The trailer door hung open. She’d only been gone an hour. Carrie’s stomach twisted as she ran up the steps. Heart thumping against her chest, she dashed to the crib. His tiny blue blanket lay in a heap. Frantic she searched the rest of the trailer for any sign of her child.
Six months of her mother being clean of drugs should not have influenced her decision. Going against her better judgment, she handed the most precious thing in the world over to her mother while she went to get formula. Sixty minutes, one hour. Long enough to change Carrie’s life forever.
A commotion outside made her freeze. High-pitched laughter rang out, followed by the slam of a car door. An engine roared as its tires spit gravel along the side of the metal trailer. Her panic spread as she hurried to the door. Her mother stumbled in, her arms empty, her eyes lit with euphoria from crack cocaine.
The knot in Carrie’s stomach grew tighter. She grabbed her mother’s arm, fingers digging into her mother’s flesh. “Where is he? Where is Bobby? What did you do with my son?”
She pulled away, jerked her arm free and slammed Carrie aside. Carrie lost her balance and fell to the floor.
Her mother held up her bleeding arm where Carrie’s nails had punctured her skin. “Look what you did to me, you little bitch.”
Carrie scrambled to her feet and came at her mother again. “I said, where’s Bobby? Her voice rose in pitch as her hysteria grew.
Her mother stared blankly at her. “Stop your whining. He’s in a better place.”
Carrie’s blood turned to ice. Her legs grew weak, threatening to collapse beneath her. “A—a better place? What are you talking about? I swear, if you did something to him, I’ll kill you. Do you hear me? I’ll kill you!”
“Oh, stop your fussing. You ought to be ashamed. Fifteen years old and carrying a baby around. He’s fine. Bobby’s with good people now. He’ll have a better life than you could ever give him.”
She pushed past Carrie and flopped onto the brown plaid sofa. Carrie tore across the room and pounced. She reached out and snatched her mother’s hair, dragging her off the sofa. They both hit the floor, Carrie on top, pinning her down.
“You tell me where he is right now, or I swear to God, I’ll break every bone in your body!”
In the end, there were no broken bones that day. Instead, pain and guilt took hold inside when Carrie learned her mother sold her son to a couple passing through in exchange for two thousand dollars which she promptly spent part of on drugs.
The police launched an investigation, but the couple, who so callously bought her child, had disappeared. They charged her mother, and she was sentenced to ten years in jail.
Over and over again, Carrie berated herself. One hour. What she wouldn’t give to turn back the clock and undo what she had done.
Leaving her child with her mother that day turned out to be the worst decision of her life. Or, so she thought. Travis Montgomery was about to prove her wrong.
The first time Carrie Overton committed murder, she did it to save him. The second time she did it to save herself. Trapped inside his Chevy Impala, Carrie sat beside a man she didn’t love, a man she had mistaken for her savior.
She kneaded the stiff leather seat beneath her fingertips. The odor of stale cigarettes overflowing in the ashtray stung her nose. Outside the window, slices of sunlight channeled through the trees as the car raced toward its destination.
Frigid air whistled from the vents but failed to evaporate the sweat on Carrie’s skin. Underneath her short denim skirt, her thighs stuck together, but it wasn’t the Florida heat making her sweat. It was fear.
The engine rattled, strained, and then regained its rhythm. Carrie glanced at the man beside her. Travis’s long fingers cradled the wheel. He clenched his teeth, and she caught the click of his jaw. A familiar sound, it put her body on high alert.
Travis punched the gas pedal with the tip of his muddy cowboy boot. The car lurched forward. Carrie braced herself against the sharp turn. The tires on the right passenger side screeched and then lifted off the pavement. Her heart tripped in her chest as the Impala swerved into the oncoming traffic lane directly in the path of a tractor-trailer. The massive truck blasted its horn, veering toward the left just in time to avoid a head-on collision. Travis swore and cut the wheel steering back into the correct lane.
Carrie traced her finger along the door handle, wishing she had the courage to open it and hurl herself out of the speeding car. She turned, eyed the briefcase lying on the back seat, and out of habit, twisted the gold band on her left ring finger.
“Travis, are you sure you want to go through with this? If something goes wrong—’’
“Open the glove box, Carrie.” The grit in his voice clipped the air like a pair of scissors, sharp and to the point. Travis never wasted words.
She pressed the latch. The glove box sprung open. Her stomach churned at the sight of the .45 revolver.
“Take it out,” he ordered.
“Why?” She asked the question even though she already knew the answer. This time, Travis was determined to push things to the limit.
“For Christ’s sake, don’t argue with me, girl.” He jerked the wheel and parked on the shoulder. “Go on, pick it up.”
Carrie bit her lower lip and attempted to steady her hand. She lifted the .45 out. The cold metal sent chills across her palm. The gun felt awkward, heavier than she imagined.
Travis taught her how to operate the weapon and check the safety mechanism. “It’s insurance,” he said. He finished with his instructions and made his way back out into the mid-day traffic. “If I need you to pull the trigger, you better do it.”
At his last words, her body heat soared. She dropped the revolver into her purse and flipped the visor down. She studied her face in the mirror. The violet in her blue eyes intensified. Trying to cool herself, she gathered up her long black hair and tucked it at the nape of her neck.
Travis adjusted his weapon concealed behind him in his waistband, then snatched up his cigarettes from the console. He slipped one out, motioning for her to light it.
Carrie deftly brought the lighter up and touched it to the tip. She took stock of Travis’s tall, slim, build, a contradiction of the fifty-one years he carried. Only the subtle streaks of grey running like silver threads through his brown hair, hinted at his age. Travis surpassed her by twenty years, but today, she felt a hundred years older.
He dragged on the cigarette and puffed out. The smoke swirled up and hung between them forming a veil—a moment’s division out of a lifetime of inseparable misery. It was difficult to imagine a time when Travis used to make her feel safe. After sixteen years, safety had deserted her, turning fear into her constant companion.
Travis cruised alongside the high chain link fence surrounding the warehouse parking lot. An opening appeared, and he drove through. He stopped near the front of a red brick building.
Carrie peered out the windshield. Straight ahead, its engine silent, a shiny black Lincoln Sedan with tinted windows sat like a vulture, hunched over, waiting for its prey. The sun glinted off the dark hood, and she blinked to clear her vision. Her heart fluttered and beat against her ribcage like a trapped bird.
Travis parked across from the Lincoln. He lowered the front windows and shut the ignition.
Carrie touched his arm. “Travis, be careful. Please, just give them the briefcase and get the money.”
His dark eyes locked on hers. “Get ready.”
She watched two men emerge from the dark interior of the Lincoln, their eyes shielded from the harsh sunlight by dark glasses, they crossed the parking lot. Both dressed in expensive looking suits yet were polar opposites. The short, heavyset one lumbered toward them. His skin was the color of almonds, and his round face sported a generous mustache. The second one, tall and lanky, moved panther-like, his physique in stark contrast to the other man. His slick, sandy- colored hair lay combed back from his pale skin and pockmarked face. Both men removed their sunglasses in unison and pocketed them.
Carrie focused on Travis as he exited the Impala. He flicked his cigarette butt onto the pavement, crushing it beneath his boot. The men stood several feet apart.
“Hey, Carlos.” Travis nodded in the direction of the short one first, and then the taller one. “Eddie.”
Carlos’s posture stiffened. He fingered his mustache. His lips formed a slow smile that leaked acid below the surface as he held out his hand. “The briefcase, please.”
Travis remained stock-still. “You gotta understand fellas, from where I’m standing I have to make sure things are right. Hand me the money, and the briefcase is yours.”
Eddie glanced at Carlos and then at Travis, but he remained silent.
Carrie wanted to scream. What was Travis thinking going up against these two men? She clung to the slim hope that he would stick to the plan and not get them killed.
Carlos held up his hand. “Okay, okay, there’s no reason for things to get crazy. Let’s be fair. I’ll get the money from the Lincoln, and you get the briefcase from yours.” Carlos stepped to the Lincoln, reached in, and returned holding a large plastic bag.
Carrie squirmed as muggy air drifted in the windows. Barely able to sit still in the heat, her insides wound tighter while she waited for Travis’s next move.
“I have your money,” Carlos said.
Travis shook his head. “Doesn’t look like fifty thousand dollars to me. What are you trying to pull, Carlos?” In less than a second he reached around, drew out his gun, aiming it at the two men. “Toss the bag over here.”
Pushing against the seat, Carrie wished she could disappear beneath the leather, be anywhere else except here in this parking lot. Her insides shook, and she tried to calm herself.
Carlos and Eddie remained fixed. “Are you kidding me?” Carlos asked. “Do you know who you’re messing with?” He motioned toward the gun. “Don’t be stupid, put that thing away.”
Carrie observed Travis’s stance. She’d physically endured his wrath on numerous occasions and was all too familiar with his body language. She knew he’d never back down.
Travis waved the gun at the ground. “I said, toss the bag over here, then both of you need to take out your weapons and drop them. Do it slowly, no fast moves.”
“Bullshit,” Eddie said, breaking his silence. “I ain’t dropping nothing.”
Travis cocked his revolver. “You have five seconds to do what I say, or else.”
“Or else what?” Eddie pointed his finger at Travis. “You’ll never get away with this. Think again, asshole. You don’t want to screw with the man we work for.”
“No, you better think again,” Travis said. “Talk about trying to screw someone.” He aimed at Eddie’s feet and squeezed the trigger. A bullet burst from the chamber, the sound ripping through the dense air.
The bullet grazed the top of Eddie’s shoe, and he jerked back. “Son of a bitch! You almost hit me.”
Carrie flinched. Her skin prickled as she clutched the purse in her lap. Any sliver of hope that they’d all end up alive vanished. Her worst fears became a reality.
Travis stood firm. “Do as I say, boys. I ain’t gonna repeat myself.”
Carlos hesitated and then tossed the bag in Travis’s direction. It slid across the blacktop, coming to a stop at his feet. Both men lifted their weapons out and threw them on the ground.
Holding his aim steady, Travis called out. “Carrie, come over to me darling, and bring the gun I gave you.”
Blood rushed to Carrie’s head. Her mouth turned bone dry. She fumbled with the clasp on her purse and pulled out the .45. Her legs wobbled as she climbed from the car. She held the doorframe to steady herself. The consequences could prove deadly if she didn’t come to Travis’s aid. Gun in her hand, arm by her side, she rushed toward him.
“Honey, raise that gun and take aim. Make sure they don’t move,” Travis said.
Carrie lifted up both of her arms. The butt of the .45 rested between her palms. She aimed the gun at the two men and fought to control the trembling in her body. Travis had given her no other choice but to stand by him. She sensed his confidence grow with her by his side.
Travis bent and reached for the bag just as Eddie dove for his gun. Carlos lunged at Carrie, and she squeezed the trigger the same moment Travis fired a shot.
The crack of multiple gunshots reverberated off the sides of the warehouse. The bullet flew from her chamber and hit Carlos dead center in his neck. Carrie staggered backward from the recoil. Carlos’s body jolted from the impact. He reached up and clutched his throat. Blood spurted from the open wound and streaked down his hands, turning them red. His airway blocked, he gasped and began to choke on his own blood. His arms fell limp, and he collapsed to the ground. Rivers of blood streamed across the pavement, seeping into the tiny cracks.
Carrie looked to her right. Eddie lay on his side. Blood oozed from his head wound. Bits of brain matter and tissue stuck to the hot blacktop. The coppery scent of blood and gunpowder lingered in the air. Her ears rang, and a wave of nausea washed over her.
Travis spun around and faced her. “We need to go now.”
His voice, muffled from the ringing in her ears, barely penetrated. Her legs threatened to give way.
“Carrie, did you hear me? We gotta go.” He snatched up the plastic bag.
Terror consumed her, and she couldn’t move. Travis’s fingers wrapped around her arm. He steered her toward the Impala and shoved her inside. Carrie took one last look at the dead men lying in pools of blood, not wanting to believe what she was seeing.
Travis got behind the wheel and crammed his weapon underneath the seat. The keys in his hand shook as he started the car. He jammed his foot on the gas. The engine swelled, and the tires squealed in protest across the blistering pavement. The stench of scorched rubber wafted in. He hit the gas a second time causing the engine to buck and falter. The automobile rolled to a stop, and he slammed his hand on the steering wheel.
He cursed under his breath and turned the key. The engine whined, hesitated, and then caught. He nudged the gas pedal, and this time the car charged ahead.
Her fingers still clamped on the butt, Carrie stared in horror at the gun. She swallowed hard and let the .45 fall from her lap. Her stomach rolled. Vomit surged up toward her throat, ready to spill out. She clamped her mouth with her hand and gripped her middle with the other.
“Pull over, Travis,” she moaned.
“Are you crazy, girl? We can’t stop now.” He pressed the pedal harder and picked up speed. White-hot wind sailed in the open windows.
Her stomach coiled again, ready to pour out its contents. “Pull over. I’m going to be sick.” She gulped, pushing saliva back. “Please.”
Travis drew the wheel sharply to the right and stopped on the shoulder. Carrie bolted from the Chevy and rushed down the embankment. Her shoulders curled, and she dropped to her knees, arms cinched around her waist. Hot liquid burned her throat as she spewed the contents of her stomach out.
Dry heaves surged through her, bitter bile stung her tongue. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand she collapsed onto the grass. She kneaded her temples to ease the growing ache inside her head.
Jumping at the blare of the car horn, she struggled to stay erect, as she climbed up the embankment. She shuddered as her knees almost buckled. At the top, she watched Travis toss the briefcase into the trunk along with the plastic bag. She got into the car, and without saying a word, he drove back onto the highway.
Tears welled up, and she focused on the traffic outside the window. Their instructions from Carlos were clear. Make the drop, hand over the briefcase, and get paid. A simple task. Why hadn’t Travis followed the plan?
She weighed her own sanity against his madness and became determined to escape.
As the car sped down the highway, she became sure of one thing. As much as she feared him, her hunger to be free of him outweighed her fear. Carrie dropped her right arm and grabbed the .45. She slipped it into her purse. Travis was too preoccupied to notice.
Thunder drummed in the distance. Heavy grey clouds were forming in the sky. Sultry air tinged with the scent of rain filled Carrie’s lungs as she opened the car door at the truck stop. Travis reached for her hand. “Come on girl, I’m starved.”
Rows of semi-trucks and tractor-trailers lined the lot, most of their engines idle. Outside one of the cabs, two truckers stopped conversing and zeroed in on the two of them. Travis squeezed her hand and Carrie focused on the pavement in front of her. This was his way of letting her know he didn’t approve. She sucked in her bottom lip to keep from crying out. Stares from other men always made his temper flare. They reached the entrance, and he released her hand. Carrie shook her fingers to alleviate the pain.
Inside, a series of red leather booths formed an L-shape around the perimeter. A dozen or more truckers sat hunched over wolfing down food. Cutlery scraped across plates, spoons clinked while waitresses refilled coffee cups and made idle chatter with the customers. They took turns calling out orders at the pass thru window to the cook.
The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and meat sizzling on the grill threatened to throw Carrie’s stomach into spasms again. Images of Carlos and Eddie in pools of blood replayed in her mind.
They sank into a booth, and she pretended to study the menu. Her eyes traveled from the colorful laminated pictures of food to the counter, where a stocky trucker perched on a stool. The rolled up sleeves of his blue plaid shirt exposed beefy, tattooed arms.
Aware of the way he looked at her when they walked in, she made eye contact. The trucker touched the brim of his red baseball cap and grinned at her.
Pain shot up her leg, and she flinched as the tip of Travis’s boot stung her shin. His face flushed red. The lines around his mouth creased and his jaw clicked.
“What the hell are you doing?”
His eyes flashed those danger signals she knew all too well. Nervous knots swirled through her stomach. She prayed Travis wouldn’t cause a scene.
“Do you think you can disrespect me?” he asked, leaning across the table. His voice narrowed into a hard whisper. “Killing someone making you bold?”
Trying to appear apologetic, she forced a smile. “Calm down. Let’s order, okay.” She focused her attention back on the menu.
Travis stretched out his muscular arms and rested them on the table. His hands formed into fists, warning her.
A few minutes later, the waitress set their plates down. Carrie reached for her fork and grew queasy all over again. All she could do was push her food around on her plate while she watched Travis practically inhale his meal. Nothing bothered him, not even someone’s brains splattered all over the pavement.
Disgusted, she stared out the window. If she hadn’t come to Travis’s defense, the two of them would probably be dead now, but it still didn’t justify the blood on her hands. If they were caught, she could spend the rest of her life in jail or worse.
The heaviness inside her swelled knowing that murder had made the ties between them stronger. Now, more than ever, she wanted to cut those ties and gain the freedom she craved.
Carrie observed the trucker again as he made his way to the cashier. Travis finished his plate, and they rose to leave right behind the trucker. She made her way toward the restroom, while Travis strolled to the end of the counter to pay the check.
His attention occupied, she bolted out the door and searched for the trucker. Carrie spotted him at the far end of the lot preparing to climb into an enormous red cab. Her pulse spiked. She ran toward him willing her legs to pump faster. She reached the cab, and the passenger side door flew open. The trucker leaned down. A broad smile appeared on his face.
“Need a ride, pretty lady?”
“Yes, Mister,” she said between heavy breaths. “Please, take me with you.”
He patted the seat beside him. “Hop on up here.”
Carrie grabbed hold of the handle on the cab door and stepped up on the running board. The trucker’s smile disappeared as searing pain raced up her arm. Travis clamped down hard. Her arm threatened to tear from its socket as her foot slid out from underneath her.
“Look, Mister, I don’t want any trouble,” the trucker blurted out. “Sorry, my mistake. I ain’t about to steal another man’s woman. He shut the cab door, revved the engine, and drove off.
Loose gravel spewed up and peppered Carrie’s bare legs. She pitched to one side as Travis dragged her toward the car. Her shoe came off and slid along the pavement making her struggle to keep her balance. Lightning flashed, followed by a blast of thunder. Black clouds swelled unleashing a torrent of rain.
Travis shoved her inside. He sprinted through the deluge and slipped behind the wheel. Drenched from the driving rain, his clothes plastered to his body, he gulped air in angry spurts. Without warning, he raised his hand and slapped Carrie twice across her face.
She cried out as the sting ripped through her body like an electric shock. Her skull smacked against the headrest while the soft flesh on her lips stung. Her mind hurled through time, returning to Arizona, and the trailer in Breezy Meadows where she had endured a slap much harder than the ones Travis gave her.
She was five years old again, asking her mother questions about her father. The father she used to dream of, the father who would one day come to her rescue. Her mother’s answer came swift and sure in the form of a slap hard enough to knock out her front baby tooth causing it to sail across the green Formica kitchen counter, leaving a trail of blood behind it. She didn’t dare mention her father again.
Thunder rattled, cementing Carrie back in the present. Her tears trailed along her bruised cheek and dripped off her chin. Blood oozed from her swollen lip. She tasted its bitterness with the tip of her tongue just like when she was five.
Travis reached out and yanked her face toward him. “You ever try to pull a stunt like that again, and I swear you’ll get more than a few slaps.” He grabbed his cigarettes from the console and shook out two. Placing them between his lips, he lit both and handed one to Carrie.
“What’s gotten into you?” he asked.
Carrie put the cigarette to her lips and took a drag. Ignoring the pain from her swollen lip, she watched the rain cascade down the windshield, the world outside, like her life, a blur.
They smoked in silence while the rain hammered against the glass. Minutes slipped by. The rain slowed and then stopped. Like Travis’s rage, it departed as swiftly as it had burst from the sky. Without another word, he drove out onto the highway.
* * *
The last of the daylight slipped beneath the horizon as they checked into a small motel. Carrie rolled her suitcase to a corner of the room and then lowered herself onto the bed. Her body sank with the give of the cheap mattress. The simple room held nothing exceptional to distinguish it from all the others they had occupied over the years. She glimpsed the patterned carpet layered with dark muted stains. Paper-thin walls carried the drone from a television in the room next door.
Travis set his suitcase next to hers and then drew the heavy drapes. He tossed the briefcase and the plastic bag filled with cash on the bed. Pulling a screwdriver from his back pocket, he worked it against the locks until they sprang free with a loud snap, and the cover flew open.
“Ooh Wee! Look at this,” Travis crowed. He raked his fingers over the crisp stacks of bills. “Girl, we are richer than I thought.”
Carrie stared at the briefcase, the piles of money, and understood whether or not the plastic bag held fifty thousand dollars, Travis had wanted the briefcase all along. His greed almost cost them their lives. His greed left two people dead.
“Finally,” Travis said. “We’ve made it, Carrie. No one’s gonna stop us this time. We’re this close to heaven, baby.” He slammed the briefcase shut and placed it in the closet. After he removed the bands of cash from the plastic bag, he stuffed all of it in the false bottom of his suitcase.
He turned toward Carrie. “We’ll lay low tonight and leave early tomorrow morning.”
Carrie’s stomach pitched, her shoulders tensed. Unable to shake the images of bodies and blood from her mind, desperation outweighed her fear. “Travis, I can’t go on like this. I’m sick over what happened today.”
Travis let out a chuckle. “Put it out of your mind. Those two bums deserved what happened to them.”
Carrie rose from the bed and faced him. ‘I mean it. I can’t do this anymore.”
“Do what?” Arms folded tight across his chest, he waited.
“I’m tired. I want out. Please, give me my half of the money and let me go.”
He drew himself up and scowled. “Half? What the hell do you mean?”
Every nerve inside her quivered, but she kept her voice steady. “You don’t have to give me half. Whatever you think is fair.”
He moved closer, his warm breath fanned her face, and she took a step back.
“Do you think I’d just hand you some money and let you walk out that door? You must be crazy.”
His eyes bore into her skin like braille on a blank sheet of paper. She rubbed her arms expecting to find herself covered with little pinpoint holes.
Travis advanced and seized her shoulders. “Reading too many of those lousy books of yours is putting all kinds of silly ideas in your head. Your leaving is never gonna happen. We belong together.”
She’d made a mistake. Possibly a worse mistake than when she tried to run away at the diner. To placate him she said, “Forget it. Forget I said anything. Where would I go anyhow?”
He fell silent. The uncertainty of her words registered on his face. Slowly, he lowered his hands and moved away.
Later that evening, Carrie lay on her side while Travis leaned his body against hers. Her muscles grew taut, and she hugged her arms close to her body. Her head pounded, she knew what he wanted. His hands traveled over her body as she lay unresponsive. Over the years, Travis had morphed into someone whom she hated and feared. His touch repulsed her. She let her mind drift to someplace else.
Travis finished and grabbed the car keys from the nightstand. He slipped them underneath his pillow as always. Opening his flask of whiskey, he took a long swallow.
Carrie lit a cigarette and strode naked into the bathroom. Ignoring the shock of the pale blue tile beneath her feet, she plopped onto the toweled mat draped over the edge of the tub.
Guilt drenched her soul. She could never redeem herself. Not for committing murder and not for the loss of her child. She’d found a grain of truth in the words Travis spoke at the diner. Killing someone had changed her. After today, she’d never be the same person.
Carrie took the last puff and tossed the butt into the toilet. In the shower, she let the warm water pour over her body and wished she could wash herself clean of Travis and the murders. She frowned and touched the wine-colored finger marks imprinted on her upper arm. Clenching her teeth, she patted them with the washcloth.
Later, a towel wrapped around her body, she crept out of the bathroom. Travis lay stretched out on the bed, head propped up on one elbow. His flask of whiskey still rested on the nightstand. He motioned to her. “Come, get in bed.”
Carrie drew the towel tighter before slipping in beside him. In a matter of seconds, Travis pounced on top of her. His rough, calloused hands squeezed her throat.
Her arms shot up to her neck. She clawed at his hands while his full weight pressed against her. Panic ripped through her as Travis’s hands tightened, and dug into her flesh. She twisted her body, struggling to free herself. The odor of sour whiskey bit at her nose. A gasp escaped her lips. Her heart roared inside her chest as the room swam in dizzying circles. She closed her eyes. Sparks of reds, blues, and greens swirled behind her lids. His harsh, heavy breathing rang in her ears. She wished for death. Knew she’d welcome it. Death was better than enduring one more day with him. Her body went slack, ready to give in when he finally let go.
Low raspy noises burst forth from Carrie’s throat. She fought to inhale. Burning pain gripped her neck. She opened her eyes. Travis towered above her, his face filled with blind rage.
“Don’t ever think you can get away from me.” His lips curled. “I’ll bury you before I let you walk this earth without me.”
“Travis, please.” She could hardly recognize her own voice. “I can’t breathe.” Tears formed a path down her cheeks and across her lips, their saltiness stinging her tongue.
He lifted himself off of her and then reached for his flask. Twisting off the cap, he gulped down the whiskey.
Carrie forced herself up into a sitting position and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She managed to stand but her legs gave way, and she slumped to the floor. Her neck throbbed. She got on all fours and crawled into the bathroom. Kicking the door shut, she reached up and turned the lock.
She held onto the rim of the sink and eased up. Her throat ached. Turning the tap, she cupped her hands and splashed cold water on her face. Slowly, she lifted her head and caught her reflection in the mirror. Dark circles marked the skin beneath her eyes. She swept her hair up. Ugly red and purple bruises formed a pattern on her neck. Her fingertips probed the swollen veins underneath them. At that moment, all her doubts and fears dissolved.
Carrie unlocked the door and peered out. Travis’s heavy snore dominated the room. His flask lay open. She followed the steady rise and fall of his chest. It meant he’d sleep through the night. She tucked a towel around her body and padded softly across the room and grabbed her purse. She opened it and removed the .45. Firing a weapon had empowered her. Made her believe she could stand up against him.
Today, she experienced firsthand, the jolt of the recoil, the tang of gunpowder. She witnessed Carlos collapse into a pool of his own blood, and poor Eddie’s brains splattered across the blacktop.
She moved toward the bed and fingered the trigger. Having fired it once already, she knew with certainty she could do it again. Travis had taught her well.
It would be easy to pull the trigger right now, while he slept. Shoot him, take the money and leave. Only it wasn’t enough. She wanted him to feel how much he hurt her. How his abandonment all those years ago had cost her the most cherished thing in her life.
She could no longer deal with the physical pain he so cruelly dealt out. And her emotional pain had grown roots. Long, unforgiving roots.
Though desperate for freedom, she’d learned she wouldn’t get far without money. With each slap, punch, and unkind word, she’d earned every dollar bill inside that briefcase.
Holding the gun, she paced the small room. She stopped and studied her neck in the mirror. If all her marks and bruises failed to fade away, her body would look like a battlefield from a war she had fought and lost over and over again. It was time to even the ground.
Nicholas D’Angelo, better known as Nicky D, drove his black S550 Mercedes Benz up to the wrought iron gates. He noted the intricate scrollwork surrounding either side of the initials R. S. in the center.
Ernesto Bario’s tall solid body cast a shadow on the hood of the car, the firearm at his side in full view. Nick slid the window down.
Ernesto stooped and peered in. “Ah, Nicky D. Buenos dias, amigo.” His lips curved into a smile, revealing a set of perfect white teeth. “It’s good to see you again.”
Nick returned the smile. “You too, Ernesto. Are you keeping that pretty wife of yours happy?”
Ernesto straightened and erupted into a belly laugh. “It’s like they say, happy wife, happy life.”
“So I’ve heard,” Nick said. “But I wouldn’t know about it firsthand.”
“Sí, amigo. You are the lucky one. A bachelor.”
Nick balked at the word bachelor. Single by choice, at times he wished for someone to warm his bed at night. “Don’t fool yourself, it can get pretty lonely.”
Ernesto winked, moved toward a panel by the gate, and pressed in a code. The gates parted, separating the R and S at the center. He stepped back and waved Nick through.
Nick cruised along the drive underneath the massive oak trees stationed on either side, cloaked in Spanish moss. Draped among the branches, the moss swayed gently in the warm breeze, their canopy a welcome respite from the hot sun.
A palatial home, with cream-colored stucco walls and red tile roof, came into view. The wheels of the Mercedes touched the circular drive and glided over the natural stone pavers.
Nick’s green eyes scanned the manicured landscape. Ornate fountains graced the gardens. Exotic plants and flowers perfumed the air. Rows of bougainvillea already trained to tree-form stood fanned out along a path winding through the property. Weeping bottlebrush trees swayed in unison showing off fuzzy red blooms. Tall, narrow Italian Cypress, pressed close to the exterior walls of the mansion. All these things were a demonstration of the wealth and power of the man who lived inside.
He emerged from the air-conditioned car and swore under his breath when the humid Miami air assaulted him. Nick hated Miami. He took no pleasure in the blistering heat or the rustle of palm trees. A New Yorker at heart, he loved how he could feel the charge in the air there. Give him concrete skyscrapers, the hustle and bustle, and the change of seasons. They could keep Miami. Hell, they could keep the whole state of Florida for that matter.
His body strained against the confines of the black tee shirt underneath the grey Hugo Boss suit. He stretched, loosening the muscles on his six-foot frame after the long drive. At thirty-six years old, Nick was in the best shape of his life. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank, and took good care of himself. It wasn’t vanity. In his line of work, he did it out of necessity.
Known as a ghost among his peers, Nick was at the top of his profession. Invisible, a sure bet to get the job done.
Nick hadn’t come to Miami by choice. Ricardo Santiago requested he come. Ricardo, one of the world’s wealthiest business owners and importers of goods, was also one of the most feared drug lords on the East Coast. Nick had done plenty of work for Ricardo. And today, Ricardo would give him all the details for his next kill. Nick didn’t keep track of the body count. He did what Ricardo asked and was well compensated. A disgraced, former NYPD detective, who lost his way, Ricardo had saved him, and Nick would never forget it.
Nick strode to the massive double oak doors. He swept a hand through his thick dark hair and adjusted his suit jacket. Before he could press the doorbell, Armando, Ricardo’s butler opened the door. Fiftyish, short in stature with a receding hairline, his black and white butler’s uniform was pressed to perfection. He dipped his head and bowed in Nick’s direction.
“Ah, Mr. Nicky D, he is expecting you, come in please.”
Nick crossed the entryway, and Armando closed the door behind him.
A grin flashed across Armando’s face. “It has been a while, sí?”
“Yes, it has, Armando,” Nick agreed, glancing down and catching his reflection in the imported Italian marble floor lit by the cut-crystal chandelier suspended above.
“All is good with you, no?” Armando asked.
“Wouldn’t do any good to complain,” Nick said. He followed Armando down the long hall leading to Ricardo’s study. Priceless art lined the walls. Nick glimpsed the latest additions to Ricardo’s collection. Custom-installed lighting above two new works of art served to exhibit them in all their glorious detail.
Outside the study door, Chino, Ricardo’s pure white Akita, lay stretched out on the floor. Chino rose and stood erect on all four paws, his massive one hundred, and thirty-pound body blocking the door. With a bite pressure of three hundred and fifty pounds, he could quickly dispatch with any unwanted intruder. Gentle with those familiar to him., his tail beat against the tile floor as Nick approached.
“Hello, Chino.” He bent and patted his enormous head. Nick could hardly believe Chino was the same dog he’d found chained to a tree in the backyard of one of his kills, the links on the chain digging welts into his neck, half-starved and scarcely able to move. Nick spared no expense nursing the beaten and abused dog he had rescued. Being on the road so much and knowing Chino would have a good home, he presented him to Ricardo as a gift.
“How are you, boy?” Chino wagged his tail faster while emitting a low growl of contentment, his dark eyes trained on Nick.
Armando tapped on the paneled pocket door and slid it open. Chino padded past him into the study. “You can go right in,” Armando said. He moved away and disappeared down the hallway.
Nick entered the room and slid the door closed. He inhaled the scent of fine leather mixed with polished wood. Two walls held floor to ceiling bookcases filled with expensive custom bound books. The dark furniture, all imported and hand-made to specification anchored the room. An exquisite hand-woven rug from India partially concealed the rich Brazilian walnut floor underneath. The fireplace mantle held two bronze sculptures on opposite ends, one by Alberto Giacometti, and one by Henry Moore. Between them stood a single guilt-edged frame. Inside the frame was a picture of a striking young woman with long hair the color of caramel, full lips, and almond-shaped eyes.
No matter how many times he visited, Ricardo’s study always impressed him. He might be a drug dealer, but the guy sure had taste Nick mused.
Ricardo sat in a burgundy leather chair behind a large mahogany desk, staring at a computer screen. Chino, settled himself at the base, crossing his paws in front.
Nick took a moment to look at Ricardo before he glanced up. One would never consider this small man with skin the color of creamy mocha, to be anything other than a wealthy, cultured gentleman. Ricardo was certainly that. And much more.
Ricardo looked up. He smoothed his pencil-thin mustache and his silver-grey hair. Rising, he stepped from behind his desk.
“Hola mi compadre,” he said, giving Nick a bear hug. “Welcome to Miami.”
“It’s good to see you, Ricardo, but you know how I feel about Miami,” Nick teased.
Ricardo laughed. “Yes, you’re as they say, a die-hard New Yorker. Come, my friend, let’s have a drink.” He strode over to the burnished wood bar, raised a crystal decanter and poured two shots of Asombroso Tequila. Handing a glass to Nick, he gestured for him to sit on the leather sofa opposite his desk.
Ricardo perched on the edge of his chair. “I know you hate Miami. Still, you should come to see me more often. If not here, then when I’m at my vineyards in California.”
Nick relaxed into the soft leather. “Yes, you’re right. I’ll keep that in mind.”
A slight smile appeared on Ricardo’s lips. “I think you understand how important you are to me, my friend. There are not many people I can trust in this life.” He raised his glass. “Salud.”
The warmth of the tequila bathed Nick’s throat with a smoothness only an eighteen hundred dollar bottle of liquor could.
“Have you given any more thought to our earlier conversation regarding, Carmela?” Ricardo asked.
Nick shifted his body, twirled the empty shot glass between his fingers. He cast a glance at the picture of Carmela on the mantle. He’d hoped to avoid the subject of marriage. Nick had known Carmela for a good number of years and watched her grow from a gangly girl into a captivating woman. As of now, she was away finishing her degree at Harvard. Her father’s alma mater.
Carmela was pretty enough but way too young. Too young for a love interest, she was more like a little sister to him than a potential wife. None of that mattered to Ricardo. He wanted a marriage between them. Carmela was to marry someone Ricardo could count on to keep her safe after he was gone.
“Ricardo,’ Nick began. “I care deeply for, Carmela.”
Ricardo’s eyebrow shot up, his face questioning Nick’s words. “But.”
“I don’t think it’s fair to her. She should marry someone who can make her happy. You know I’m not that guy, Ricardo.”
Ricardo flashed a grin. “I think you are. Only you do not realize it yet. Carmela would be thrilled to marry you. We have already spoken of it.”
Nick considered his next words carefully. “I’m honored you would entrust the future of your daughter to me. Any man would jump at the chance to marry her.”
“Yes, but I won’t accept just any man for my daughter, Nick. I think my reasons are well founded.”
Ricardo walked to the bar and picked up the decanter again. He gestured for Nick to hold out his glass and then poured each of them another shot.
Nick contemplated the amber liquid for a moment and said, “I’m good at the jobs I do for you, but running your business is not in my future plans.”
Ricardo shook his head. “I would turn over my legitimate businesses for you to run. Nether you or my daughter would get involved on the other side.” He tipped his glass and drained the tequila. “I won’t press you any further today. Think about it.” Amusement played at the corner of his eyes. “The idea may grow on you.”
Nick nodded and finished his drink. He noticed the smile fade from Ricardo’s face and predicted his mood was about to change.
Ricardo cleared his throat and set his shot glass aside. “Unfortunately, I have urgent business for you to take care of.” Hands clenched at his side, he paced the room. “An incident occurred a day ago. Two of my men were murdered and a large sum of my money stolen.”
A vein on the right side of Ricardo’s forehead pulsed. Without warning, he scooped up the empty shot glass and flung it into the fireplace. Shards of glass exploded on the marble hearth. Chino, startled by the sound, lifted his head but made no attempt to rise.
Ricardo shook his fist. “This should never have happened. I must always keep a low profile.”
Stunned, Nick cocked an eyebrow. “Who?” he asked. He was familiar with most of the people who worked for Ricardo.
“Carlos and Eddie.” Ricardo observed the expression on Nick’s face. He held up his hand. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“Well, they weren’t two of the brightest guys,” Nick said. “Only a matter of time before they did something dumb.”
Nick sighed and leaned forward. The muscles in his chest tightened. The tequila lay heavy in his stomach as he processed the news. Carlos and Eddie didn’t rank very high. They took care of the little jobs for Ricardo.
“As you know amigo, in this business you can’t always hire the best.” Ricardo pointed his finger at him. “Men like you are hard to come by.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, Ricardo. Still, they didn’t deserve to die. What the hell happened?”
“They were assigned to make a drop and pick up cash in Melbourne. Unfortunately, the feds were watching. I ordered them to abort the plan. Most likely, afraid to upset me, they decided to go ahead and make the drop using two locals.”
Nick shook his head in disbelief. “Locals. What the hell! Even I can’t imagine them stupid enough to trust outsiders.”
“Sí, Carlos, and Eddie made some bad decisions, but this by far was their worst. Now, I am paying the price for their screw up. It's costing me more than two million dollars. If anyone finds out how easy it is to steal from me, Ricardo Santiago—well—I have a reputation to uphold.” He sat and folded his hands on the desk. “This situation must be handled quickly.”
“Yes, of course,” Nick said.
Ricardo’s face turned dark. “When they didn’t show up I sent some of my men to look for them. They found them lying dead. Eddie shot in the head, Carlos in the throat. They removed the bodies and cleaned up the site. The police are not involved in this one.”
“Lucky.” Nick set his shot glass on top of the inlaid tile covering the mahogany end table.
“Yes, lucky you say.” Ricardo’s hands gripped the armrests of the chair. “I want those thieves found, and I want my money. There can be no mistakes, Nick.”
“Understood, Nick said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to find them.”
“I’m sure you will.” Ricardo opened the desk drawer and took out a CD. “They shouldn’t be hard to find. All my warehouses have hidden cameras inside and outside.” He crossed the room and slid the CD into the player.
“Only one problem, amigo,” Ricardo said. “The sound. The recorder never captured the voices. Still, you will see enough.”
“I want you to find these people and recover the money.” Ricardo’s tone grew cold. His words sliced the air like a frigid north wind. “Once you have it, eliminate them. I won’t tolerate anyone tampering with my business. I have to make an example out of anyone who steals from me. After you kill them, bring me their hands, and get rid of the rest.”
The unusual request caught Nick off guard, but he didn’t flinch. Ricardo had never requested body parts. He’d experienced Ricardo’s anger before. This was something different. Nick recognized it wasn’t about the money. Ricardo could well afford to lose two million dollars. This robbery dug deeper. Ricardo’s pride was wounded.
The two men sat in silence and viewed the video, both of them fascinated by the scene playing out before them.
They watched as a tall, lean man, shot off a round at Eddie’s feet. Pandemonium erupted after a dark-haired woman emerged from a car. A real beauty, Nick observed. Why was she hooked up with a creep like him? It made no sense.
He watched Carlos and Eddie dive toward the two of them. The woman raised what looked like a .45 caliber handgun and shot Carlos in the throat while the man shot Eddie with the same caliber gun. Nick could tell by the expression on her face and her stiff posture that she’d never fired a weapon before.
The video ended, and Ricardo strode over to his desk. He retrieved a large manila envelope and handed it to Nick. “Still photos along with two hundred and fifty thousand up front.” He poured another shot of tequila and downed it.
“Find them, Nick. I want to put an end to this mess. This whole situation keeps me awake at night.” His eyes met Nick’s. “And remember the hands. I want their hands.”
He’d do whatever Ricardo asked. To him, it was part of the job. “You can depend on me.”
The two men walked to the door, with Chino following close behind. “That’s all I wanted to hear," Ricardo said. “There is another two hundred and fifty thousand when you finish the job.”
Ricardo placed his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Please, amigo, consider the honor I have presented to you.” He motioned to the picture on the mantle. “While Carmela has a gentle heart, she is also brave and strong like you. You are a good match. It would mean everything to me to know my daughter is safe and well taken care of when I’m gone.”
“I will think about it, Ricardo.” Nick held out his hand. “I’ll be in touch.”
Chino trotted to the door alongside Nick. He hunched down, let Chino nuzzle his neck. “You stay on guard now. I’ll see you again soon.” He gave him a final rub on the head and continued toward the foyer.
Armando appeared out of nowhere and escorted him to the front door. “Take care, Mr. Nicky D, it is always a pleasure to have you here.”
Outside in the hot sun, with the air on full blast, Nick sped down the driveway. He decided to put his talk with Ricardo regarding Carmela to rest for now.
Over the years Nick had learned, when it came to business, patience was not on Ricardo’s radar. Besides, he didn’t savor dealing with the Florida heat. He’d complete this job and head north as soon as possible.
Nick grabbed the sunglasses clipped to the visor and slipped them on. For a few seconds, the video and the image of the woman played over again in his mind. His instincts told him her story ran much deeper than the robbery.
He reached the gates, and Ernesto punched in the code. Nick gave Ernesto a quick wave and cruised through. His assignment set, he would lay the groundwork for these next two kills.