Stephanie sat naked and cross-legged on the narrow bed sipping coffee while she waited for Sal to finish showering. She pushed aside the enormous, stuffed puppy Sal had won for her at a church bazaar and rummaged through a box crammed between the bed and the wall. A pair of peacock-blue, T-straps caught her eye. The two-hundred-and-forty-dollar price tag dangled from a string attached to the leather ankle band. She put her coffee mug down on the windowsill behind the bed and wriggled her left foot into the shoe. Leaning back on the pillows, she lifted her leg and twisted her ankle back and forth admiring the shoe.
“That looks really hot.” Sal grinned at her from the foot of the bed. He stood rubbing his dripping body with a towel.
Stephanie’s cheeks flushed. She kicked off the shoe. “Coffee’s ready. I’m going to take a shower.”
Sal dropped his towel and slipped his arms around her waist as she brushed past him on her way to the bathroom.
“Again?” She giggled. “Eddie’s going to blame me if you mess up in the ring today.”
“I never mess up in the ring. Besides Eddie’s wrong. Sex doesn’t hurt my endurance.” He cupped Stephanie’s bare bottom in both his hands and pulled her close. “Sex makes everything better.” He walked forward, pushing Stephanie backwards until she fell onto the bed. He climbed on top of her.
“Sal, it’s eight forty-five. I have to get ready and be downstairs by nine thir—” She shrieked and then giggled as Sal shook his wet hair and the cold water sprinkled across her breasts. He covered her mouth with his. She wrapped her arms and legs around him.
Sal rolled onto his back until he caught his breath, then he turned over on his side. With his head propped on his elbow, he grinned down at Stephanie. “It gets better each time.”
“It does.” She combed his damp wavy, hair with her fingers. The giant stuffed dog had fallen over, its face lay next to Sal’s elbow on the bed. It stared at her between two long, shaggy brown ears. The puppy’s light brown eyes flecked with amber matched Sal’s eye color. She smiled, thinking all Sal needed was a long, pink felt tongue lolling from his mouth and he could be the puppy’s twin.
“You’re such a horn dog. I’m going to be late for work. Again. I bet Eddie knows exactly why I’m late, too.”
“I don’t care. Old guys tell young guys they can’t have sex before a match only ’cause they’re jealous that we can.” Sal jumped to his feet and danced around the tiny room throwing punches in the air. “See, I have plenty of energy. Not that it matters.”
Stephanie sat up in the bed. “You don’t sound very excited about this fight.”
“It’s another of Eddie’s stupid local match-ups. A no-name guy from some no-name gym on the west side.”
“But, there’s prize money, right?”
“Yeah, a couple of hundred bucks, but . . .”
Stephanie waited for Sal to finish his sentence. He stopped hopping from foot to foot and jabbing his fists in the air and started pacing up and down the length of the bed.
“I don’t wanna do this anymore.”
“But you love boxing.”
“I do love boxing. Just not here in these piddly-ass fights. I’m sick of making chump change. I was gonna tell you yesterday, but I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” Stephanie stood and looked into Sal’s eyes.
“Hang on a sec.” He ran and retrieved his gym bag and plopped it onto the bed.
Stephanie stood with her arms crossed watching as he dug through its contents. He pulled out a large brown envelope.
Sal held it out, but then snatched it away before she could take it. “I need to know something first.”
She rolled her eyes. “Why are you acting so weird? What do you need to know?”
“If I were to go someplace else, would you come with me?”
“Go where? What are you talking about?”
“Like, if I had a chance to make it big . . .”
Stephanie shrugged in bewilderment when he trailed off without finishing his sentence again. “Sal, what’s in the envelope?”
“What kind of contract?”
Sal’s eyes lit up and he waved his arms as he talked. “I met this guy the other day. Joe Garnet. A sports promoter from Vegas. This guy’s flippin’ amazing, Steph. He knows every big shot in the business. And he only promotes the best. All the world class champions. Hagen, Walker, Vargas, O’Hara. The list goes on and on.”
“What are you getting at, Sal?”
“Garnet’s been traveling the country, scouting for new talent. He’s watched three of my matches.” Sal grabbed Stephanie’s hands. “He told me he was blown away by my talent. Said I have what it takes to be a superstar. He wants to sign me up, Steph. Make me a pro boxer!”
“That sounds major.” Stephanie stared at Sal’s lopsided grin. He couldn’t stand still.
“More than major, it’s a flippin’ once in a lifetime opportunity. Think about it, Steph. Me and you in Vegas. Garnet said it’s a twenty-four-seven party. Night clubs, shows, dancing, casinos, you name it. Here’s the best part, he knows some people in the music industry. He promised me he’d help you get your songs recorded. You’ll finally be a country singer, like you always dreamed.”
“Sal, this all sounds awesome, but—”
“But what?” The sparkle in Sal’s eyes dulled. “Don’t you want to come with me?”
Stephanie sank down onto the edge of the bed. “I-I don’t want to stay here without you. But, what about your family? And Eddie?”
Sal sighed. His shoulders drooped. “I love my family to death. But I can’t live my life around what they want. My dad and Nonna are always worried I’ll get hurt. ‘Play it safe, don’t take any chances’, that’s all they say. Nick’s married and has his life with Katie. I love Eddie, too. He’s been like a grandfather to me. He’s even hinted about leaving me his business since he has no kids of his own.”
“Yeah. I mean that’s great and all, but I don’t want to end up like Eddie. Or my dad. They’re both gonna die in the same place they were born. It’s depressing. I don’t want to hang around this gym all my life. And then there’s you.”
“I-I love you, Steph. But I saw that fancy apartment you used to live in. All your nice clothes and shoes and stuff are still packed in boxes.” He picked up the blue shoe from the floor and turned it over in his hands. “You’re so beautiful, but there’s no reason for you to get dressed up around here. You can’t be happy living in this dump. If I sign with Garnet, we could be flippin’ millionaires. We could buy an awesome house. Or a mansion. Hell, a whole bunch of mansions. We could travel around the world. You’d be a famous singer and I’d be a professional boxer. Best of all, we’d be together, if you’ll come with me. Whaddaya think?”
“That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Stephanie’s eyes brimmed with tears. “You really do love me.” Her voice faded into a soft whisper. “You think I’m pretty.”
Sal brushed his fingers across her cheek. “Beautiful. The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. And sweet. Sexy. Smart. And talented and—hey, what’s wrong? Why’re you crying?”
Sal knelt in front of her and wrapped his arms around her.
Stephanie’s voice trembled. “You never told me you loved me before.”
Sal put his cellphone in his pocket and hurried over to where Stephanie sat at the front desk of the gym.
“Garnet’s catching a flight back to Vegas at six o’clock.”
“So, I thought I had more time. I promised to get the contract to him before he leaves. Would you bring it to him? I have to be in the ring in thirty minutes. If I leave now, Eddie will freak. I didn’t want to tell him anything until after the match.”
“Yeah, I guess. Where is he?”
“He said he’d be at the Red Owl diner for another hour, then he’s heading to the airport. It’s on Bay Avenue, about six blocks south of here.” Sal lowered his voice. “Garnet always wears a black cowboy hat. Says it’s his trademark. Should make him easy to spot.”
“Tell Eddie I ran to the drugstore for girl stuff.” Stephanie smiled. “He won’t ask.”
He handed her the envelope and whispered, “We’ll be partying in Vegas next weekend.”
Sal ran out the back door of Eddie’s gym waving his arms and yelling for Stephanie to stop. Her yellow Volkswagen idled in the driveway, poised to pull out into traffic. She backed up and lowered her driver’s window. “What’s wrong?”
“I forgot to sign!” Sal smacked his open palm against his forehead. “The most important thing and I almost flippin’ blew it.”
Stephanie frowned as she handed him the envelope.
He patted his boxing shorts and robe. “Um, do you have a pen?”
She dug inside her purse.
Sal reached through the window and grabbed a silver ballpoint from the jumble of items which cascaded into her lap. Ruby International Promotions was engraved on the barrel in red letters.
“No, not that one. Uh, it doesn’t work.” She held up a pink, plastic pen. “Use this one.”
Sal scribbled on the envelope with the silver pen. “This works fine.”
He turned to the last page of the thick packet of papers. Laying the contract on the car’s hood, he smoothed the page, signed his name and filled in the date.
Eddie yelled from the back door of the gym, “Sal! Stop smooching with that pretty girl of yours. Get your butt in here. We need to tape up your hands and get your gloves on.”
Sal shoved the contract through the driver’s window, leaned and kissed Stephanie’s cheek. “Gotta run.”
At three in the afternoon, only a few patrons sat on the red vinyl and chrome stools at the diner’s long, Formica counter. Two women sat in the booth closest to the door coaxing a young boy to eat the french fries on his plate. A man wearing a red leather jacket and black cowboy hat sat in the very last booth at the far end of the diner.
Stephanie walked the length of the counter, stools on her right, rows of red vinyl booths and tables on her left. Sunlight shone through the wall of windows and made the tiny gold flecks in the Formica tables glitter. Outside, traffic and pedestrians moved past in a steady flow.
She took a deep breath and stood quietly for a moment by the end booth watching the man read a menu. His head tilted downward, and the hat’s wide brim obscured his face in shadow.
He looked up. His dark eyes shone. “Hello, Stephanie. You look well, my dear.”
Stephanie slid into the seat across from Garnet. “You’re looking well, too, father. The cowboy hat is . . . different.”
“My new image.” Garnet’s lips twisted to reveal gleaming white teeth. “I had a hard time choosing. The white hat or the black.”
“Black would seem to be the obvious choice.”
“That depends on one’s perspective.” His unpleasant smile evaporated. “At least I know what side I’m on. Do you?”
She looked down and hugged the brown envelope against her chest.
“You have Sal’s contract. Is it signed?”
Stephanie nodded. “Yes, but—”
“With a silver pen?”
“Yes. B-but you can’t have it. Something’s changed. I’ll find you someone else.”
Garnet’s hand shot across the table. He ripped the envelope from her grasp. “You know my rules.”
“No, wait, I agreed to get you Sal before I knew that—”
Garnet threw back his head and laughed. “He loves you? Or, thinks he loves you? Big, stupid jock. Until you, he’s only fumbled under girl’s skirts in a Catholic school coat closet. Wait until he sees Vegas. Show girls, cocktail waitresses, ring girls—how faithful do you think Sal will be with gorgeous women throwing themselves at him? And where will that leave you? Maybe then you’ll appreciate all I’ve done for you. Such a shame you aren’t more like Talon, my perfect daughter.”
“Perfect?” Stephanie snorted. “She killed your biggest star.”
“Chris had become a whining nuisance. He planned to kill himself anyway. She made a tactical decision and salvaged his soul for me.”
“You call shoving him out the window of a fifteen-story building a tactical decision?”
He smiled, showing pointed teeth. “Yes.”
“She screwed up again when she stabbed the roommate instead of Katie.”
“That wasn’t Talon’s fault. The information in Janis Ford’s report was flawed.”
“You always take Talon’s side. You made her lead singer in Chris’ band. She can’t sing. I’m the singer. She’s nothing but an evil, cold-blooded . . . slut.”
“As I said, my perfect daughter. Instead of your childish sibling jealousy, you’d do well to study your stepsister. You might learn.”
A waitress placed a plate with an over-sized hamburger in front of Garnet. “Are you sure the burger’s how you want it?” She lowered her voice. “We’re not supposed to serve ’em this rare.” The limp, blood-red patty flopped over the edges of the bun.
Garnet slipped a folded twenty-dollar bill into the woman’s apron pocket. “Just how I like it. Bring dessert now.” He tapped his fingernail on a picture on the laminated menu. “Two spoons.”
“Yes, sir. Can I get you anything, miss?”
Stephanie shook her head. The woman sauntered off behind the counter.
Garnet picked up the giant burger. Juice from the nearly raw meat saturated the bun into two round, red-soaked sponges. He tore into the sandwich like a ravenous dog. Juice oozed between his fingers and streamed onto the plate. Red droplets spattered the table with each vicious bite. Garnet slurped, grunted and devoured the burger in four bites. He stared at Stephanie as he sucked his fingertips to savor the juice under his nails. Then he picked up the dish and lapped up the crimson puddle with his long, tapered tongue.
Disgusted, Stephanie turned and looked out the window. A bus rolled to a stop outside the diner. The doors opened with a muffled whoosh. A morbidly obese woman approached the bus. She gripped the railings with both hands and hauled her body up the three steps. On the last step, she wavered. Her feet lifted in the air and her body hurled backwards as if shoved by unseen hands. Her floral-print dress billowed up around her waist as she fell. She landed hard, the back of her head impacted the sidewalk, bouncing once. She lay still, her dress bunched up around her waist as a dark, red puddle pooled around her head.
Stephanie spun around and glared at Garnet. “You did that.”
His forefinger and thumb were poised in the air as if he had just flicked away a bug. He picked at his teeth with his pinky nail and then shrugged. “I was bored.”
The waitress removed Garnet’s empty plate with one hand and placed a large ice cream sundae in front of him with the other. The oversized pedestal dish could barely contain the vanilla ice cream slathered in hot fudge. A huge puff of whipped cream wobbled on top with a bright red stain where a cherry had sunk down into the frothy center.
“Two spoons,” the waitress said as she laid them on the table. “Oh, my!” She craned her neck to peer out the window. “I’d better call 9-1-1.” She hurried away.
Garnet held up the second spoon. “Join me?”
Stephanie wrinkled her nose.
He dug his spoon into a mound of ice cream coated with thick, shiny fudge and shoveled it into his mouth. “Mmm.” His tongue scrubbed at the fudge smear on his lips. “Something looks different about you, Stephanie,” he said, pointing the spoon at her. “I wonder what it could be?”
“Please, father, I’m begging you, give me back Sal’s contract. I swear I’ll find you someone else.”
“No.” He shoved another gob of ice cream into his mouth. Smacking his lips, he waved the spoon near Stephanie’s face. “I know what it is. You’re not a virgin anymore, are you?” He grinned. Whipped cream encircled his mouth like a foam on a rabid dog.
“That’s none of your business.”
“You are my business. I made you with that pathetic, drug-addicted whore.” He plucked the cherry from the sundae and twirled the stem between his fingers. “My little girl has finally lost her virginity.” He ripped the fruit from the stem with his teeth and laughed at Stephanie’s shocked expression. “No wonder you’re protecting Sal.”
Outside, a crowd formed. A teen-aged boy aimed his cell phone at the fallen woman and then held it up to show his friend. The two gaped at the phone, laughed and then ambled down the street.
“Is my mother doing better?” Stephanie asked.
“If better means dead, then yes.”
Color drained from Stephanie’s face, her breath puffed involuntarily through her slackened lips. “Dead? No. You promised—” she swallowed a sob, “you’d help her if I brought you Sal’s contract.”
“I lied. She overdosed this morning. With a little help.” He tapped the silver Rolex on his wrist. “What were you doing at eight forty-five? Your dear mother was choking to death on her own vomit.”
Tears welled in Stephanie’s eyes. She stared down at the chipped tabletop and willed herself not to cry in front of him. “We had a deal.”
“And you betrayed me, twice. First Chris and then Nick. Ultimately, you cost me Ruby International Promotions. All those contracts, all those portals, all those souls, lost. Killing your mother is your punishment. If you weren’t my daughter, you’d be dead, too.” Garnet sighed. “I’m such a softie when it comes to my little girls.”
“You didn’t have to kill her!” Stephanie squeezed her eyes shut, hot tears spilled over and rolled down her cheeks.
“Ah, poor Stephanie. Were you still under your weary delusion she would get clean? And then what? She’d frantically search for you. There would be a grand reunion and she’d cradle you against her motherly bosom and proclaim how much she loves you?”
“Shut up! You beat me. Choked me until I blacked out. You said that was my punishment for getting too friendly with Chris and Nick.”
“Parents discipline their children. Tough love. I was merely being a good father.”
A siren wailed outside as an ambulance pulled up to the curb. EMTs rolled a gurney onto the sidewalk. One knelt and checked the woman’s vital signs. They lowered the gurney and then the four men hoisted her onto it. After attaching the straps, raising the stretcher and securing it, they wheeled her into the street toward the open doors of the ambulance.
Garnet scraped his spoon around the bottom of the dish and then sucked it clean with a loud smacking sound. “Your mother threw you away like a used condom. Did you know she tried to trade you for a bag of heroin hours after you were born? But no self-respecting drug dealer wanted to be stuck with you—a pale, sickly, whining baby.” He grabbed her wrist. “You should be grateful your father took you in.”
Stephanie yanked her hand, but Garnet’s sharp fingernails dug into her skin, raising dots of blood.
“Instead of gratitude, you betrayed me. You’re just like your mother. Weak. Needy. Always making the wrong choices. Letting your pathetic little girl crushes get in the way. I had to do all the work because you were too stupid to see that Chris and Nick only pitied you. Now you’re trying to back out on Sal’s contract. This time I’m holding you to your promise.”
Outside, a woman screamed. Stephanie jumped when a deafening crash shook the plate glass window. She gasped at the horrific scene outside. A panel truck had plowed into the four EMTs and the gurney, crushing them against the rear of the parked ambulance.
Garnet glanced out the window and grinned. “Tsk, tsk. So sad. And ironic. You would have helped Nick destroy his contract. Yet, he loved Katie, not you. And now, the brother you betrayed actually does love you. Imagine that, Sal loves scrawny, ugly Stephanie.”
“I only made you that promise to get my mom back.” She grabbed one end of the brown envelope with her free hand and pulled. “I’ve made a terrible mistake. Please, give me more time, I’ll find someone else. Don’t hurt Sal. He loves me . . . I love him.”
“How touching.” Garnet wrenched the envelope from her desperate grip. “Delivering Sal’s signed contract has redeemed you, for now.” He gazed at the chaotic scene outside and smiled. Crushed vehicles blocked the road. Bloodied bodies, their limbs bent at unnatural angles, lay in crumpled heaps on the asphalt. The mangled head and torso of the panel truck driver protruded through a jagged hole in the windshield. Flames engulfed the rear of the ambulance, sending thick, black coils of smoke into the air. Horrified pedestrians huddled in doorways and gaped. The shrill shrieks of sirens grew louder.
“If you don’t help me destroy Sal, I promise I will destroy you. Think of it as your last chance to become a real daddy’s girl. Maybe I’ll even let you sit on my lap, like Talon.” He leered at her when she winced. “I’ll see you and Sal in Vegas. We’re going to have a blast.”
His image blurred through her tears. He vanished with the envelope. Two airline tickets fluttered on the table.
She dropped her head down onto her folded arms. Her slender shoulders convulsed with her sobs.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
Stephanie gulped back a sob and looked up with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Oh dear, this is awkward,” the waitress said. “Here’s the check.” She laid the bill on the table and walked away.
Vamped: The Turning