I headed out of town. Toward a brighter world. Literally. I lived in a land, according to our history books, the outside world called the Bermuda Triangle, where souls vanished and never returned.
And most of it was beautiful. Blue, cloud-filled skies, serene beaches, and thick green grass. Abundant wildflowers grew everywhere in several vibrant colors and varieties. The sun glistened off mountains that surrounded the water of the large island and the ocean waves washed upon white beach shores.
Early twentieth century buildings recreated from memory of stranded citizens lined the main street and appeared brand new even though some had stood for decades. The sidewalks were always clean – but Demora wasn’t like that. It was plagued with everlasting darkness. Built to mimic a city of sin and fulfilled its purpose. Casinos stood tall. Their many lights luring the population into uninhibited fun. Promising to keep their secrets.
That was the part of Demora the visitors enjoyed. Beyond that, in a place most tourists will never know about, lies The Badlands, where I reside and it’s the last place you’d want to find yourself stranded in. Criminals stroll the streets hunting their next victim and iron bars protect the glass. Vacant and vandalized buildings stand here and there. Trash lines broken and cracked sidewalks. None of it bothers me because I’m considered the scariest thing on the streets.
“Where are we heading?”
“That’s a great place to lay low for a while.”
It was a good guess considering my recent activities. I’d managed to get myself into a standoff with Bolivars – and won and the night before that I beat the hell out of off duty cop. The guy had it coming. Using his badge to assault women. He was already on my shit list for what he’d done to Tina, a good friend and dancer at my club, but then he put his hands on my girl. I never think straight when it comes to the ones I love. I beat him down in the open, with lots of cameras. If it wasn’t for Jessie’s dark side, I’d wouldn’t have gotten away… and I thought she was sweet and innocent. The woman never failed to surprise me.
“No, my friend. We got a bigger problem than that.” And that’s all I would say. I stared toward the horizon. Driving on automatic pilot. The dream I’d entertained recently faded faster than it had arrived.
“We’re gonna check out a place called Kenton Heights.”
“Isn’t that a nursing home? What’s there?” Matt raised a brow in confusion. He could normally read my thoughts before I’d fully formed them.
“My worst nightmare.”
I caught a glimpse of Grato in the rearview mirror. His eyebrows narrowed. His lips twisted, screwed up in confusion. They both knew there was only one nightmare I referred to.
“I’m lost boss. What is this new nightmare?”
“Not new. Same one.”
“That’s … not possible. You … I thought …” The knowledge crossed his face and it appeared as disbelieving as my own when I’d heard.
“So did I.”
Grato’s tan complexion paled. The man didn’t fear – anything – except this – with good reason. He ran a tongue over his bottom lip. Took in a deep breath, then tapped his heart and stuck up a thumb and Matt nodded his agreement. They would be there for me. No matter what or who. As they had always been.
I didn’t trust many people in my life, but I would trust my life with the Divani brothers. They’d showed up in my life eight years before – two street punks in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“You in there, boy?”
I was sitting a Continental with Bruiser Baits, staring out the window. The wind howled angrily and the rain pounded the car. Storms were rare and brought Jenithiyah to a standstill, but it didn’t hinder my work.
“I wish you’d snap out of it. You’d been a zombie too damn long.”
I continued to stare at the dark clouds, wishing the hurricane force winds would lift that car off its wheels and slam it down, break my neck and send me to wife.
“Listen up … This is how it goes … are you listening, kid?” Bruiser gave my shoulder a shove. “Hey!”
My father had promoted me. Called me his newest enforcer and he expected me to be the best. Hell, I didn’t give a shit what job I had. I was numb.
“Name’s Ronny Vito. This guy’s in for a fifty large. He’s a gambler and he doesn’t know when to quit. Just adds to the tab and now that it’s time to pay … he hides.” Bruiser was the guy to show me the ropes. He’d been collecting debts longer than I’d been alive and the job had never been tough with his large frame and large hands. He was never fast, but he didn’t need to be. His massive body usually preventing all hope of exit. “I’ve been hunting this moron for two weeks.” He pulled tube from his pocket, poured the contents on his thick finger, held it to his nose and sniffed. “I hate to chase people. I’d like to get beat him down myself, but your pops wants you to get your hands dirty.”
“This is what you do. You knock on the door. He’s not gonna expect you in this weather. Don’t freakin’ wait for him to invite you in – you push that damn door in the minute he cracks it. Collect whatever money you can get out of the son-of-bitch, then you slug him a couple times … then I want you to break two of his fingers … for wasting my time.”
I opened the door.
“What are you gonna do? Repeat it me.” He held me back with a hand on my shoulder. He arched his ear, as if that would help him hear my dull tone better.
“Empty his pockets. Hit him a few times. Break his fingers.”
“How many fingers?”
“Good boy. He’s a small guy. Should be easy for ya – Get it done, kid.” He released me with a couple taps on my back as if I was his personal attack dog.
I jumped out of the car and strolled a couple of paces. There wasn’t any grass between the steps and the house. Just a foot or two of cracked cement between the steps and the curb. I knocked on the door and waited for the man to answer – shit! A little old lady with a walker answered the door.
“Who is it, Ma?” My target sat at the kitchen table. He raised his head and took one look at me and bolted. I had to slide by the old lady. It cost me time, but I wasn’t about to knock over an old lady.
He busted out the back door. Sprinted across wet lawn and hopped over a rusted chain link fence. He had a good lead on me. By the time I caught up to him and he’d had time to panic. He pulled a semi-automatic, wildly popped off a couple rounds, and managed to rip a bullet through my shoulder.
It was the first time I’d ever felt the sting of hot lead. And it wasn’t like the movies. It didn’t knock me down or send me sailing through the air. The shock of the sudden pain caused me to take a few steps back and grab the wound. The blood caused slight alarm, but mostly it pissed me off.
The recoil had knocked the shooter on his ass and he scrambled backwards, hunting his misplaced weapon as I stomped towards him. Finding it just outside his reach, he raised it with a shaky hand, watery mud dripping down his arm.
“I’ll kill you!” He threatened.
I halted my steps and raised my hands in the air. “Go ahead.” The thought of death didn’t scare me. I begged for it every time I laid my head on my pillow.
The guys finger twitched. I closed my eyes and I smiled, knowing I was moments away from holding my precious Sara. I could already see her smile. Smell her perfume.
A deep, angry and horrified scream broke through the howling wind. A blur rushed past me and tackled my target. I hadn’t seen the stranger standing there, but I saw him then and his little brother, who laid on the ground clutching his neck. Blood gushing through his fingers and running down his arm. The bullet had entered and exited my body, hitting him.
“Go on! Murder the asshole!” The stranger screamed. “Come on! Do it!” He demanded, holding him down with a knee.
“Give me the money, Ronny!” I approached, slightly disappointed that my life had been save. My shoulder throbbed and I wanted to make him pay for taking a shot at me, but I had reign in the anger – you can’t get cash out of a dead man.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wad of hundreds. “I’ll get the rest.” He stuttered.
“You should have handed it over in the first place!” I bellowed.
“But this … this ain’t mine.” He cowered. “It’s Reno’s. I sold his supply man.”
“Shit, Ronny!” I snatched a handful of his hair and forced him to look at the trouble he’d caused. “Look what you did to that kid! He ain’t got a damn thing to do with this!” My fist connected with his jaw and it made a sickening crack. An adrenaline rush took control. Slam! I struck him gain. “That’s for the money!” I planted my foot on his hand, snatched his pinky and ring finger and twisted it violently. It sounded like stepping on twigs in the woods.
Ronny screamed, writhing in pain. “I’ll get the rest! Please stop! Please!” He rolled around on the wet ground.
“The fingers are for making Bruiser hunt you ... and this!” I kicked him in the ribs, once, twice, three times … satisfied only when I heard him gasp for air. “This is for the kid … I’ll be back in three days! And you better be here!”
“Hang on, little brother.” I turned toward the bleeding kid.
I don’t know how he held on. I thought he was already a goner, but when I walked toward the dark-headed stranger that had returned to his side, I realized the young guy was fighting with all he had. I scooped him up and ran with him.
“What’s this?” Bruiser asked the minute I put the kid in the back seat. “What the hell, Sean?” He whipped his head around to see the dark-headed stranger slide in on the other side.
“Just drive to the damn hospital!”
Grato never spoke again. Jenithiyah was supposed to have advanced medical care with all their miracle medicines made from the ocean water, but neither it nor my wealth could change what had happened that day. I felt responsible and I stayed at that hospital until the day they released him. And in return, they never left my side. I never understood why.
“A bad guy would have walked away … besides, Grato didn’t say much before.”
Matt repeated it every time we talked about the day we met. They’d had a rough life back then. They’d been raised by their elderly grandfather and when he died, the government stuck their nose in and sent Grato to an orphanage. Matt was an adult, only a few years younger than me but he didn’t have a job and Grato was barely sixteen. He ran away and found his brother the first chance he got.
They didn’t stay in one place long. Sleeping in alleys or abandoned houses to avoid separation. I made sure they didn’t have to worry about it again. It was the first positive thing to come out of my cursed life.
And they kept showing up. Popping up whenever I ran into trouble. Eventually, I stopped trying to run them off.