better. But my real story will be published someday.”
“Your real story?”
“Yes. Exposing Ruby for the murdering, despicable, evil bastard he is.”
“You know he’s the devil, don’t you?”
“Like any sane person would believe that.” Janis scowled at Nick and then turned away. “I know exactly what Ruby is. My editor at the Daily thought I’d lost my mind when I showed him my notes. I quit because they were going to fire me after that.”
“Do you know how to destroy Ruby, or at least get to his contracts again?”
“He’s immortal, I think. As for the contracts, I don’t know. Ruby’s suspicious. He had an alarm and a camera installed at his office. And his new secretary is a bitchy, little watch dog. I almost conned the dumb redhead into letting me into—”.
“Hey, Steph’s a friend. She’s not dumb, just young and trusting. She got hurt for trying to help me.”
“So, you didn’t steal any of the contracts?”
Janis picked up the folder on the counter. Nick ripped it away from her hold.
As soon as he opened the folder, he recognized it. “You got it.” His heart pounded as he flipped though the papers to the last page containing his signature. “Yes! Oh my God. I can finally end this.”
He ran to the living room and opened the fireplace door.
Janis rushed after him. “It won’t work.”
He pressed the button to ignite the fire. “Why, did you plan to use this to blackmail me?”
Janis pointed to the stack of papers he tossed into the hearth. “Look.”
Small flames lapped at the edges of the papers, singing them brown and curling the corners. The small, black type had faded away to white on the top page. The word COPY in large red letters replaced the text.
Nick opened the door and hastily lifted up the burning stack. He shuffled off each burning page back into the fire. All of the pages were blank, except for the word COPY printed on each.
“No.” He stared at the fire which now engulfed the papers and leaned his forehead on the mantle. “No, no, no. This can’t be happening.”
Janis touched his arm. “I’m sorry. I tried to burn Casey’s contract. The same thing happened. It was a copy. I swear to you, Nick, it if were your real contract, I would have given it you. I’m not out to get you. I only want Ruby.”
He looked at Janis with glassy eyes. “What now?”
Janis threw her hands in the air. “Hell if I know. Every time I get any of his clients to trust me, they turn up dead. I tried to meet with Bethany. You know what happened to her. I had a meeting set up with Ian Slaughter, too. When I pulled into the parking lot of his hotel that evening, I saw someone falling from a balcony. I ran over. It was Slaughter. Dead, obviously, with black feathers sticking out of his mouth.”
“Similar, or the same, as Talon’s winged costume at the VIP party. What do you know about her?”
“Just that she’s Ruby’s daughter and from what I can see, as evil and twisted as he is.”
“Daughter?” Janis wrinkled her nose and grunted. “They act like lovers.”
“I know. It’s perverted.” Nick jabbed the button and turned off the fireplace, then stalked into the kitchen. “Talon killed Chris? I thought he committed suicide.”
“Ruby told me Chris was suicidal. As cold a bastard as he is, that seemed to anger him for some reason. I’ve heard suicide breaks the contract, but I don’t know if that’s true.”
“Destroying my contract was my only hope. Now, I’m screwed.”
“There’s got to be a way to stop Ruby. Between the two of us—”
“Look, I don’t have a lot of time left. Ruby’s forcing me to do something after the premiere tonight. If I refuse, he’ll kill my fiancée.”
“What’s he forcing you to do?’
Janis scooped up her papers and stuffed them into her bag. She backed toward the front door.
“I’m not a murderer. I won’t do it. No matter what.” Nick sighed and shook his head. “I’m sorry about your girlfriend. But, writing a story won’t stop Ruby. It’s hopeless. God’s the only one who can destroy the devil.” He laughed, a short dry sound. “I don’t think He’s a fan of mine anymore.”
Janis stood with her hand on the doorknob eyeing Nick. “I don’t believe in God.”
“Yet you believe in the devil. That makes no sense.”
“Occupational hazard. I believe in facts. Things I can see, prove and verify.”
“Like you verified Tara was Katie?”
Janis huffed and then stomped out of the apartment, slamming the door.
Nick sank onto a kitchen stool, the tiny flicker of hope he felt earlier, extinguished. Either Janis was out to revenge her girlfriend’s death as she said, or she was a spy for Ruby. Maybe Ruby had sent her to check up on Chris, too. Everything she said could be a lie. The contract, a fake and the mock-up front pages, real.
He stared at the clock. None of it mattered anymore. The premiere started in seven hours. His heartbeat revved up and vibrated in his dry throat.
After taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door to Ray’s room in the physical therapy wing of the hospital. As much as he tried to mentally prepare himself for the sight of his best friend sitting in a wheelchair, the actual image unnerved him.
“Hey, Nick!” Ray grinned, pointed a remote at the television set and clicked it off. The muscles in his biceps worked as he wheeled himself across the room toward Nick.
Ray’s grin disturbed Nick. He prayed Ray wouldn’t ask him to get his gun again.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you sooner, how are you feeling, buddy?”
“I’m good. Be even better when they discharge me next week.” He turned his head when the door swung open and a petite, young woman dressed in a pink golf shirt and white slacks entered. His smile broadened and he winked at Nick. “Now, I’m feeling excellent.”
The woman nodded at Nick and then addressed Ray. “Ready for your session?” Her smile brightened her entire face, especially her expressive brown eyes.
“I’m always ready for you,” Ray said. “Nick, meet Alona Vargas, my physical therapist and future girlfriend.”
Alona’s cheeks flushed a rosy pink. “Ray, you’re going to get me fired.”
“Nice to meet you.” Nick shook her dainty hand.
“Why? It’s true. We’ve got a date to go salsa dancing in sixty days,” Ray said.
Her dark eyes sparkled. “I agreed to a date in ninety days. Now it’s sixty?”
Nick stared from one to another. Ray’s talk of dancing and his carefree manner confused him.
Alona rolled an aluminum walker from a corner of the room and stood it in front of Ray’s wheelchair. “Remember, slow and easy, use your arm and leg muscles to lift up and . . . oh, Ray.”
He stood up before she finished her instructions. The only indication of pain, a wince as he straightened his back.
Nick stepped back, his eyes wide. “Y-you can walk?”
Ray and Alona both looked at him. “Yeah, didn’t Louis call you?” Ray asked.
Nick gave a sheepish shrug. He had kept his phone turned off most of the time since Katie broke their engagement and hadn’t checked his messages.
“He still has some swelling, muscle and nerve damage,” Alona said, “If he slows down and focuses on his therapy, he should be back to normal in about ninety days.”
Ray leaned over the walker and pecked her on the cheek. “Thirty days.”
Alona shook her head and then smiled at Nick. “Would you please watch him for a minute? I left his chart on my desk. I’ll be right back.”
“Ray, this is fantastic.” He wrapped his arms around Ray’s shoulders and hugged him. “I’m so relieved—so happy—you can walk.”
“Me too. Man, it gave me a whole new respect for people in wheelchairs. That takes superhuman strength to deal with. I don’t have that kind of strength.”
“Looks like you’ve gotten over your shyness with girls, too.”
Ray’s grin widened. “Guess I had to find the right girl. Alona’s it. She has so much positive energy, like a tiny bundle of dynamite. Said she loves to dance, too.” Ray laughed. “She’s so petite, she makes me feel tall. And, when she smiles at me, her eyes . . . well, you saw her, she’s incredible.”
Nick grinned. “You’ve fallen hard, buddy. So, which is it, thirty, sixty or ninety days until you’re back to one hundred percent?”
“The doctors say ninety, but I’m shooting for thirty.” He took a few steps and grimaced. “Shit, maybe forty.” He grunted and rubbed his lower back. “Are you and Katie back together?”
Nick walked to the window and gazed outside. He slid his finger back and forth in one of the open spaces between the slats of the blinds. “We’re taking a break.”
Ray stopped moving the walker. “Taking a break? What the hell does that mean?”
“What it sounds like.”
“Sounds like bullshit. Is your situation worked out?”
“Should be settled by tomorrow. One way or the other.”
“You never did tell me what was going on. Are you all right, Nick?”
Nick turned to Ray and smiled. “Much better, now that I see you up and walking.”
“I feel shitty that I pressured you about the gun, Nick.”
Nick gripped Ray’s shoulder. “Forget it, I probably would have felt the same way.”
Ray made his way across the room. “Did you hear the asshole who shot me is dead?”
“No, what happened?”
“Weird shit. Cops matched the bullet they dug outta me to a gun used in other armed robberies. They tracked the guy down yesterday. Lamar Evans. Belonged to some gang, Hell’s Hounds, I think. He stole my grandma’s purse that night. Only valuable thing in it was her mother’s rosary beads. Real old and made of semi-precious stones. She was sick over losing them.”
“Yeah, I remember them. They were unique, multicolored. Did the cops get them back?”
“Yup. This ass wipe was wearing them around his neck like some sort of trophy. When the cops chased him, he climbed out a second story window and then jumped from the fire escape to get away. The beads got caught on a broken rail. Dumb prick hung himself before they could get him down.”
“Holy crap. The beads didn’t break?”
“Probably would have, except my old man got tired of fixing the chain every time Grandma snagged it on something. He reinforced the chain with fishing line. Heavy test.”
Alona walked in carrying a clipboard. Her eyes lit up when she looked at Ray. She touched his arm. “How’s your back feeling, Ray? Fatigued yet?”
Ray brushed his fingers against her cheek. “Nope. Just getting started.”
Nick left Ray to finish his physical therapy session with Alona. Discovering Ray could walk lifted a heavy burden from his mind. He rode the elevator to the second floor to check on his father.
“You’re looking a lot better today, Pop,” Nick said as he entered the room.
Dom sat upright in bed with a partially eaten tray of food on the adjustable table in front of him. “Damn bullet didn’t kill me, but this lousy food will,” he grumbled.
Nick smiled. “You’ll be home tomorrow.”
“I hope! They’ve been talking about letting me out for days now.” Dom shook his head. “Goddamn doctors never give you a straight answer. Just like when your mother was here.”
Nick remembered the heated arguments between his father and his mother’s doctors. Despite her aggressive breast cancer, his father still blamed them for her death.
“Nick, sit for a minute.” His father cleared his throat and took a sip of water. “I wanna talk to you.”
Nick pulled a chair near the bed. “What’s up?”
“Sal came by today. He’s worried Nonna changed her mind about letting him box.”
“She’s upset about the shooting. Nonna gets overprotective, especially with Sal.”
“Ya know why your grandmother feels the way she does about boxing?”
Nick shrugged. “I guess she doesn’t like fighting.”
“No. She hates boxing ’cause of me,” Dom said.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re old enough to know the truth.” Dom’s attempt at laughter came out as a deep guttural sound. “And one more reason to hate your ol’ man.”
Nick shook his head. “I don’t hate you, Pop, I just—”
His father held up his hand. “Let me get this out, okay? When I first met your mother, I was a high school dropout working at Eddie’s gym. I’d quit school for dreams of being a big-time boxer, just like my father, Ol’ Joe the Hammer. All I wanted was my photo hanging next to his on the wall at Eddie’s. My father wanted it even more than me. He couldn’t take on the younger guys in the ring anymore and he expected me to continue his . . . legacy.” His gaze drifted from Nick to the open window.
“I worked my ass off, training every day in that damn gym. But the reality—I just wasn’t that good. I had the muscle but didn’t have the moves. A boxer needs agility. Eddie tried to tell my father I should give it up. Find something else to do. Boy, did that ever piss off my ol’ man. He pushed me even harder. Against Eddie’s advice, he found people to promote me. Local fights. Small time stuff, but with a lot of betting. I got my ass kicked in the ring three times a week. Then kicked again at home by my father.” Dom grunted. “He’d give me a hard shot to the gut. Then he’d shout, ‘learn to take a punch’ and walk away.”
Nick’s head snapped up. His father nodded as if he could see the memories playing in his son’s mind.
Nick at three years old, play-boxing on the living room floor with his father. Dom would land a punch every now and then in Nick’s stomach. Even though he pulled his punches, they still hurt and knocked young Nick to the floor. If he cried, his father would yell, “Ya gotta learn to take a punch, Nick”.
“I hated it when my father did it to me. Then I did the same to you. I’m sorry, Nick. More sorry than you’ll ever know.”
Nick rubbed his chin. “Go on.”
“These two low-level wise guys, Jimmy Grazziano and Big T, Tony Borrelli, were making good money taking bets against me. One night they came to me and told me what round to fall down in. Ordered me to throw the fight! For once, I was sure I could take the guy. He was a rookie, a skinny, little Irish kid.” Dom balled his fists, anger flashed in his eyes.
“What happened?” Nick asked.
Dom snorted. “Pride happened. I wouldn’t throw the fight. Ironically, it was the one and only knock-out in my career. Round two. A body shot and then a solid right hook to the jaw. The kid hit the mat like a rock. Stayed down for the full ten count and then some.”
“What about the guys who wanted you to throw the fight?”
“Yeah, them. Well, my high of winning lasted as long as the walk from the ring into the locker room. The SOBs jumped me. Beat the be-Jesus outta me. Told me I had one week to come up with fifty grand.”
“Shit! What did you do?”
“Nuthin’ I’m proud of,” Dom closed his eyes and pushed back against the pillows.
Nick leaned forward, waiting for his father to continue.
“I already told ya I was a high school drop-out and a lousy boxer,” Dom said. “I was also a husband and a new father. You were about eight months old. I’d lost the crappy little apartment we were living in ’cause I couldn’t pay the rent. Why the hell your mother stayed with me, I don’t know. I kept telling her my big purse would come at the next fight. Never did. When we got evicted, your nonna, Rosa, took us into the apartment over the restaurant. Gave us the whole second floor.” Dom rubbed at his eyes with his knuckles.
“I was desperate for money. Big money. Nothing I could earn at a regular job in a week’s time. Those guys weren’t messing around. So, one day when everyone was downstairs in the restaurant, I went through Rosa’s jewelry box. When I got to the pawn shop, they offered me twenty-grand for it. I was screwed. A failure and now a thief. I left the shop with the jewelry. The thought of facing your mother . . . I couldn’t. So, I laid low at a buddy’s house. Stayed shit-faced drunk for a week.”
Dom wiped his eyes before continuing. “Then I heard when they couldn’t find me, they roughed up . . . your mother.” Dom’s voice broke and he buried his face in his hands. “I swear to God, Nick, I didn’t know they knew where she lived or that they’d dare go by the restaurant. Please, I need to know you believe me, son.”
Dom’s eyes were wet. He reached out toward Nick with both arms.
Nick’s jaw muscles worked. He swallowed hard and pushed back in his chair. “What did they do to Mom?”
His father held his hand over eyes. “She was walking back to the restaurant one evening pushing a baby carriage with you in it. These two scumbags, they came up to her and one grabbed her arms. The other started flashing a knife around. Threatened to cut her. They held the knife on you . . . a baby, for Christ’s sake. They told Rosie they’d slit your throat right then if she didn’t tell them where I was hiding. The tip of the knife cut you.” Dom pointed to his throat. “Here.”
Nick fingered the scar on his neck. “Mom said it was from a soup can lid . . .”
“Your mother didn’t want you to know. She didn’t want you to think bad of me.” Dom reached over, grabbed tissues from a box and blew his nose loudly. “That was real important to her.”
“Then what happened?”
“Your mother saw the blood on your neck. She broke loose and grabbed for the blade. It cut her hand, bad. Some guys from the neighborhood heard her screaming. They ran over and the two thugs took off.” He dabbed at his eyes. “All the commotion brought Rosa outside. She saw blood all over the baby carriage. Rosie and you both crying . . . bleeding.”
Nick touched the scar again. His stomach churned, pushing a sour taste into the back of his throat. He looked at his father’s tear-streaked face, then down at the floor.
“I came clean, Nick. When I heard what they did, I sobered up and went to the restaurant that same night. Rosa demanded to know the truth. I told her everything. She laid into me good. Cursed me up and down, first in Italian and then in English. Slapped me across the face a few times, too.”
Dom sighed and shook his head. “I deserved it and more. I took her jewelry out of my pocket and put it on the table. I headed for the door, but she stopped me.” Dom managed a weak smile. “Here’s Rosa, all four feet, ten inches of her standing between me and the door. She told me I had two choices. I could walk out the door and never come back, or I could be a man and take care of my family. She said if I stayed, and swore off boxing for good, she’d help me. Give me a job at the restaurant.”
“You chose to stay,” Nick said.
“The thought of leaving your mother, you . . . I couldn’t. I needed to make things right.”
“What about the guys who wanted the money?”
Dom didn’t answer for several seconds. “Rosa said she’d take care of it. I figured she’d pay them and then I’d work off the debt at the restaurant, but. . ..” Dom trailed off and looked away.
“But what?” Nick asked.
“Look, Nick, I’m not saying your grandmother had anything to do with this, okay? But, two days later they found both of those guys, dead. Throats slit and their bodies dumped in the river. The cops didn’t look into it very hard. Everyone figured they were killed by their own kind. No big loss, ya know?”
“You’re not saying Nonna put a hit on those guys, are you?”
“No! No. Like I said, it was a coincidence. They were bad guys. Had a lot of enemies,” Dom licked his lips and averted his eyes from Nick’s hard stare.
“What is it?” Nick asked.
Dom spoke in a whisper. “I always wondered, ya know, I mean, Rosa is from Sicily.”
“Oh, c’mon, Pop!”
“I know, I know. Forget I said it. God forgive me for even thinking it,” Dom made a quick sign of the cross. “I owe my life to that woman. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know where I’d be now. She made me work hard. Mopping floors. Washing dishes. Waiting tables. She also taught me to cook, and then, after your grandpa Vincente passed, she taught me how to run the business. Rosa gave me my pride back. My life and my family back. I love her and I love the restaurant more than I can say.”
“So, Mom forgave you?” Nick asked.
“It took a while.” Dom’s eyes glossed with tears. “We worked it out. She saw I was serious about turning my life around. I loved your mother with all my heart.” Dom traced his fingers over the tattoo on his arm. “The heart is for your mom. The two roses, you and Sal.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“Laying here, shot, it makes ya think. We’ve always butted heads, you and me. I wanted you to understand . . . you’re my oldest son. I’m so proud of you, Nick. I love you.”
Nick stood and walked around the room trying to process what his father had told him.
“Nick, I don’t know what’s happened between you and Katie. She sneaks in to check on me, but I know something’s wrong. She’s an angel. A keeper. Like your mom. You have to do whatever it takes to make things right with her.”
Nick looked at his father sitting in the hospital bed. A jumble of thoughts and emotions swam through his head. He was taller and stronger than his father now. Dom still had large biceps, but his once rock-hard stomach had drifted southward into a soft paunch. Nick wanted to punch him in the gut and then scream at him to learn to take a punch. Hearing his father say he was proud of him, made him want to cry after all the years of frustration and fighting. He hated his father for putting his mom in danger. And yet, he also admired him for staying. His last thought made him sink back into the chair and hold his head in his hands.
“What is it, Nick?” his father said.
“I’m the same as you. That’s why we never got along. Too much alike.”
Dom snorted. “Nah, you was always smarter than me, even as a kid. You did good in school. Went to college. You ain’t nuthin’ like me. I let your mother handle your writing stuff. The only time I ever felt like your father was when you were in jail. Pretty sad, huh?”
Dom reached under the blanket. He pulled out a copy of Nick’s book. “Hell, you’re twenty-five and you have a best-selling book. Sal brought it to me. Told me while I’m laying around here doing nuthin’ I should read it. I am. I’m not fast at reading, so it might take me awhile. What I read so far is good, real good.” Dom patted the book cover. “You have a new life outside the restaurant. You’re famous. On television and all, like a movie star. I guess you changed your name cause you’re ashamed. I’m not educated—”
“I didn’t change my name, Pop. The agent did. I’m not ashamed of you, or our name.”
“Why’d he’d change it?”
“That bastard changes everything. Twists everything. He says it’s marketing, sales, always some bullshit reason to manipulate and torture people. He’s the fucking dev—he’s . . . evil.” Nick stood and paced the small room again. “It’s the same as you wanting your picture on Eddie’s wall. Me wanting my damn stories published. I can’t pay the price either. Not without doing things I don’t want to do. Hurting people. The people I love the most. Especially Katie.”
“Nick, tell me how I can help you, son.”
“You can’t, Pop. Nobody can. I got myself into this, I have to get myself out, one way or the other.” Nick clenched his jaw and his fists. “I have to take the punch.”