Authors: CeeCee James
, what do you mean, Nicholai knows? About the necklace? And who the heck is he? You all speak of him like he breathes dragon fire.” Cassie dragged her chicken basket towards her and grabbed a French fry.
It was late in the afternoon when they had their first chance to meet up at a restaurant. Both of them sat on the same side of the table, making their waitress give an eye-roll before she plastered on a smile as she approached.
Luke nodded as he snagged one of Cassie’s fries and dunked it in ketchup. “I ran into my buddy Joe today. He told me the precinct gossip chain was on fire with the news.” He hooked one of his onion rings on his finger and dropped it into her basket.
The noise around them rose several decibels as a crew of waiters and waitresses rounded the corner, clapping and singing. Cassie would have needed to scream to be heard over them, so she waited, eating a chicken strip instead.
Luke laughed. “You should see your face,” he shouted. “I think I’m meeting the Scrooge of birthday songs.”
Yeah. Like it’s not obnoxious or anything.
Instead of responding, she smiled.
Finally, the clatter died down. Cassie pointed a fry in his direction. “How would the precinct have heard it? Who told them?”
Luke shook his head. “I have no idea. Darrell wouldn’t have said anything.”
“The jeweler? You trust him?”
“Yeah. He’s never given me a reason to doubt him before.”
“Can you explain to me who this Nicholai guy is?”
His jaw clenched. Nervously, he strummed his fingers against the table. “Yeah, I can tell you.” He closed his eyes, looking as if he were reliving the memory.
he warehouse looked deserted
, but Luke knew better. The informant, under Officer Timmons’ strong-arm persuasion, had notified them that Nicholai, second in command of the Russian mafia, would be carrying out an arms deal inside.
Luke’s skin prickled as adrenaline crackled through his veins. He breathed in deeply, readying himself and surveying the front gray exterior, while the rest of the police team surrounded the warehouse. Lifting his head upwards, Luke glanced at the top of the neighboring warehouse. He couldn’t see him, but he knew a sniper waited there with a high-powered scope trained at the door.
Quietly, Luke eased his pistol from the back of his pants and watched for Trevor. With a circular hand motion, Trevor sent everyone the signal to advance.
Like black oil, the team trickled out from where they’d been hiding and readied themselves beside the warehouse doors. Luke stealthily made his way to the front of the officers. Jaw clenching, he pointed his pistol down, his muscles on alert.
He made eye contact with his partner on the other side of the doorway and nodded. Trevor made the sign to rush. Timmons hammered the doors with the metal ram. After two blows, the door blew open.
Trevor dove inside and hid behind a crate, Luke right behind him. Gunshots erupted from Luke’s upper right. Bullets sparked around Luke who fired into the eaves at the gunman aiming towards them.
“Where is he? Where’s Nicholai?” Trevor yelled over the gunfire. “You see him anywhere?”
“I don’t see—” Gun blasts cut Luke off. He hit the ground, rolling until he was covered behind a cement pillar.
“Luke! To your left!”
Luke spun, his pistol pointing. There! A flash of flames from the muzzle brake. Luke fired three shots before ducking again behind the pillar.
Screaming, the man collapsed to the ground.
Gunfire rang out from around the warehouse. Luke watched for his partner, needing him to be safe.
Within minutes, the battle was over. Shouts of “Clear!” came in from the far left, and quickly spread through the building.
Closed crates filled with arms sat in the center of the building, along with the bodies of six of Nicholai’s mob.
Shouts of congratulations erupted from some of the officers. Luke lifted his chin in acknowledgement. But, deep inside, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
Ten minutes later, the parking lot was filled with ambulances and police cars. Stretcher after stretcher emerged from the building carrying the injured and dead.
“We did good,” Timmons said, coming behind Luke. He clapped him hard on the shoulder. “Tonight, the good guys won.”
Luke nodded, still waiting to feel victorious. Instead, the gnawing feeling grew that something wasn’t right.
It had been too easy.
Nicholai was ushered out of the building, his arm jacked up behind his back by Trevor, who was twice Nicholai’s size. “I’ve got a special cell waiting for you,” Trevor goaded Nicholai. He spun him around and threw him against the back of the police vehicle. Roughly, Trevor patted him down before checking on Nicholai’s handcuffs. With a smile, the officer tightened them one more click.
Nicholai grimaced in pain then caught Luke’s eye. “Look who it is, the great Luke Stanzione. I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately, Mr. Luke Stanzione of 18253 Elk Street.”
Luke felt a jolt of adrenaline. He gritted his teeth and refused to respond.
Nicholai spit at his feet, earning a smack in the head from Trevor. The gangster glared at Trevor before swinging his steely gaze back at Luke. “You think you just made your big payday, don’t you?” Nicholai laughed, his face half-hidden by Trevor’s dark shadow. “Life is full of surprises. Keep your eyes open.” He winked. “Say hello to that sweet little lady of yours from me.”
Luke grabbed him by the shirt collar and hauled him to the tips of his toes. Nicholai continued to laugh. Luke felt his rage, like a red curtain, fall over his eyes. He shoved Nicholai against the police car, flung open the back door and drove Nicholai in. He slammed the door, cutting off Nicholas laugh.
His chest heaving, Luke took a step back and clenched his fists. He turned to the driver and motioned that the car was clear to leave.
Biting his lip, Luke continued to ignore the red flags. Too easy… too easy.
Luke jump at a clatter of dishes on the table across from them. A young mother mopped spilled milk off her table with a handful of napkins, her cheeks glowing red.
He blinked hard and grimaced, seeming to struggle against a mixture of emotions.
“Hey, you okay?” Cassie stroked the back of his hand.
Luke cleared his throat before taking a long drink of his soda.
“That was pretty intense.” She nudged his foot with hers. “Tell me it’s not always like that.”
He didn’t answer, appearing to still be lost in thought.
“Luke? What happened next?”
He shook his head. Lifting his eyes to hers, Luke stared like he was lost at sea. “We had to release him the next day. All the arms boxes turned out to be empty, so we had no grounds to hold him. The whole thing had been a set-up. Jennifer died two weeks later. And our department’s been running scared from him ever since.”
Her mouth dropped open. “That wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah? Whose fault would it be, then?” He balled up his napkin and threw it on the plate.
“I just want to wipe the planet of his filth so bad I can taste it.” His hand, resting on top of the table, clenched into a fist.
Cassie bit her lip, his tension becoming hers. “You doing okay? I don’t want to trigger you, but does talking about all of this make you want to….” She hesitated. “Um, drink?”
Luke looked down as a sarcastic smile curled the corner of his lip. “Can you tell I missed my AA meeting today? I was just thinking about my old friends, Jack and Jim. There sure wasn’t any pain when they were around.” He gave her a cheeky wink and stood up. “I’m fine. Changing. Doing the right thing now.”
“Those bottles weren’t friends, Luke. You’re going to be okay. And I’m here if you’re having a hard time.”
He tugged out his wallet from his back pocket and extracted a couple of bills. After flinging them to the table, his hand reached for the back of his neck and rubbed it. His tan skin showed in dark contrast to the blue shirt. Hope flickered inside Cassie as she remembered how pale it had been just a few weeks earlier. It was a sign of life. Proof he was living again. Proof he was doing okay.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” He covered her hand. Slowly, he interlaced his fingers with her own, pulling her from the bench. “We’ve got someplace to be.”
he Freymere Carnival
boomed with excitement that night. Cassie eyed the sign above the ticket line with a smile. “Moooove on in here,” she read. “Wow, that’s quite a theme,” she continued, pointing to the trash cans on either side of the doorway. They’d been decorated with black and white plastic to mimic cows. “That’ll be hard to beat next year.”
“Hey, this is an improvement,” Luke said, giving her ribs a soft poke. His hand slipped down her side until it cupped her waist. “Last year was pigs. With wings.” He arched an eyebrow.
Cassie was ready for a fun evening. She’d finished two articles for work last night and sent them to Patricia with an extra flourish on the enter key.
Free until tomorrow! No responsibility!
She felt giddy inside, reminded of the spring fever she’d suffered her last year in high school.
The line to go in was packed with people, and Luke and Cassie stood shoulder to shoulder in the crowd. It moved forward with a surge as another ticket gate opened.
“Let’s go,” Luke said.
“Hang on, getting a text from my sister,” Cassie said, slowing her steps. She read her return text out-loud as she typed, in an exaggerated voice. “I’m fine, Miranda. At the Fair.”
“Your sister’s worried about you?” Luke asked.
“She always is. Miranda lives on worry. I’d tell her I’m with you, but I don’t think that would help.”
Luke nodded. “We need to make a trip up there so I can formally introduce myself to them.”
With both of their hands stamped, they pushed through the metal turnstile and mingled with the crowds.
The fair was loud and busy tonight. Dirt aisles between the vendors bustled with the energy of families, strollers, people juggling blooming onions, and kids eating snow-cones.
Cassie sniffed at the scent of a Philly cheese steak.
“You’re not still hungry?” Luke asked.
“No, but it freaking smells good. You should have told me we were coming here before we ate. I don’t want to get sick on a ride.”
Luke stepped away from her with his hands up. “Let’s skip that experience.”
She shoved at his shoulder. “I don’t mean literally sick! Gross!”
Cassie noticed that wherever they went, Luke’s wary gaze scanned the people, his eyes taking in men wearing baggy clothing and or acting out with rowdy behavior. Even screaming kids caught a flicker of his attention. “You can’t turn it off, can you?”
“Turn what off?”
“Being a cop.”
“The day I do is the day I die,” he said matter-of-factly. “You make enemies in this line of work.” His lip twitched into a frown as he looped his arm around her shoulders.
Cassie saw the ghostly memory of Jennifer still between them, resurrected by their talk at the restaurant. Her death haunted Luke, but there wasn’t a lot Cassie could do about that.
They made their way past the vendors, their loud voices hawking t-shirts, jewelry, and sunglasses. The path opened up to the main area, a dirt circle skirted on its edges by yelling game attendants who stood in front of walls of colorful stuffed animals.
“Put a ball in the cup and win a prize!”
“Shoot the turkey and win a turkey.”
“Everyone’s a winner!”
“You want to try?” Luke grabbed Cassie’s hand, taking her over to the turkey shoot.
“I don’t see how this is going to be fair, Mr. Gunslinger.”
“Hey, it’s been a while. Besides, you never know. You might have a streak of beginner’s luck.”
Cassie rolled her eyes. Luke paid for a couple of turns and lifted the air rifle from the scarred wood counter. “You know how to hold one of these?”
“Give me that.” She took it gingerly from him, trying to keep a tough face on. Lifting it, she positioned the butt against her shoulder.
“Hold it snug,” he suggested. “Don’t have your eye too close to the scope.”
“I’ve got it, already.” Her hands felt clammy but she stiffened her lip. How hard could this be?
Six shots later and still all the plastic turkeys remained standing. Luke ran his hand over his chin. “Yeah. We’re going to the range, and I’m giving you some lessons.”
“Shut up! Everyone knows this game is rigged!”
He arched an eyebrow at her before slapping another five dollars on the counter. Smiling confidently, he reached for the rifle in her hands.
Cassie handed it over with a sassy look on her face. “I’m just saying…”
Holding the rifle firmly, he relaxed his shoulders and pulled the trigger six times. Five of the turkeys fell over.
“You missed one,” Cassie muttered dryly.
“You owe me a kiss,” he answered, returning the rifle to the attendant.
“What? That wasn’t a bet.”
“It is now,” he said, dropping his arm around her. He spun her towards him and ran his hand behind her neck. Tipping her head, he slowly pressed a kiss against her lips.
“I think we should play again,” he growled against her mouth, before nipping at her bottom lip.
Cassie laughed. “Two tickets, please!” She waved to the attendant, ignoring the stab of guilt.
Two hours and several stuffed animals later, they headed to the park rides. Although the sun had set, the crowds had grown. “So,” Cassie paused to put a wad of cotton candy in her mouth. “Why did you quit?”
His eyes darted down at her. “You have to ask?” His fingers loosened their grip on hers.
“I’m sorry. I get it. I just thought—maybe there was more.”
“Back when I joined the force, I was young and idealistic. I thought I could change the world. I was proud to be against the bad guys. Now I know better.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that sometimes you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.”
“Hm. Like when you were a kid and everything made sense? The bad guys had curly mustaches, the good guys wore white.”
He released her hand completely, and suddenly she was nervous.
Don’t close me off now.
His pupils became pinpoints as he stared up at the flashing carnival lights. “Worse. One day, I looked in the mirror, and I realized that the evil I fought so hard against was inside of me. In here,” He touched his chest. “I wanted to corrupt, kill, torture. Every drug dealer, every pimp. If I had Nicholai in my hands, he’d be a dead man.” His gaze flicked to hers, his eyes softening with worry. “Don’t hate me, Principessa.”
“Hate you? Luke, that’s pretty understandable. Don’t you think?” Her heart ached at his words. “I’d feel the same way. Am I a bad guy?” She caressed the back of his hand with her finger.
“You….” He smiled, the sadness dissipating. “You are a little innocent that’s wandered in here from small town Cantuck.” He lowered his lips to her ear. “And that’s where the corruption comes into play.” He grabbed her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Come on, it’s time for the best ride.”
The Ferris wheel line was unbelievably long. Cassie gripped the metal fence divider and watched as a paper cup fell from one of the buckets high in the sky. “Okay. That wasn’t cool.”
“Someone dropped their snow-cone.”
“Nearly on my head!”
“Not even close.” He wiped his mouth to hide his grin.
“You should make an arrest. That was endangering a civilian.”
His smirk widened. “There’s no code for that.”
“What? Really? There should be. Snow-cone endangerment.” She stared up as the baskets slowly lowered and emptied. “Look,” she whispered. “There’s the menacing culprit right there!” She pointed to a grade-school girl hopping off the seat.
“I highly doubt it.”
“Don’t let her fool you! It’s always the most innocent-looking ones.”
They climbed into the empty basket, and the ride attendant closed the bar and flipped the switch. The little cart swung a bit as it raised, then jerked to a stop so the next car could be filled.
“What do you think about being a cop again?” Cassie asked, setting the stuffed animals next to her.
“Technically, I never stopped. I told you, I’ve just been on a medical leave. Still have my badge. Detective Stanzione at your service.”
“Wow. I had no idea. Always get your man, huh?”
“Or woman. See how I got you to fall for me?”
“Smooth, Detective Stanzione.” She watched him and her eyes narrowed. “You’ve been pretty good at tearing down my walls.”
His lips curved into a sexy grin. “I haven’t even begun to tear them down.”
Her heart beat a little faster.
I’m going to have to be careful with this one.
The Ferris wheel circled, and their basket slowly rose to the top of the arc. The park stretched out around them like a carpet of fairy lights.
“I love this ride. I never want it to end,” Cassie said.
“That’s the bad thing about amusement park rides. Eventually the magic ends and you have to return to the real world.”
“The real world, huh?” She groaned. “My pressing problem right now is that I have to do laundry. And I hate the laundromat.”
He laughed. “I remember those days. My washer and dryer were a big selling feature of my apartment.”
“Yeah? You might think about using them. The last time I was there it looked like a clothing mountain at the end of your couch.”
“That’s how I know where to find everything.”
“Really? Just all balled up like that. You’re telling me that’s on purpose.”
“Yep.” He smirked.
“You’re going in my next article. ‘How Men Do Laundry.’”
“Probably be a best—” He started to say. His gaze caught something in the distance and he sharply squinted.
Cassie felt him tense before she saw the reason why.
He jerked her back in the seat. “Get down!” he hissed.