Authors: Sandra Hill
“Kindly step away from my car,” Paula demanded, refusing to show her fear. He half sat on the hood, his long, jeans-clad legs crossed at the ankles, his arms folded over his chest.
Paula wanted to scoot inside the protection of her car’s interior—not that the tiny VW, with its soft top, would give her much protection. Oh, Lord, she wished she’d driven that damned, practically bulletproof Volvo. Pretending a nonchalance she didn’t feel, she sidled around to the driver’s side, but the boy straightened ominously and stepped in front of her.
“Where you goin’, pretty lady?” he crooned, reaching out an arm and pulling the rubber band from her pony tail. Her hair spilled out around her shoulders. She tried to knock his hand aside, and his fingers locked on her wrist. “What’s that mark on your neck, baby? Your hubby been givin’ you hickeys, huh? I didn’t think the old man had it in ’im. Maybe the dick has some lead in his pipe, after all.”
His two friends, whom Paula just noticed leaning against a concrete wall, laughed at the crude joke.
He jerked on her wrist and pulled her closer. Paula could smell the musk of body odor and danger on his sweat-coated skin. “I think I got me a fine piece of tail here.”
She struggled, in vain, and he laughed, enjoying her fear. Raising her other hand, she tried to swing her heavy purse at him, but one of his friends came up from behind and grabbed it, handing it to a third boy, who began to rummage through its contents.
“We gonna do a train on her, Lewis?” the boy behind her asked, rubbing his hips against her bottom, pressing her closer to Lewis, who was now propped against the driver’s door, holding the soft flesh of her upper arms in an iron grip against her rib cage. She was now sandwiched between the two hoodlums.
Lewis leered at her and thrust his crotch toward her. “Yeah, I think this slut would enjoy a gang bang.”
He grinned evilly. “Then we’re gonna mark her up a bit. I warned DiCello. Maybe this time he’ll lis—”
“Maybe this time
listen, Lewis. Man, we don’t need this kinda shit. Let the lady go,” a harsh, unfamiliar voice shouted behind her. Paula looked over her shoulder to see a gangly, black-haired boy approaching with two friends. They all wore the same red bandannas. And they were wielding ominous-looking knives.
“Stay out of this, Casale. This ain’t your problem.” Lewis stepped away from the car, still holding on to Paula’s upper arm. The other hand pulled a knife from the waistband of his jeans.
Paula’s heart thudded madly. With a spurt of adrenalin, she pulled out of his grasp. But immediately he backhanded her across the face, and she landed against the hood of her car, jarring her hip painfully. She tasted blood on her cut lip.
“Don’t move,” he warned, “or you’re dead.”
Paula could see that he was serious. He would have no compunction at all about killing her. So she remained still and watched in horror as the six boys, three against three, circled each other.
They struggled, slicing at each other with wary attacks and withdrawals. Harsh, vicious curses and ethnic slurs were thrown into the otherwise silent street. Threats of dire consequences if one or the other didn’t back down.
In the end, they seemed to realize they were evenly matched, and there were going to be no easy winners. The fight was over in seconds. Both sides backed away, not surrendering, just putting off the outcome for another day. It appeared there would be no mortal wounds struck today.
Paula exhaled on a deep sigh.
Lewis bolted with his two friends, calling over his shoulder, “I’m gonna get you for this, Casale. And you, too, Mrs. DiCello. I’m coming after you both.”
Casale’s two friends chased after Lewis, but Paula’s rescuer stayed behind. Not out of any concern for her, she realized immediately. He was bent over at the waist in pain, bleeding from a thigh wound, and his bare arms and neck bore minor slice marks from the deadly knives.
“Get in the car,” she ordered. “I’m taking you to a hospital.”
“It ain’t nothin’. And I’m not goin’ to no friggin’ hospital. Just go.”
Paula clucked at his false bravado and looked about for her purse. It was gone, of course. Well, at least, she still had her car keys in her skirt pocket. She unlocked the passenger door and pushed the youth inside. He was too weak to protest.
Quickly, she scanned the now empty street and walked around the front of the car. Soon she had the car in gear and was driving out of the city toward the hospital.
“I told you, I ain’t goin’ to no hospital. Besides, I just need to stop the bleeding. I’ve had worse than this lots of times.” The boy had torn open the rip in his jeans, exposing a six-inch cut that was already coagulating. The cut couldn’t be very deep. Pulling the dirty bandanna off his head, he wrapped it around the wound and winced.
“Well, it will have to be cleaned, and you need an antiseptic. Where’s your house? I’ll drive you there. Then we’ll go to the police to report this crime.”
The boy shot her a look of disbelief. “Are you nuts? I’m not goin’ anywhere near my . . . place. Lewis will be on the lookout for me. And the police . . . hell, I ain’t gonna squeal to no pigs.”
Paula started to protest, then decided that taking care of his wound was the most important thing. Looking down at the key ring in the ignition, she realized that she still had the keys to Nick’s apartment—the ones he’d given her a year ago in hopes they could reconcile. Making a quick decision, she said, “We’ll go to Nick’s place. It’s nearby. Then
decide what to do. What’s your name, by the way?”
“No, I mean your first name.”
The boy jerked his head toward her in surprise. At first, he balked, then he admitted in a soft voice, “Richie.”
“Well, Richie,” she said, turning to him as she pulled to a stop at a red light, “I want you to know that you are my hero. And I’m going to make damn sure no one hurts you again.”
He glanced at her as if she’d really flipped her lid. “Me, a hero? No way! And there ain’t nothin’ you can do to protect me.”
“Wanna bet?” She flashed him a secretive smile. Then she ruffled his hair and leaned over to brush a kiss on his adolescent-fuzzy cheek.
He blushed and turned toward his side window, but Paula could have sworn she saw tears in his eyes.
She noticed the oddest thing then. On his left shoulder, just under the strap of his tank top, a blue-and-yellow tattoo peeked out, and it looked an awful lot like that sunflower tattoo she’d seen on Nick last night.
“Where did you get that tattoo?” she asked hesitantly.
He made a low growl of disgust. “Some broad out on Highway 10 talked me into it. I thought she was givin’ me a skull, but instead, I got a damn flower. Geez! Can you believe it?”
Right now, Paula was beginning to believe anything was possible.
The puzzle pieces were finally coming together . . .
“TAKE OFF YOUR jeans, Richie.”
“No way! I don’t take off my pants for no chick unless I’m gonna boff her.” The embarrassed boy raised his chin stubbornly and plopped back down on the closed lid of the toilet in Nick’s pathetically tiny bathroom.
Paula thought about telling Richie that, at his age, the only “boffing” he did was in his dreams, but then she bit her tongue. These days, the sad fact was that even outside the ghetto kids engaged in sex at fourteen.
“Listen, sweetie, I’ve got to clean and disinfect your cut. I can’t do it through that little rip in your jeans. I promise I won’t look anywhere else. You can cover yourself.”
He agreed finally, but he did put a towel over himself, just in case his “assets” were too much of a temptation for her. Luckily, his wounds proved only superficial, although painful, as evidenced by the boy’s tight fists and tear-filled eyes.
“Now take a shower,” she said gruffly, touched by his bravery. “And put these clean clothes on,” she added, shoving a bundle into his hands. “You’ll feel better.”
A half hour later, Paula sat out on Nick’s minuscule, third-floor balcony with Richie. He wore an old Adidas T-shirt of Nick’s, along with a pair of his cutoffs, which were way too big, hanging down below his skinny knees.
Her heart went out to the barefooted youth, who continued to be awestruck at being in Detective DiCello’s home, meager as it was. Shifting nervously in the porch chair, he could have been any other boy in the suburbs, not the dangerous gang member she’d witnessed earlier that day.
In fact, with his too-long black hair and blue eyes, he looked an awful lot like Nick might have at that age.
I wonder what Nick’s son would look like . . . our son. Now that’s a dangerous train of thought.
She smiled then, watching Richie wolf down his second bowl of SpaghettiOs, washed down with a third glass of cherry Kool-Aid.
How could Nick eat this swill? It was the only food she’d been able to find in his apartment, aside from a six-pack of beer and a carton of milk in the fridge, a box of Froot Loops in the cupboard, and four cans of unopened cat food in the trash can.
Speaking of cats . . . Paula looked down at the monster cat sitting imprisoned on her lap, hissing and glaring at Richie for daring to consume what she seemed to consider her personal supply of SpaghettiOs and Kool-Aid.
After all she’d learned that morning from Mrs. Chancellor, Paula now understood Nick’s aversion to cats. They must remind him of his horrendous childhood in the projects and the tragic way in which his little sister had died.
Then why did Nick suddenly decide to get a cat?
The answer came to her instantly.
He wanted to please me. He wanted to show me that he’s trying to change.
Paula’s throat tightened with tenderness for her hard-boiled husband—a real pussycat at heart.
And she had a few other things to consider, as well. She’d almost been raped, and possibly killed, this morning. Those hoodlums had apparently threatened Nick that they would go after his wife. Perhaps other criminals he’d caught had done so, as well. In fact, he probably saw a whole lot of dangers out there every day in his police work,
and he had legitimate cause to take extraordinary precautions about her safety.
Could Nick’s overprotectiveness these past few years have been warranted?
Oh, she wasn’t saying he hadn’t gone too far, but maybe . . . hmmm . . . maybe she needed to rethink some things about Nick. And herself.
Just then, Richie laid the empty bowl on the patio table, and the cat made a quick, screeching leap for it.
Assuming the cat was about to attack him, Richie jerked back abruptly, causing his half-empty glass of Kool-Aid to fall from his hand to the concrete floor where it splintered apart.
“Oh, Mrs. DiCello, I’m sorry. Let me—” The horrified boy jumped from his chair and picked up a large sliver of glass.
“No, step back, Richie. You’ll cut your bare feet,” she warned. She went down on her haunches to pick up the remainder of the glass. Meanwhile, the stupid cat sat on the table, licking the SpaghettiOs bowl clean.
“Get up, Mrs. DiCello. Or you’re gonna get cut, real bad.”
His worst fear was realized . . .
NICK WAS IN A frenzy as he approached his apartment door. An anonymous caller had alerted police to an attack on his wife earlier that day, hanging up before the desk sergeant could ask for details on whether Paula was safe or injured. He, and practically every police officer and detective in his unit, had spent the past few hours trying to locate her, to no avail.
Finally, Captain O’Malley had sent him home to shower and calm down before returning to the station. “You’re not doing anyone any good, going off half-cocked like this, least of all Paula,” O’Malley had told him. “Don’t come back till you can think rationally.”
Hah! I’ll never be able to think rationally while Paula is still out there. Maybe raped. Or wounded. Or dead. No! I won’t believe the worst until I find her. I’ve got to think she’s okay. I’ve got to. Otherwise—
Nick stopped dead in mid-thought. A sixth sense rang like a bell inside his head. Something didn’t feel right. He turned the key in his lock, and the door pushed open. Too easily.
It wasn’t locked. Unlike Paula, he never left a door unlocked. Never.
“Hell!” Reflexively, he reached under his jacket and unbuckled his shoulder holster. Pulling out his gun, he moved toward the balcony where he heard Paula’s voice.
Well, that explained the unlocked door. It appeared Paula’s lack of concern over safety would never change.
He started to put his gun back in the holster, then hesitated when he heard a loud crash, like glass breaking. Then Paula’s voice. Who was Paula talking to? And in such a frantic tone of voice?
“Get up, Mrs. DiCello. Or you’re gonna get cut, real bad,” he heard a male voice say.
As he approached the open balcony door, he saw Paula down on her knees and some punk leaning over her with a deadly shard of broken glass in his fingers. His heart stopped, with a lurch, and a loud roaring exploded in his ears. The weapon dripped a red substance onto the back of her white blouse.
Blood! Oh, no! Paula’s blood!
Then he noticed her face. Fingermarks formed welts on her one cheek, and her upper lip appeared to be cut and slightly swollen.
A boiling haze of fury threatened to blind Nick for that brief second before he assumed a firing position. Drawing his weapon, he spread his legs, dropped into a slight crouch, and took aim, wrapping all ten fingers around the handle. With one finger over the trigger, he pointed at the perp’s back, dead center.
he yelled in warning. “Police!”
The guy turned with surprise, then stared at him wide-eyed with fear, his eyes riveted on the gun in Nick’s hands.
Casale? What the hell is Casale doing attacking my wife?
Nick lowered his gun momentarily in surprise, then raised it again. “Drop your weapon, boy. Slowly. Or . . . you . . . are . . . dead. And, believe me, you slime-ball, it will give me great pleasure to be the one to off you.”
“Nick, are you crazy? Put that gun away.
Paula stood and glared at him.
“Move over here, Paula. It’s okay now. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
Instead of obeying his orders, his contrary wife stepped in front of Casale, protecting him with outspread arms.
“Move, Paula. This isn’t a game. It’s—”
“I’ll tell you what it is, you jerk,” she snapped angrily. “It’s a big misunderstanding. This boy saved my life today, and you almost killed him. Are you nuts?”
“Saved your life?” he repeated numbly.
“Yes, he chased away some gang members who tried to attack me, and he got hurt in the process. He didn’t want to go to the hospital, and your apartment was closer than mine. So I brought him here.” She took in a big swallow of air after her long-winded explanation.
“But the blood . . .?” He glanced down at the puddle on the balcony floor.
“Blood?” She tilted her head with confusion, then made a clucking sound of disgust. “Cherry Kool-Aid, you fool.”
“Kool . . . Kool-Aid! But . . . how about those bruises on your face?”
“Lewis backhanded her,” Casale interjected.
“Lewis?” Nick blinked as understanding seeped into his thick head, and his heart slowed down to about a hundred and fifty beats per second. He lowered the gun and sank into a nearby chair, his hands shaking visibly. He laid his gun on the table. “Holy hell! You scared the hell out of me today, Paula,” he said on a loud exhale.
Why, you big doofus! Look what you’ve done to this boy.”
Reluctantly, he raised his eyes to Casale, who looked as if he might have wet his shorts with fright. Then Nick’s eyes widened in surprise as he noticed something else. The kid was wearing
cut-off shorts. And his T-shirt, too.
“I better go,” Casale said, inching his way toward the apartment door.
“No!” Nick shouted.
Both Casale and Paula jumped.
“I mean, I want you to stay. I’m sorry if I overreacted—”
“Overreacted?” Paula snorted. “You almost killed an innocent boy. I’d say that’s a hell of a lot worse than overreaction.”
Nick winced at her harsh appraisal.
“Sit down, Richie,” he said, more softly, deliberately using his given name. “Please. We need to talk.”
After a half hour in which Paula and Richie explained what had happened that morning, and Nick told them of his frantic search for her after the anonymous tip, they all relaxed a bit.
While Nick reported in to the police station, Richie ate what Paula told Nick, with a raised eyebrow, was a third can of his SpaghettiOs and the last of his cherry Kool-Aid. He sensed one of her nutrition lectures coming later.
Finally, he told Richie, “C’mon, kid.”
“Nick, you can’t take him home. Those other gang members will look for him there.”
“Paula, this kid doesn’t have a home.”
“What . . . what do you mean?”
“He lives in a shelter, or the street.”
“How’d you know that, man?”
about you, my friend.” Nick turned back to Paula, continuing, “His dad took off a long time ago, and his mother’s in prison for theft and possession and sale of a controlled substance.”
“And prostitution,” Richie added in a flat voice.
Paula gasped, raising tear-filled eyes helplessly to Nick. “On the streets? Homeless?”
“Don’t worry,” he assured his wife. “I’m gonna take him someplace where he’ll be safe.”
“Where?” Richie demanded. “I ain’t goin’ to no juvie hall.”
“No, I’m not taking you to a reformatory,” he said, ruffling Richie’s hair with sudden affection. His throat choked up as he realized the punk had saved his wife’s life. He owed him big time. “Richie, I’m going to find a better place for you. Just like someone did for me a long time ago. Like I should have done for you before . . .” He felt a huge lump of emotion grow in his throat, and he couldn’t continue.
But Paula and Richie stood with arms folded over their chests stubbornly, refusing to budge.
“Okay, I made a few calls after I booked you the last time,” he explained to the boy. “There’s this program called The Last Chance that places inner city kids in foster care programs. In fact, I already talked to some people about a vacancy in their residence in Spruce Valley, Vermont. They have a home with resident house parents for boys from inner cities. It’s run by that former Olympic runner Jerry Vandermeer.”
Both Paula and Richie listened with furrowed brows to his long explanation.
“So?” Richie asked finally, trying to sound coolly indifferent, but clearly interested.
“So, it would give you a chance to live in a normal home atmosphere, out of the ghetto. Maybe even go to college someday. Hell, this could be your ticket to a better life, boy. Are you interested?”
Richie shuffled his feet. “I ain’t never been outside Newark. Are there cows and stuff there? I ain’t never even seen a real cow.”
Nick pressed his lips together to stifle a smile. “Spruce Valley is a fairly big town, but there might be a cow or two on the outskirts.”
“And you say you lived in one of these places once?”
Nick nodded, ignoring Paula’s surprised expression.
Fear and hope fought a battle on Richie’s open face. Hope won out. “Maybe.”
“All right. I’m going to take you over to the home of a friend of mine, George Madison. He acts as a liaison with The Last Chance. You can stay there tonight, and tomorrow someone will drive you to Spruce Valley to visit.” Nick turned to Paula then. “Does that meet with your approval?”
She didn’t have to answer. The tears in her eyes spoke volumes.
“I’ll be back in an hour. And you”—he pointed a finger at his stubborn wife—“stay right here. Don’t move from this apartment till I get back. We have some major talking to do, babe.”