“Shit!” I shouted, frustrated with the sticking lock of the old apartment. The loud wales of the neighbor’s baby filled my ears. The couple down the hall screamed and shouted. Threatening and calling each other foul names. I had learned to live with the noise of the dilapidated apartment I’d lived in since I’d gone undercover. It had become my normal. But that night – it irritated my sensitive nerves. “Open up you son-of-bitch!” I gave it one last twist and it obeyed.
I slammed the door behind me, dropped my purse on floor, flopped on the worn sofa, and squeezed a tattered pillow.
I replayed my last encounter with Sean and I regretted every moment. Why did I have to push for the truth? Why did I need an explanation when I already knew about the questionable part of Sean Gianetti’s life? I should have let it go and kept my big mouth shut! I guess sub consciously, the job still had a hold of me. My mind would always think like a cop despite the plans made by my heart.
I sucked in a breath. “Sean’s the past.” It was easy to think and easier to say, but much harder to enforce. Out of all the heartache, confusion and agony, there was one good thing. I was going home.
As much as I was going to miss my alter ego, Jessie Lawson and the life she lived, I wouldn’t miss that apartment with its cracked and peeling paint on the wood-paneled walls, non-functioning fireplace with the chipped mantle, and sour water damaged stench.
I lifted my eyes to the cluster of yellowed rings above my head. I wouldn’t have to set out bowls and pots the next time it rained. Damn, that place truly was the cheapest place in The Badlands and the landlord had no problem reminded me of that every time I asked him to fix something. I couldn’t get out of that hell-hole fast enough.
I fell asleep on that sofa, thinking about the world I had to leave behind and the people in it. Tina Morgan, the closest friend I’d ever had. The woman had taken me under her wing the moment she laid eyes on me. I couldn’t have made it through the long nights of spilling drinks and clumsy performances without her. I would miss Devo, the gentle giant that ran the D.J. booth who had the softest, welcoming smile, Grato and his quiet but comical way of communicating, and I would even miss Matt hanging around the dressing room. And Sean …
I ran my hands over my face and forced myself to get up. I gazed at my watch. The entire day had passed. I checked my phone. No calls. No messages.
I headed to the bathroom and filled the stained claw-foot tub with hot water and bubble bath, then climbed in for a long soak. My boss, Andrew Harkins, would expect me to continue with the lie until he officially canceled my undercover mission – My shift at De’Bris started in a couple of hours. – Screw it – I had no plans to return to the gentleman’s club.
I slid down in the tub, submerging my head, and holding my breath. This wouldn’t be the first time I skipped my shift.
I opened my eyes, moaned and slapped my phone to turn off the irritating alarm. I rolled to my back. I ached, my head throbbed, and my throat was sore. Probably the consequences of drinking too much. I’d downed one shot after another to deal with my feelings of inadequacy. Or maybe I was sore from crashing into Sean or perhaps I still felt the embarrassment of my wardrobe malfunction. Ugh! The thought of not being able to release the tie on the red dress I had borrowed form Tina still flushed my cheeks. I held a hand to my forehead and away moisture. I needed a bath and there was no time. Times like that is when I really hated the absence of a shower in that old apartment. I would be stuck taking a quick sponge bath in the sink.
I raised up and immediately touched my temple, hoping to ease the sharp pain that shot through it. A series of unexpected and uncontrollable coughs attacked. I hacked, gagged, and ended up running to the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet to expel foul tasting bile.
I stood slowly and held tight to the sink, feeling as woozy as I had after all those whiskey shots. I gazed at myself at my horrible, pallid expression in the mirror. It wasn’t happening today. Again, I violently coughed, the force burning my throat and my chest.
I crawled in bed, holding my sore stomach. I collapsed on my pillow, grasped my phone, and stared at the ceiling. Shit! I’d only been undercover a few months and I couldn’t afford to miss a day. Especially, not when I had a strong suspicion that the man conversing with Sean the night before was a member of Bolivar clan and I desperately needed to hear his name. To date, The Bureau hadn’t known the exact identity of a single member of that crime family – Damn the timing!
I tapped on the phone, then held it to my ear, and suffered through another coughing fit. The beeping noise as I waited for an answer annoyed me and irritated my already throbbing head.
“Hello?” Someone finally picked up.
“Devo,” I coughed. “It’s Jessie.”
“You don’t sound so good.” I could easily imagine the caring expression spread across the face of the big man who looked much more dangerous than he was.
“I’m …” I coughed. “Staying home today.”
“I’ll tell the boss. Just get better. Please.” I
I squinted eyes that threatened to pop out of their sockets, at least they felt that way. The usually dull light in the room was suddenly too bright. I hacked. My lungs refusing to release the poison that caused my suffering. Maybe if I got up – if I started moving, I would feel better. Taking a handful of mattress, I pulled myself, too weak to maneuver my body from my back to my side, without a crutch. Finally, with some effort, I made it to a sitting position. A standing position. I had to sit back down. The damn room tilted and rocked. I heard … and felt the bubbling, which must have triggered some kind of distress signal to my brain, for I suddenly found the strength, as if pulled out of reserves, to dash to bathroom and hit my knees … but I still semi re-decorated the surrounding décor.
I leaned my forehead against the cold porcelain and tried to breath. Normal breathing now completely hindered by phantom phlegm, that no amounting of sniffing or blowing could clear.
I crawled. Literally crawled my way to bed to reach my phone.
“Hmmm,” I wearily forced out.
“Jessie,” A commanding voice stated.
“Hey, baby.” I managed. “I miss you.” Honestly, I did miss the feel of a warm, solid body beside me. Mushy pillows were a poor substitute. But. I hadn’t missed waking up and spending the morning with an irate man, whose life had not and would not ever satisfy him. No matter who or what he had in it. And worrying about feeding only myself – As close to heaven as you could get.
“Where the hell are you?”
I hadn’t heard from my fiancé in weeks. Barely enough to justify our reconciliation. After all the words he’d spat out to win me back? The promises? The seemingly desperate begging? How could he allow time to erase his voice from my recollections? Wouldn’t want to ensure that my tentative fondness continued to tip in his favor?
“I called in.” The worse part of a covert assignment. Too many damn bosses.
“There are no sick days in undercover work!”
“Well … there are sick days at De’Bris.”
“So what? You get a little sniffle and you think you can take a vacation? When every minute counts – you’re gonna lie in bed?”
“I’m sick, Tucker.” I hadn’t called him by his last name since before our work relationship turned romantic. “A normal person would call in.”
“You are not a normal person. A cop would get in there and make sure nothing important slipped past our ears!”
“I’m not a cop.” I hacked. Deep. As if trying to expel the very organ that gave me air from my body. It took a moment to regain my breath. “I’m an undercover agent. My job is to blend and today … I guess I’m an expert at it.”
“Expert? You always think more of yourself than you really are. Get to that club! That’s an order.”
“Thanks for your concern.”
I dropped the phone and again spewed. All over the floor. How much more could there be in my stomach to expel?
With great difficulty, I cleaned up the mess, then put myself back to bed, pulling the covers all the way to my chin. I could not get warm.
And I sulked over Josh’s call. Never in my life had I experienced such a severe illness. Feeling as if any breath could be the final one and the man who’d swore I had captured his heart didn’t so much as acknowledge the horrible sounds coming from my end of the line. And I’d assumed that worry came with the territory of love. I guess I was mistaken.
The fact that my fake job conveyed more understanding than my true profession didn’t even shock me. Of course, I’d only spoken to the D.J. booth attendant. I’m sure Spencer, the flamboyant faux owner was livid. I could see him stomping around in his polyester pants and matching polo shirt, brooding and completely forgetting he possessed no true authority in the club.
My next moment of consciousness came long after the day time hours had slipped away. I shuffled bare feet across cold, splintered floor, shoulders hunched, arms hugging my chest – it was the only position that dulled the stabbing twinge – into the kitchen. I opened the fridge. My stomach felt hollow – the site of food disgusted me. Instead, I settled for a glass of orange juice, then settled on the sofa and pulled a throw around my shoulders. I laid my head against the cushion and clicked on the television.
I groggily opened my eyes, as much as I could with the crusted goo holding them hostage. I gazed around, dazed. I’d falling asleep again.
Another soft rap reminded me that someone stood at the door. ‘Ugh! Damn it, Josh. Just let me be sick!’
My lap was wet. I removed the glass from my lap and swatted away juice, then headed to the door, still hugging the draped blanket.
I opened the door slightly, keeping the chain in place, ready to snap it shut if the right words didn’t fall from my so-called fiancé’s mouth.
The last person I expected. Sean Gianetti.
“Can … I come in?”
I shut the door. I couldn’t count how many times I had shot the man down. I’d avoided him. Yet, he always seemed to be where ever I was. I unlocked the chain lock and let him in. Feeling embarrassed immediately, once I remembered that I wore no makeup. I ran a hand through my hair. Perfect. The entire back had tied itself in a knot and I’m sure my nose was red.
“Hi,” I stepped aside and he walked into the living room. I was supposed to deter him, yet I invited him in. I was a walking a contradiction.
“Oh, you look horrible,” he spoke softly, raising a hand to my cheek.
I pulled away. “Just what every girl wants to hear.” I sat down on the sofa and huddled under the thin blanket.
“Devo said you were sick.” He carried a large paper grocery bag in his arms. “You’ve never missed a day so…”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Let me finish … I knew you had to be really sick. So, I thought I would check on you.”
“That’s really kind of you.” Again, I felt dizzy and laid my head back on the sofa. He sat down beside me and slung his arm around my shoulders, in a too familiar manner – as if I belonged to him.
And I laid my head on his arm – as if he were the man I dated. Nothing more than a fantasy – yet it felt right. I gave him a pitiful stare as he felt my forehead with the back of his hand.
“You’re burning up.” Instant worry marred his soft, kind expression. “Have you taken anything?”
I shook my head. He sat up and pulled out a small bottle from the bag. The medicine he presented was expensive and usually not available to poor people – which is what I was supposed to be in this fake life.
“It’s a powder. You have to drink it.” He rose and walked across the room, making himself at home in my house as if it wasn’t the first time he had been there.
I closed my eyes and listened as he ran water and put the kettle on my stove. I heard clanking on the side of a cup after the water had heated sufficiently.
He brought the hot liquid.
“Sit up.” He lent a hand and held the cup as I sipped.
“I know, but it will help you feel better. Drink.”
“Yes, sir.” Even sick, I had to be my normal smartass self.
“Don’t make me sound old.”
“You’re older than me.”
“Not by much.” He chuckled.
“You’ll always be older than me.” I smirked and finished the bitter, sour concoction.
“Feeling better already.” He grinned, flopped down, and swung that arm about me again. “I also got you this.” He presented a small, crystal rose trinket. “This rose will last forever.” He placed it in my palm.
“You have to stop …”
“Shhh.” He placed a finger over my lips. “Let me give just one thing to remind you how I feel. Rather I ever have you or not.” He leaned over and placed it on the small end table.
I’d returned every gift he’d ever given but, I didn’t feel up to protesting this one. Instead, I turned towards him, and cuddled against him, laying one hand on his chest. I hadn’t meant to encourage or let him believe he’d won me but at the same time, I didn’t care. His company made me feel better.
I was lost in my memory, feeling a pleasant peace beneath the warm water … but the air I held in my lungs would soon run out … a heaviness landed upon my throat and prevented my body from rising. I opened my mouth, instinctively screaming. Releasing gurgles and bubbles. My hands prying and clawing at the clutch wrapped around my neck. I flailed and kicked. My body instinctively trying to run.
Bubble bath stung my eyes, obscuring the figure that sat on the edge of the bath, watching as I choked on the liquid my lungs insisted on sucking in, lifting me just as spots peppered my vision.
I gasped and choked.
“You really want to break up with me?” Josh pushed me under with a forceful shove.
I struggled, too weak to sufficiently defend myself against his surprise attack. I held my breath tight. Trying hard to control the panic. My nose burned. My chest burned.
The words he spat muffled and lost beneath the water and the splash my thrashing and squirming caused. And he held me there, refusing to lift me out until once again nature triggered my lungs to inhale the soapy bath.
“You know what I want,” Josh growled in my ear then stood and left the room.
I vomited, spewing the foreign substance from my lungs, surprised I had managed to survive the prolonged assault. I hung over the side of the tub. Fatigued and panting. Was I going to pass out? Was Josh still in the apartment? Would he return?
He’d proved he was the type that didn’t take rejection well and it seemed he would resort to violent extremes to obtain what he desired. I couldn’t just sit there, waiting, wet and defenseless.
With great effort, I obtained the plug and gave it a yank, and listened to the sucking and slurping as the tub drained. The warmth vanquished. I shivered but the uncomfortable chill awoke my disoriented mind, allowing it to calm itself.
I stood on wobbly legs, grabbed a towel, and dried off, moving mechanical. Dazed and finally finding comfort a soft oversized tee-shirt.
I snatched the plunger, pulled the rubber from its wooden stick, and prepared my defense as I inched open the bathroom door.
“It’s about time, Cicconi.” The pot-bellied Andrew Harkins addressed from his seat on the tattered sofa. Josh sat at his side, soaked and it seemed I had interrupted their casual chat. Only my current partner, Jackson, who stood, one arm propped on the fireplace mantle, appeared suspicious of Josh’s damp clothing.
“You did a better job than I expected,” Harkins stood and buttoned his jacket. “I think leaving you in place would benefit us.” He picked up the small glass rose from the end table and toyed with it. And that bothered me. I’d forgotten to return repeatedly as I had with most Sean’s gifts. Now, at the end, I was thankful I had it.
Harkins snake like gaze locked on me. “You turn a lot of heads. Gianetti … Bolivar.”
“I got you a name,” I reminded.
“One!” He snapped. “I believe you can get more.”
I glared at Josh. Sitting with a smug expression. Seemingly satisfied with his retribution, secure that his badge protected his actions.
“There’s nothing more I can do here,” I insisted. “I did my part. Now I expect you to honor your word.”
Harkins dropped the delicate trinket to the floor and crushed it with a heavy foot. “Your part isn’t over until I say it is.”
The door made a resounding boom with their exit, rattling the walls of the cheap apartment.
I knelt and gathered the slivered remains of the rose.
“JBI scum,” Jackson growled.
I hid the tears welling up in my eyes. “They’re going to be sorry they ever double-crossed me.”