Authors: Jack Parker
Tags: #Mystery, #USA
The car responded to its mistress, and smoothly inched its way up the ramp. Having already decided the route, Tessa took a right, then a sharp left at the corner, and then another right at the end. Though it seemed like the same strategic action Scott had taken, it was merely navigating the one-way streets. There was some thought behind her plan; a one-way eliminated the possibility of meeting any of Cy’s goons coming from the opposite direction. One less surprise.
Taking fleeting glances in the rearview mirror, Tessa saw no sign of the Audi or any other vehicle taking an interest in them. Right hand griped the stick, the other the wheel, she wasn’t about to let her guard down quite yet.
Tessa looked at Scott, buckled into the passenger seat, his profile set. She nervously tucked a dark auburn tress behind one ear. Her face revealed only a hint of the anxiety being wrestled with. Tessa drew a few cleansing breaths, willing her body to relax. She finally said, with a nervous laugh that betrayed her base persona, “Well, I guess that takes care of my trip to the gym for today. You’re supposed to get your heart rate up and I think that pretty much was accomplished tonight.”
“The night’s not over.” His gaze flickered over the woman beside him as he added, “And you don’t need to go to the gym. You’re beautiful.”
He might have been speaking the truth, but something in the random compliment didn’t help her heart rate. She looked back out the windshield and tried to concentrate on her driving.
Begrudgingly, Scott watched through half closed lids as she skillfully piloted the car through the streets of Chicago. Head tipped back against the headrest, he could have been napping his body was so still.
She broke the silence, “I heard what Cy said to you.”
“Hmm?” he mumbled, as though he indeed were half-asleep.
“Maybe you need a talk with Detective Blaine. He did seem concerned that you’d get death threats.”
“Blaine isn’t going to help,” Scott said.
“Hunch.” Leaning forward, Scott opened the glove compartment, riffling the papers stored there before finding a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He shook one cigarette out of the pack, lit it, and replaced the rest, closing the glove compartment with a definitive snap. His hands didn’t shake, even though the need for nicotine betrayed some flaw.
Her head snapped to the right at the first smell of smoke. One brow rose at the sight of ‘Mr. Perfect’ committing the ultimate sin against his body, but she didn’t dare criticize. Everyone had their vices.
They merged onto the highway. Scott took a long drag of the cigarette, then rolled down the window and tossed it out.
He continued his thought with a casual, “…and my hunches are usually right.”
The gust of outside air was cold, and she shivered. Her own nerves kept her silent, and it wasn’t until they neared their destination that she spoke again. She pointed. “The Club is the last building on the right.”
Scott’s gaze shifted to follow where she was aiming. The ‘Club’ as she’d referred, was nothing other than the Southside Kid’s Club; a red brick building with its windows boarded, looking quite quiet from the outside. At this hour, most probably had gone home, or some sad equivalent. The enticing car would not go unnoticed for long in this area of town.
The neighborhood might have been a shock, but Scott disguised it well. Silently, he followed Tessa inside the building. It appeared to be similar to any Boys & Girls Club. The kids were of varying ages, engaged in reading or playing games. Tessa was obviously well known and popular; all eyes locked onto the redhead the moment she entered the room. Scott lagged behind, absorbing the atmosphere and the unexpected wrinkle in her personality.
“Baby Koch!” the strains of a young man’s voice echoed across the long room.
“Baby?” Scott whispered the nickname to himself, a half smile forming on his face. He could see that somehow the name fit.
“My brother Dante had a street name. Some people know him as Koch.” she hastily explained. Most of the finer details she left out; like how he had a penchant for the southpaw-friendly handgun of the same name, an item that he always sported. Tessa was a lefty also, receiving the nickname by association.
Keeping her eyes trained on the four twenty-some-year-olds that lined the back wall, Tessa countered back with a cocky grin, raising her voice, “It’s Ms. M. to you.”
Her snappy comeback was met with an immediate outburst of laughter. The young men were too old for the club, but there were some that found themselves with no better place to go, and as long as they didn’t cause trouble, the director allowed them to stay.
All but one had found the humor. A tall, husky young man pulled his jacket collar higher, lowered his head, and stomped through the room towards the door. Dark finger-combed curls fell across his face, obscuring his identity, but only to those who didn’t know what to look for. Across each finger, in faded India ink, was a single letter tattoo, spelling out ‘C A G E.’
Just the guy she was looking for.
Tessa moved away, leaving Scott to his own devices for a few moments. One of the older teens took notice of the lone reporter and wandered over, looking him up and down.
Scott narrowed his eyes and considered returning the once-over. Instead, he stretched out his hand in the offer of a handshake. “Hi, I’m Scott.”
The youth hesitated, and then accepted the adult greeting, returning the handshake with a bit more force than necessary. “Are you Ms. M.‘s boyfriend?”
The question made Scott smile. “Mmm, no,” he admitted.
“Good. We have a bit of an understanding, me and her. When I turn eighteen, she’s gonna let me take her out. Until then, well, she’s saving herself for me.”
Scott looked solemn, nodding at the territorial statement. The chance of it being true was slim to none, but having been young once himself, he appreciated Tessa’s tact. “I hear ya. You need to stay in school until then though—she likes educated men,” he coached.
With a nod, the young man sauntered off. He’d said his peace, and appeared confident that Scott knew how things stood. Scott looked around the room for Tessa, but she wasn’t in view.
She had gone outside.
The area around the front door was brightly lit, but beyond the scope of the light the street was pitch black. “Baby Koch,” a voice growled from the shadows, “you shouldn’t have come here.”
Tessa squinted, trying to focus into the darkness, to follow the voice. “Tell me what you know, Cage.”
The sound of gravel crunching under heavy boots pinpointed his location. “I took a call from Mr. Perelli,” the faceless voice said. “Guess he figured you might come in.” A long pause ensued before Cage took a step into the light to face Tessa. “I’m supposed to call him if you show.”
His stoic stare held her gaze. “Do you know what would happen to me if someone found out that you were here, and I didn’t call in?”
She nodded her head knowingly, “Ya gotta do what ya gotta do, man,” she offered casually, hoping that her forgiving attitude would get her some answers before she left. “Just tell me when Cy got back to town. I thought rumor had it, he was six feet under?”
“He came out a little while ago.”
“Any idea why?”
“Said his sister was in trouble.”
“Anything else?” she prompted.
“Nope.” Even if there was more, Omerta, the code of silence for all who knew better, held his tongue. “I’ll give you five minutes head start, and then I’m putting in the call,” he said through a tight jaw.
“I need ten, or we’re going to meet at the tunnel,” she explained, referring to a narrow street that linked the adjoining area to this. If they weren’t given more time, there would be a good chance they’d be caught.
He shook his head. She wasted precious seconds asking, “Have you seen Father Luke tonight?”
“Was here, but he left about an hour ago—said he had an appointment.” He blinked. “Four minutes.”
Conversation clearly over, Tessa went back inside, quickly stepping over to Scott. She reached out and grabbed his hand, half pulling him to hurry him out. “We’ve got to go,” she said sharply.
“What’s the hurry?” It amazed him how quickly she could hustle if she wanted to. Scott found himself in a half jog on the way back to the car. He didn’t need the handclasp to find his way, or follow in haste, but he was reluctant to release the familiar contact.
Skidding to a stop in front of the car, Scott yanked on Tessa’s arm gently as she tried to move towards the driver’s door and out of grasp. “Wait a second,” he urged, concern evident in his voice.
Tugging the laced fingers again, he pulled Tessa toward him, refusing to let her move beyond the hood of the car. He took a step and closed the distance. Toes touched. The fragrance she always wore rushed up to great him. It didn’t annoy him like it usually did.
The sudden reluctance to go any further caught Tessa off guard, sending her two-stepping back to Scott; one hand caught up on his chest, the other still tangled in his fingers. For a split second she forgot why they were in a hurry. Tilting her head upward, long auburn tresses fell off her shoulders to line her back, the ends grazing the hood of the car.
“Somebody told you something. Come on, spill it,” he said.
His easy smile made her want to believe that they were not in danger. Sliding her hand from his chest, to settle on the edge of the car, she realized her fingers were still tangled in his. A quick blush filled her cheeks that she hoped would be shrouded by the artificial light that circled their presence.
She let go, and Scott’s hand fell by his side.
“Unless we want company, we’d better leave now,” she said. Aware that there were ears nearby, she didn’t want to say more. She handed him the car keys.
Scott’s touch lingered in warmth on her fingers. Tessa closed her hand, trying to hold the feeling an instant longer. Trusting that he would take her lead, she stepped around the side and climbed into the car.
“I messed up,” she said, “I shouldn’t have brought us here. Let’s head to the airport.”
“Going to spend the weekend with me?” he asked. She didn’t laugh, instead she busied herself watching out the rear window. Scott pressed, “How’d you know I planned to go to New York?”
“I didn’t really,” Tessa said, giving him a quick glance, “until now.”
“Ah,” Scott chuckled softly as he turned the car towards the highway.
Looking through the rear window, Tessa studied the traffic. No car sped into the street to follow them. She let Scott drive on in silence. If she said anything, he might ask questions, and she wasn’t sure what she was willing to answer. Explaining the nickname the kids used back in the club was just one possibility that came to mind, and how could she explain that without revealing more?
Maybe Cage had honored her request after all. After a few more minutes, Tessa said, “Father Luke wasn’t there, so I’ll try calling him.”
“Alright,” Scott said, voice quiet, his face obscured in the dim light.
It took several rings before the priest answered. She filled him in briefly, but he was reluctant to discuss the stained glass window, the Bible verses, or any reason why the postcard might be so important to Cy Perelli. There was some shock in his voice over the situation, but he seemed more concerned for Tessa than the truth.
“Leave it alone, Tessa,” begged the priest, “We should have taken the window as the warning that it was when it was first delivered.”
Tessa chewed her lower lip, her brain searching for answers. “Did the bequest come with anything more direct?”
“What more do you need?”
For a long moment she couldn’t say anything, but like countless times before, Tessa pushed the suspicious facts to the side and continued with her original reason for calling. “Christopher Perelli is in town.”
“I know, he’s been by to see me,” Father Luke supplied. “He’s worried about Darla.”
“Took him long enough, it’s been two months.”
“Maybe he’s just now getting his priorities straight.”
She hated his understanding tone, “A little too late, Father, Darla is dead. And so is Kate Russo…I need to talk to Dante.”
“Can’t help you there. I haven’t heard from him for at least a week.” The sigh through the line was more fatalistic then sad. “This has hurt so many people, Contessa. Now, you be smart; those shots this afternoon were your warning—take it and walk away.”
“Shots? What are you talking about?” the words slowly trickled from her mouth.
There was a second’s hesitation, “I heard there was some gunfire at the Tribune tonight.”
Obviously that was true, but he wasn’t exactly claiming his information came from the 10 o’clock news. She tried to dismiss the paranoia that crept slowly up her spine.
Father Luke’s voice was as kind as she’d always remembered. “Tessa, where are you? Why don’t you come to the church? You can give the postcard to me. Cy still has some illusions about heaven, he won’t hurt me.”
“No, it’s okay, I’ll be fine.”
“Go home then, get some sleep.”
“Actually, I’m going to leave town for a few days—don’t worry about me.”
“Where? No, wait. It’s probably best to keep your plans to yourself.” He sighed before he said, “Call me if you need me.”
There was a pause before he added, “Dio sia con te.”
“Thanks for the blessing, Father. I think I’m going to need it.”
“Ha ha ha.”
The ticket agent laughed at Scott’s joke. He flirted with the woman behind the counter, ignoring Tessa, although he suspected she rolled her eyes at least once. Her barely concealed disdain only egged him on. And in the end, despite originally having only one ticket for tomorrow’s flight, Scott managed to flirt his way into two seats in first class on the red-eye.
Five minutes well spent.
“It’s always about the pretty face,” Tessa commented while opening the ticket jacket and seeing she’d been assigned the window seat. “I’m impressed. Does the Tribune know about this secret skill of yours, Mr. Shameless?”
For a moment he considered a trite denial, but he didn’t plan to defend himself. Humor always worked best. Hadn’t he just proven that? Turning towards the security gate, Scott leaned conspiratorially towards Tessa. “Now you know how I managed to scoop you. As for Cyndi,” he mentioned the ticket agent by name, “all’s fair when they want to bill you for luggage—even when you have none.”