"Nathaniel Myer" - Margaret Sisu Fiction

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"Nathaniel Myer"

 

Kirkus Reviews (click for full review)
"In Sisu’s (The Nude, 2011) unconventional tale of vengeance and redemption, after a vicious gang attacks his well-to-do, suburban family, a father abandons his previously comfortable lifestyle in pursuit of the reckless culprits.
... In Nate’s quest for payback, he makes his fair share of friends and enemies. Though there’s betrayal, sex and violence, this isn’t a typical murder mystery. Sisu artfully keeps readers informed while sustaining heavy suspense as the story unfolds. Several chapters are told from a gang member’s third-person perspective as well as from the perspective of another gang member’s lover, giving clues that expose the dynamics of the ruthless gang. With relatable, compassionate but extremely flawed characters, the relationships are complex. There’s also a consistent flow of playful, quip-heavy dialogue, one of the author’s strongest suits..."


Ann Howard Creel, author of The Magic of Ordinary Days
"The plot is delivered masterfully. I think it will grab readers by the throat and not let go...There's quite a bit of clever conversation. Dialogue is a strong, solid part of this book ... and readers will love [it.] Characters are so well-written, these people seemed to stand right in front of me. ...really stunning."

IndieReader (click for full review)
"NATHANIEL MYER is a clever thriller, with nuanced characters and a remarkable amount of detail into gang mentality, police proceedings, and homelessness in America. But the novel doesn’t drastically stand out from any other well-written revenge thriller or intelligent protagonist-driven crime show. .. the novel is well-plotted and gloriously detailed, with enough of the tropes of the genre to keep crime and thriller fans invested in its nearly 400 pages.
Dramatic and clever, NATHANIEL MYER is a strong revenge thriller with an excellent cast of supporting characters."

Judge, 22nd Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Awards.

"...I’m a sucker for a great first line, which in this sort of thriller is particularly vital, and author Margaret Sisu delvers with: It happened because the traffic light turned red.

There’s something about that line I just love. The rest of the book continues to deliver past its archetypical set-up. The eponymous hero is a strongly motivated character and though it can be risky, Ms. Sisu’s choice to drive him forward on what can only be called obsession not only works, but pays off in a hopeful ending. There are some matters of faith, but the book never falls into religious polemic, and all in all is a readable, thrilling thriller."

 
 

EXCERPT


Copyright © by Margaret Sisu 2014. Author reserves all rights.

Chapter One


       It happened because the traffic light turned red.
       It was while idling there that Nathaniel realized he’d seen the cream Mercury Marquis three times since morning service had ended.
       The first time, the ’78 classic had roared through the nearby intersection just as he was easing out of the church’s car park. As usual, there’d been few cars around by the time he had helped the youth band pack up, Lauren had tidied up after Sunday school, and Li’l J had taken the extra time to blow off steam in the playroom. With Sunday noon traffic relatively light, the Marquis’s throaty V8 rumble had been hard to miss.  
      The second time he’d seen it, he’d been filling up at the gas station six blocks north, after their regular buffet lunch at Leon’s. The Marquis had been going in the opposite direction that time, and watching it roll past, he’d had plenty of time to admire the gleaming chrome bumpers and meticulous restoration—and to feel a little envy. Four years ago, he too had bought a junkyard ’75 Plymouth Duster with dreams of restoring it. He’d worked on it steadily for over a year, anticipating the day he’d roll it out of the garage and down the street, the 360 engine growling like some magnificent beast. But then the kitchen roof had sprung multiple leaks and there had gone any spare cash for the last two years.
      Sighing as the Marquis disappeared into the distance, Nate had replaced the gas nozzle, hopped back behind the wheel of their practical SUV, and pointed toward home. From the backseat, Li’l J had been reminding him of another third grade after-school event Nate was to be sure not to forget, and in the front passenger seat, Lauren had been reminding him of something Nate wished he could forget—their first appointment with the counselor. It topped her New Year’s to-do list, and he tried to stifle another sigh.
      She’d noticed, anyway. "Baby, lots of couples hit a plateau after ten years. I’m feeling a change in you, and you won’t tell me what’s wrong."
Aware of Li’l J’s nine-year-old ears in the backseat, Nate had kept his voice light. "Nothing’s wrong. You’re good, Li’l J is good, so I’m good. Why do we need to see some counselor?"
      "Think of it as an early audit," she told him, "starting a new year on the right track. Just one appointment, that’s all I ask. For me?" Her painted pinky-brown nails dug gently into his thigh while her big black eyes had cajoled him. His buddies often teased him that he must have had to drug such a beautiful, brainy woman to get her to marry him—and Lauren was still a knockout. She worked out three times a week, and despite a rough pregnancy in their first year of marriage, had the same great figure as the day they’d met. Her dark cocoa skin was as smooth as when she was twenty-two, her shoulder-length hair as thick, and her extra-full lips still framed the biggest smile he ever saw. But it was her deep black eyes that got him every time.
      "Fine. We’ll go to therapy," he caved. "But I swear, if I hear anything about my mother did this or my mother did that—"
Lauren chuckled. "It’s counseling, not therapy. And it was your aunt who raised you, not your mother, may they both rest in peace. Anyway, I think it will do us a world of good . . ."
      She’d gone on when Nate wished she wouldn’t, so he’d tuned her out.
      He’d been a little moody over Christmas and she’d blown it out of proportion. He simply needed a little space, that was all. It seemed these days as if he hardly had an hour to slow down, that there was always something he needed to step up and take care of it. Now she wanted in even on his private thoughts, the rare times he could be just . . . him. Perhaps it was just the post-holiday blues. Perhaps he would feel less pressured once they finished paying off the roof in the next months and money was no longer as tight. Then he could get back to work on the Duster and again have his occasional escape. That thought perked him up, and as if on cue, he heard the leonine roar of the Marquis for the third time, this time pulling up directly beside him at the intersection.
      A sideways glance revealed that there were two average-looking young men in their twenties up front. The passenger, closer to Nate, was white, and tall given that the top of his head scraped the car’s interior roof. His long forearm rested in the open window and his rolled-back shirt sleeve displayed a tattoo of a globe surrounded by an elaborate cross with a circle of red at the point just above his wrist. The design was bold, intricate, and highly skilled. Nate was comfortable around youngsters—he’d served as church counselor for the sixteen- to twenty-five–year-old youth group for the last three years. The irony of going to counseling now himself was not lost on him, and to take his mind off it, he ran appreciative eyes over the Marquis’s lines.
Since both vehicles’ windows were down, he said easily, "Fine piece of machinery you boys have there," just loudly enough to get the front passenger’s attention.
      The younger man practically jumped out of his seat, making Nate wonder if he was on something. The driver, however, leaned forward and looked past his twitchy friend. This guy had dark chocolate skin and a square, friendly face.
      "Thanks, man," he said to Nate. "Got her off a lady who wanted to scrap her, can you believe that? Worked on it myself. Took a while, but now she glides along like a princess."
      Nate gave an answering grin. "Is that her name? Princess?"
      The driver’s brows arched as if it hadn’t occurred to him to actually name the car. "Hey, I like that. Princess." He turned his head toward the backseat and said, "Hey, bro, this guy just gave me a great name for my girl. Princess. What d’you think?"
      Nate looked to see who he was talking to and counted two more passengers in the Marquis’s backseat. Because of the higher angle of the Expedition, Nate could only see the lower half of the one who sat farther away but that one seemed to be another male, as was the fourth occupant, closer to Nate. Clearly visible, this last man had a younger profile than the two up front, perhaps just out of his teens. His build was gentler, his thick hair softly curling, and his caramel complexion was mid-way between black and white. Then he turned his head slowly to Nate and head-on, his impact was entirely different. For one thing, he wasn’t nearly as young as Nate had first thought and was possibly even older than the two up front. He was also much better looking but his well-defined eyes had a flat, muddy green, semi-translucence that caught Nate off guard with their complete lack of emotion. This guy wasn’t smiling and he wasn’t twitchy. He was still, almost inanimate, and the smile his lips slowly formed didn’t reach his eyes. The brief one Nate returned was equally half-hearted.
      "What do you think of the name Princess, bro?" the driver asked again. He seemed to need his fair-skinned, blank-eyed back passenger’s opinion.
      Nate glanced from one to the other and realized that, despite the difference in build and coloring, there was a definite resemblance that suggested they could be related. "Bro" was likely more than a casual term.
      The fair rear passenger smiled wider and gave a single nod of his head to his bro’s question.
      Beside Nate, Lauren’s voice broke back in. "Who are you talking to?" She leaned forward to look toward the Marquis. "Do you know them?"
      The fair-skinned man looked at her; then he ran his eyes to the backseat of the Expedition, seeming to notice Li’l J for the first time.
      Nate had no idea why, but there was  something about the guy he didn’t like, something that made him  end the conversation abruptly with "your machine’s a beaut. Take care of her and you guys stay safe" and turn his attention back forward. He was relieved when the light turned green just then but he didn’t immediately surge ahead. Instead, he let the Marquis move off and away and only then did he give the SUV some gas.
     "What was that about?" Lauren wanted to know, her gaze puzzled.
     Nate didn’t know so he shook off her question and his disquiet, and continued to take them east toward Miami Lakes and home.

     The minute they stepped through the door, Li’l J wanted to watch TV.
    "Only if you’ve done all your homework," Lauren conceded, but by the word if the kid was already off, leaving skid marks on the wind.
     Nate noticed her abrupt weariness. "Going to take a nap?" he asked, but she shook her head, reminding him that she had reports to prepare for the next day.
    "When the week starts out with me refereeing medics who want everything for every patient regardless of the cost and board members expecting miracles on an out-of-date budget, I just know it’ll be all downhill right up until Friday." She groaned. Then she brightened a little. "But maybe we could do something fun Friday night. Something spontaneous."
    It was another of her New Year resolutions—taking time away from their growing son to reconnect with each other.
    "It’s not spontaneous if we plan it," Nate pointed out. "Besides, with our luck, something will throw a spanner in the works."
    "Honey, don’t be like that. Dad would gladly babysit if we want an evening out. It’s no one’s fault that last time he had the flu and the time before that, Li’l J started vomiting and we had to leave the movie early. Third time’s bound to be a charm."
Maybe he was being a grinch. "We’ll see. You go work. I’m going to take a look at something."
     Upstairs, Nate changed into an old T-shirt and shorts then came back down to haul on the red overalls that still hung over the metal rail in the garage. He hooked his MP4 player up to a ragged car stereo adaptor he’d rigged long ago, pleased to find that it still worked. In minutes, music filled the garage, Cochrane proclaiming that "Life Is a Highway" he was going to ride all night long.
    Nate yanked the canvas off the Duster and stood looking at the shell of his young-man’s dream. For a long while, he only looked, trying to recall the last thing he’d done two years ago and what he’d planned to tackle next. An hour later, he was on his back under the jacked up chassis, and on the floor beside him were a pen and a sheet of paper with his restoration wish list.
    The sound of the kitchen door opening broke through Luther and Janet proclaiming that "The Best Things in Life Are Free." Footsteps drew closer.
    "What are you doing out here?"
    It felt as if she had fractured the spell woven by maleness, music, and machinery, and Nate felt guilty for thinking it.
    "Just renewing old acquaintances," he said and eased out from under the car to grab a spanner. Lauren, now in a loose T-shirt and comfy leggings, stood by his hip, looking down at him.
    "You’re going to start bac—?" she began then shook her head. "Hold on. That music is way too loud." She went over and lowered the volume.
     Nate sighed but figured he could turn it back up once she went back inside.
     "You’re restarting work on the Duster?" she asked when she returned. She sounded worried and Nate shook his head.
     "No, just looking, trying to remember what it would take to finish."
     "Too much right now with the roof and the holidays just over."
     He didn’t need the reminder. "I know. I was just in the mood to fool around with it a little."
     Hovering over him, she smiled warmly, and the image of another hovering face, smiling invitingly at him flashed through Nate’s mind before he pushed the memory away.
     "What?" he asked Lauren when her smile grew more mischievous.
     In reply, she slipped off her house slipper and, with her toes, made soft circles on his chest before venturing lower and lower still. "So you wanted to fool around, did you?" she mused slyly.
     Nate sucked in a breath as she reached his groin. "I thought you were working," he said, his impatience at her interruption now warring with another feeling entirely.
     "I’m taking a break."
     The pressure of her foot increased. "Li’l J," he thought to remind her and threw a glance toward the open kitchen doorway.
     "Washed out from playing after church and stuffing himself at lunch," she told him. "He didn’t last ten minutes with the Discovery Channel."
     "It’s the middle of the day." He wondered why he was stalling. Just a few years ago, she wouldn’t even have needed to drop hints. All it would take was a look, a smile, and he would have been in heat. As it was, her toe was growing more wicked by the second.
    "I figured we could do something spontaneous . . . spontaneously," she purred.
     Yes, well, lately "spontaneous" hadn’t been such a good idea for him. On one occasion, it had even made him resent the sage, inner voice that had only his best interest at heart. Again Nate determinedly pushed the memory away.
     Lauren dropped down on all fours over him, her arms and legs trapping him. "There’s just something about a man in overalls," she teased, "all sweaty and worked up, that does things to a girl."
     Nate didn’t know about sweaty—even in south Florida, January was cool—but he was definitely well on the way to getting worked up.
    "Move," he growled, and she giggled and scrambled up. He was right behind her.
     Stifling snickers, they tiptoed through the kitchen, past the living room where Li’l J slept on the couch in front the TV, and headed upstairs.
     In their bedroom, Lauren drove him crazy, slowly removing his overalls and only once did an untimely image intrude to distract him from what his siren wife was doing to him. When Lauren hurriedly stripped of her own clothes and tumbled onto the bed, Nate resolved that nothing would take his focus off this woman, right here, right now—his woman. She was all mouth-watering nakedness and sensual mischief, from her half-lidded eyes to the taunting V of dark curls at the top of her thighs, thighs she immediately wrapped around him, pulling him to her.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Nate recalled that she was taking a break from the pill, and he should probably use a condom so that Li’l J didn’t end up with an unplanned baby sister or brother, but Lauren didn’t allow him room to take care of it because she rolled them over, lowered her head to his lap, and tried to swallow him whole. She made him see asteroids, sun flares, and whole celestial bodies. Close to the end of his rope, Nate threw her off again and onto her back while she laughed at him losing his cool.            .
     "You think you’re the boss, huh?" he chided, yanking her knees on either side of his waist.
     She shook her head but her twinkling eyes belied her denial. So Nate got even by driving her crazy in return because he knew how every nerve of her body worked. When he took her nipple between his lips, she forgot about being playful and her sturdy thighs squeezed reflexively, possessively around him. It struck Nate just how poignant the moment was, how they knew each other as no one else did and were connected by this, the ups and downs of a life together, and their son. Maybe their lovemaking no longer had the adventurous, urgent passion of the early years, but still finding this special heat together, so fast and unerringly, was extraordinary. Anchoring. Theirs.
     He slowed enough to look down at her, soaking in her details.
     "What?" Lauren asked, a little put out by the interruption of her bliss.
      Nate shook his head. "Nothing. Just looking at you." Reminding myself that I was a fool.
      Her eyes softened. "That’s nice, honey, but maybe you can do that later because right now, I need this"—she reached down between them and took hold of him—"where it can do me some good."
      Nate grinned and proceeded to demonstrate just how much good he could do her. He even had to put a hand over her mouth when she almost screamed her climax loud enough to wake their son downstairs.
      Afterward he realized that he never did use that condom and made a mental note not to risk the oversight again. The idea of another child wasn’t out of the question; they just couldn’t afford it at the moment. But hopefully, they wouldn’t get pregnant from just one experiment in spontaneity.
Sated, he looked down at Lauren in her sublime relaxation. "You okay?" he asked softly.
      She nodded, already slipping off to sleep. "Hell, yeah."

      When Nate awoke, he was alone. A glance at the clock said that it was five-thirty—he’d slept for over an hour. Li’l J was probably up by now, nosing around for a snack. Judging by the aroma in the air, it was overdone grilled cheese. These days, the kid lived on little else. There were the muted thuds of footsteps along the downstairs hallway, headed toward the kitchen, and Nate knew his brief respite was over.
     He got up and dressed, smiling at the discarded overalls that had turned Lauren into a banshee. Heading out of the bedroom, he heard his son stomping around downstairs, in one of his wound-up, heavy-footed moods, evidently.
     "Hey, Li’l J, go easy, okay? Daddy’s only just waking up and would prefer to do it slooowwly."
      He expected the small mischievous face, an equal mix of his and Lauren’s, to appear at the foot of the stairs, rattling on about whatever game he wanted Nate to play with him once they’d all finished eating, but clearly, Joshua Joseph was too hungry to tear himself away from the kitchen. The aroma of grilled cheese grew stronger, only now it smelled burnt.
     "Hey, Lauren," Nate called out, heading down, "throw another sandwich on the grill for me too. But take mine off early. Smells like you might have burned one."
     It seemed she didn’t hear him either.
     He reached the bottom of the stairs, about to repeat his request, but when he turned the corner to the kitchen doorway, he froze, not comprehending what he was seeing.
     There was grilled cheese on the kitchen table, yes, and Lauren and Li’l J were there, but so were four other figures. Garbed completely, threateningly in all-black— from their full masks and gloves to black clothing and shoes—they stood between the table and the kitchen sink, darkening the normally sunny yellow of the room. Two of the figures held Lauren and Li’l J; the other two flanked left and right.
      Everything in Nate froze.
     Thinking he might still be asleep, he squeezed his eyes shut and almost immediately opened them again. The scene didn’t change—it remained solid, three-dimensional, and real. His heart slammed into a brutal, painful beat as he took in the wide, stark, shivering stares of Lauren and their son.
     "Is this some kind of joke?" Nate blurted then felt disgusted with himself. He started again. "Who are you? What do you want?"
Their forms said that they were four men; the four isolated pairs of eyes staring out through the small holes in the masks questioned whether they were even human.
       Third time around, Nate’s demand was harsh and raw. "I asked what the hell you’re doing in my house!"
      "Well, well, looks like Sleeping Beauty is finally awake," a muffled voice drawled, and the matter-of-fact words could have come from any of them.          "You looked so peaceful taking your nap, Pops, that we started without you."
      Lauren whimpered, her entire body trembling. Li’l J shook hard too, and his lips moved in a silent plea that Nate nonetheless heard in his soul like a scream: "Dad, help."


Chapter Two


        Nate gulped down hard on the irrelevant need to vomit. His next impulse was to hurl himself forward but he held back from that too. Odds of four against one were no good; plus two of them were holding his family.
       "How did you get in here?" he asked, struggling in vain for calm.
        His demand once more went unanswered, but one of the men—again it was hard to tell which one—snickered as if the question were funny.
       "We don’t keep money in the house," Nate told them. "No expensive jewelry either. We’re not rich." None of the four flashed weapons, his mind somehow noted, but there were bulges at the waistlines of two of them that suggested they might carry them. Nate’s terror escalated.
       "Oh, I don’t know," the voice that had spoken before said, and Nate realized at last that it came from the one on the far left so he focused his attention on that one—medium build, slim without being skinny, and with a very relaxed gait. "You live in this sweet neighborhood, have this nice house," the speaker went on. "You even got an apple tree out back. Then there’s this fine-looking lady of yours." He raised a gloved hand to stroke Lauren’s cheek and she jerked away but not very far because the stockiest one of the four held her firmly. Nate’s fists balled tight at his side.
       The speaker, presumably the ringleader, went on, nodding toward Li’l J in his Spiderman T-shirt and play shorts. "And there’s your boy, of course, your own personal shot at immortality." He turned his head slowly back to Nate and something about the smooth movement gnawed at the edge of Nate’s mind. "I’d say you’re living the dream, Pops, so don’t sell yourself short."
       "Look, take whatever you want," Nate told him. "The car too. The keys are on the hall table. Anything, just take it."
       The ringleader shook his head as if the offer disappointed him. "You drones always assume everyone wants the same uninspiring shit you want—the house, the car, the two-point-four kids. Some of us think bigger, Pops."
       The need to move strained within Nate until it hurt physically to stand and try to talk their way out of this. But he needed to keep a cool head.
       "Bigger how? What the hell do you want!" He hadn’t meant to raise his voice. He still didn’t know who they were or what they were capable of, and antagonizing them wasn’t smart. Already when he’d shouted, the one holding Li’l J—the tallest of the four—had jerked suddenly, causing Li’l J to whimper. That intruder, Nate realized, had also been the most restless of the lot, shuffling from foot to foot, palming something small and silver Nate recognized as Lauren’s grandfather’s antique harmonica that usually sat in the wooden box out on the living room sideboard.
        Jesus, how long have they been here? While I was sleeping through it all.
       Again, something about the tall guy’s jumpiness niggled at Nate and he looked back at the leader, past the mask and into musty gray-green eyes, and abruptly, Nate knew who these men were—the four from the cream Mercury Marquis. He’d only got a look at three of them, and only from shoulders up, but in his gut, Nate knew. He even started to say so but stopped himself. They didn’t know that he knew who they were, and maybe that was a good thing.
      "Take me instead," he offered. "Let my family go. They won’t say a word, swear to God. I can even take you to the ATM, give you whatever money we have there. Anything."
     "Sounds good," the ringleader said, "but we didn’t come here to negotiate. We came to do a job."
      What? What job? Why? It made no sense. Then the chill in Nate deepened as it struck him that this might be his boss’s way of sending the loud, clear message that he’d discovered what was going on under his very nose. In the five years Nate had worked on software design under Peter Donnelly, the ambitious department head never seemed the sort to use this kind of terror tactic. Then again, there was no telling what a man might do when provoked—or threatened.
     Suddenly, Lauren turned her head and clamped her teeth into the gloved hand gripping her shoulder. The stocky man who held her grunted, shook her off then backhanded her across the face. She recoiled; then she came back fighting. Li’l J started to cry in earnest, a dark patch spreading down the front of his khaki shorts. The man battling Lauren snapped, "Tell her to stop, Pops. She’s just making it worse for herself." To emphasize the point, he yanked Lauren’s hand behind her back until she gasped. But still she struggled. "I said, tell her."
    "Lauren, baby, please!"
     She quieted, but her eyes flashed anger and rebellion mixed with her fear.
     Nate tried again to negotiate. "Look, you guys don’t need all of us. Deal with me and let them go."
     The leader shook his head. "Can’t. Consider yourselves a package deal, the perfect family unit. And keeping a family together is the most important thing, right? Number Two, take the woman upstairs," he ordered. "Number Three, go with them but don’t do anything until I get there. Number Four, bring the kid here."
     At that, Lauren started fighting again, even more wildly. Number Two clamped one bulky arm around her torso and his other hand over her mouth, and her eyes widened with the same desperate terror as her struggles. Then he dragged her out, and the tall, twitchy one followed.
     Rage overrode everything else in Nate. Ignoring the warning about fighting back, he launched himself forward but immediately flew back, pain detonating in his mid-section from the ringleader’s heavy-toed kick. The guy was blindingly fast. Nate was thrown back against the doorframe, that second impact along his spine making his legs buckle and he began to slide to the floor, but adrenaline kept him standing.
     Winded, he eyed the ringleader whose feet were back planted squarely under him. Nate outweighed him by probably thirty pounds even if the younger man was faster, but what would fighting back mean for Lauren and Li’l J? Was not fighting even an option? Calling 911 wasn’t. The phone was out of reach—on the wall behind the skinniest one, the one the leader had called Number Four. The line had probably been cut, in any case, and his and Lauren’s cell phones were out on the hall table.
     "Number Four, I said bring me the kid," the leader repeated impatiently.
     Unexpectedly, Number Four hesitated. "It’s okay," he said to Li’l J in a young, almost unbroken voice. Still, Li’l J dug in where he stood, resisting being moved and triggering the ringleader’s annoyance.
     "Hey! I said, bring him here. Now!"
      Number Four nudged Li’l J harder then, but Nate knew he could have shoved the child a lot more roughly. Or simply dragged him. Nate’s focus switched to the thug called Number Four. He sounds like a kid himself. If I can get him alone, maybe I can talk him into helping us. The only problem was that Number One seemed to be in control at all times so for the present, Nate turned back to him.
      "I’m begging you, you don’t have to do this. Tell Donnelly that I’m sorry, that it won’t happen again. Hell, I’ll even look for another job somewhere else."
      Number One regarded him again with those sludgy, vacant eyes. "I don’t know what you’re talking about, Pops, but it’s good that you’re fighting for your family. A man should fight for his family. I, however, need yours."
      Nate’s thoughts stuttered. The leader showed no reaction to Donnelly’s name, so if Peter hadn’t sent them as payback for Nate’s poaching on his turf, who were these men? And what did they want?
      Nate tried to stall. "We’re just living our life, man, same as everyone. We don’t know you. What do you want with us?"
      Number One finally moved again, coming to stand nose to nose with Nate. He was even a couple inches shorter, but this close up, those soulless eyes made him seem much, much larger. "You’re not listening, Pops. I didn’t say I wanted you. I said I needed you. And it’s good to be needed, good to serve a greater purpose than your own petty desires. Now move."
      He shoved Nate around and through the doorway. Nate’s temper flared, tired of the bastard playing word games with their lives. The skinny one manhandling Li’l J seemed less threatening, and with the other two thugs out of the way, the odds against Number One were a lot more even.
      Nate threw himself down and back suddenly, the element of surprise now his. He shoved the head thug off-balance and the two of them went down with Nate on top and the ringleader’s arms tangling with a toppling chair, further increasing Nate’s advantage. Nate moved fast to trap one of his opponent’s legs under a cabinet door then slammed the younger man’s head back into the hard tile, stunning him. Then Nate got his hands around his throat and squeezed hard. The neck of the mask rose to reveal caramel skin, and the veins there distended as the thug fought for breath. Nate felt him begin to weaken and squeezed harder still.
      Out of nowhere, a blow to the side sent Nate reeling, his hands suddenly empty. Momentum slammed his head now onto the hard floor, and his breath stopped, his ears ringing. His vision blurred then dimmed.
      He hated the precious seconds it took to get his wind back.
       Get up, man. Get up!
       Then he heard a metallic click even his concussed brain recognized. Opening his eyes, he saw Number Four standing over him and the unsteady barrel of a gun. Behind Number Four, Number One was rising once more to his feet.
       "We told you, Pops," the leader said, his breath back and his voice as flat as ever, "fighting’s just gonna make things worse for you." And he pulled out his own gun, coming over to slam the butt of it down hard into Nate’s mid-section.
         Number Four dragged Nate, still gasping, to his feet and shoved him and Li’l J out of the kitchen and down the hallway toward the closet. There he bound their wrists and ankles with wire ties Nate recognized from his own garage. Then father and son were shoved into the closet.
       "You might want to play hero again, Pops," Number One said, "but take my advice. Don’t."
        The door closed, burying them in darkness. Then there was the sound of something heavy being dragged in front the door outside and Li’l J’s whimpers beside him inside.
       "D-Dad, where’s Mom? Where did they take her?"
       Nate edged around until he felt the warmth of the little body next to his. The contact felt good.
       "It’ll be okay, li’l man. They’re just trying to scare us so they have time to take what they want. Then they’ll leave, you’ll see. You just hang in there and it’ll all be over soon." It was the only lie he had.
       In the ensuing silence, Nate could hear new sounds coming through the closet ceiling from the room above them and he hoped Li’l J wouldn’t understand what they were. Unable to cover his son’s ears, Nate pushed himself even closer to him.
Lauren! "Hold on, baby. Just hold on," he whispered, but to himself so that Li’l J wouldn’t hear him either.
       Lauren was tough, smart, and a fighter. Nate wanted to hear her screams and vicious insults, crashing furniture, or running footsteps. Anything, as long as it gave him hope. Instead there were just muffled tearing sounds and voices, dull thumps and soft dragging, the quiet and thorough ripping apart of their lives. His nausea returned—hard. To fight it, Nate raised his bound legs and slammed them into the closet door. That felt good, so he did it again and again. Li’l J joined in.
      The commotion brought one of the men back downstairs, one who at least was now away from Lauren. And Nate planned to fight him. He didn’t know how, but if they were going to die, at least one of these animals would bear a scar from it for the rest of his miserable life.
     The closet door flung open and light flooded in, momentarily blinding.
     "Hey! Weren’t you listening? We said keep it down or this will only get worse for you."
     Nate didn’t see how it could. It took him seconds to make out the outline of the man at the door. It wasn’t the ringleader, the timid skinny one, or the twitchy tall one. It was the one who’d dragged Lauren upstairs, the stocky one the ringleader had called Number Two. And now he too was wielding a weapon, raised over his right shoulder—Li’l J’s baseball bat.
     "You can’t expect me to just sit here and do nothing," Nate gasped, his breathlessness caused by both fear and desperation. "I’m just trying to understand why you’re doing something that’s gonna change our lives and yours too." He called on the counseling skills he’d learnt over the years, the buttons he pushed when dealing with youngsters at crossroads they weren’t equipped to navigate. He focused on choices and consequences.
     "Think, man," he pressed. "You’ll grow old, spend more and more time looking back. Don’t you want it to be on something good you created instead of something you destroyed?"
      Number Two seemed to hesitate. Through the holes in his mask, his dark eyes receded and the baseball bat lowered a fraction.
Sensing an opening, Nate pressed on. "It’s not too late to stop this. Just walk away and let me save my family. Don’t you want to have your own family someday? Be able to walk down the street with them with your head high? Be able to look your children in the eye and be proud of who you are and the things you’ve done?"
       The bat slackened even more and Nate felt hope.  
      "Or . . . or maybe you already have a family, so you know you’d do anything to save them. Let me save my son’s future, man, just like you’d want to save yours, to watch your family grow. It’s what a man does."
       Inexplicably, that shattered the connection. Abruptly the bat jerked upward again and Number Two’s eyes narrowed and hardened once more.
       "And here I thought you believed that only Jesus saves, Pops," he drawled, and Nate knew he hadn’t been wrong about who these men were.  "Only Jesus Saves" was his church’s motto, emblazoned in assured white lettering on the sign out on its street-side front lawn. These animals had somehow tracked them from there.
      "Just tell me what you want," Nate croaked, aware of Li’l J just two feet away. "Please, just tell me what you want."
       Number Two raised the bat higher over his head. "We want the same thing you want, Pops." He glanced pointedly at Li’l J cowering in the shadows. "Immor-fucking-tality."
       Then he swung the bat down.




Chapter Three


       To Lola Maratelli, the man standing on the other side of the black reception desk looked too ordinary, especially given his street cred. Archie Atum was darker than she was, supposedly Egyptian, and as gaunt as a mummy. He was old—late thirties—and clean-cut, wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and pleated black slacks as if instead he were a Mormon. He sported no visible tats, and a small ring of diamonds in his left ear was the only visible piercing, but he could have plenty going under his clothes—the buttoned-down ones were usually the biggest freaks; she knew that well. His nails were manicured and clean, which was good if he would be drilling needles into her skin. At the moment, he was studying the drawing she’d given him while she checked out the studio she planned on visiting regularly in the immediate future.
       Its walls were striped hot pink and metallic blue, covered in framed images of ink designs and real paintings everywhere except where a homogenous door lead to the back. The two couches in the waiting area behind her were purple velvet chaises that could have come straight out of an old-fashioned brothel, and the studio’s front was two wide panes of glass etched with "Atum Ink" in stylized lettering. It was what Lola saw through the lettering, on the sidewalk across the street, that made her pulse leap and her hands clench.
      The old man was there, standing, watching.
      She thought she’d shaken him off but clearly he’d still managed to follow her all the way from the pawnshop over on Unity Boulevard. Fortunately, he usually kept his distance and the few times he hadn’t, he’d only grinned as he brushed past her, looking her dead in the eye, trying to rattle her, but she’d handled all manner of creeps in her twenty-four years and he was just one more. She figured he was homeless. She’d never seen him panning or hustling, but the faded American flag scarf tied around his head, the old camouflage jacket, and the broken down sneakers on his feet all suggested it, as did the fact that he popped up just about any time, anywhere in the neighborhood, in no particular pattern. Maybe he hadn’t intentionally followed her. Maybe he hung out at the aid center across the street—another lousy coincidence. She’d already had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time a few nights ago, and now he’d turned stalking her into his hobby. It was unnerving to look up and find him nearby, watching, sneering, but he didn’t scare her, not really. She’d handled herself against worst. And with any luck, he’d be the one running scared soon because if things worked out, she’d have a boyfriend he wouldn’t want to mess with. That thought made Lola smile and she turned back to Archie.
      "So can you do something like that?"
      Archie’s raised brow said he could do anything anyone wanted. The word around was that he was one of the best locally, despite being in this neighborhood.
      He eyed her up and down now in a way that made Lola stiffen. "You got any health issues?"
      She bristled, not missing the undertone, and she wanted to see if he would spell it out. "What kind of health issues?"
      "Diabetes. Bleeding problems." He paused. "Infections."
      Her jaws tightened. She didn’t even look like the usual prostitutes in the neighborhood. She didn’t work the street. She took care of herself, dressed nicely, and never touched anything mind-altering. She didn’t smoke and hardly drank. Yet there seemed to be something about her that made people like him guess.
       She flicked back her shoulder long, dirty-blond hair. "No, I’ve always been healthy, even as a kid." That was true. It wasn’t sickness that had kept her out of school, but other things—like not fitting in with kids who never woke up to their stepfather’s hand inside their pajamas, nor watched him check out a kid sister like she was his next meal.
       Archie kept up his regard of her a little longer before saying, "Yeah, I can do this, no problem. I’ve seen something similar before. Not as skilled as I would have done it, but Stamp Kult isn’t bad."
      Lola knew about Stamp Kult, and knew that it was his direct competition, but approaching them wasn’t an option because she couldn’t very well ask them to do something so similar to one of their exclusive tattoos. Not only would they refuse, they’d likely tell Roy or JD about it. She ultimately wanted JD to see her ink, of course—that was the whole point—but she wanted to be in control of the where, when, and how.
      "Yeah, well, I don’t want ‘isn’t bad,’" she told Archie now. "And when I asked around, I heard that you were the best—clean lines, great coloring, and shading like paint on canvas."
      Archie’s thin chest expanded and he looked her over as if she knew what she was talking about. He even managed a hollow smile.
      "I could really take this to the next level for you with some serious detail." He swung the computer screen toward her. "Here, look."
      She did, but had no intention of changing even the smallest line in her design because, if she did, she wouldn’t be able to add to it later and have it come out the way it should. She couldn’t explain that, however, and Archie kept pushing for something more elaborate until, at her staunch refusal, his eyes narrowed again.
       "How much are you looking to spend?"
       She knew the game. He thought that she was refusing because she didn’t have the cash.  In answer, Lola pulled out the tight roll of small bills from her handbag and peeled off one after another. She could feel his eyes, knew he was doing his own quick calculation of how much she was flashing. She handed over enough to quell his cynicism and dropped the rest back into her bag.
       "So when do you want to start?" he asked, pocketing the bills.
       Lola looked back through the glass and across the street. The old man was still standing there, watching.
       "How about now?" she said, and Archie handed her a form on a clip board and a pen.


Copyright ©by Margaret Sisu 2014. Author reserves all rights.

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