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Shelley Young’s The Blood Feud is the first book of the Dardian Dreshaj novels, and the book that started it all: an accumulation of interviews from radio to a magazine feature. I hope you enjoy the first chapters, but first why not check out the book trailer by clicking the link below?
Read the first three chapters for free.
It was the eleventh hour.
Three hours into a twelve-hour shift, ER Nurse Michaela Cosenza held up a syringe of Demerol toward the light at the same time she saw what appeared to be the naked buttocks of an elderly man fleeing across the room.
“What the hell!”
She snapped her head toward the image and saw that the naked buttocks were being chased by a tall, black male nurse.
Nurse Alvin Canton reached the waiting room door just when eighty-one-year-old Albert Foat did. At first Mr. Foat hadn’t seen Alvin, but when he did he let out a high-pitched shriek, then blurted, “Gah-gah!” He knew he was outweighed in battle and much shorter than Alvin’s six-foot frame, but still grabbed for the door. He managed to thrust it open, revealing behind it the crowded waiting area.
Not only was the waiting room filled to bursting with its usual number of heart patients, influenza sufferers, the elderly, crying babies and asthma patients in desperation, all breathing in a cocktail of vomit, antiseptic cleaners and vending machine coffee-scented air. Bill Clinton, a believable Marilyn Monroe, the Tin-Man and hordes of vampires watched with amusement as a naked Mr. Foat took on the physically fit male nurse, both of them wrestling for control of the door.
Mr. Foat had no chance of escaping into the night as was his plan, but this hadn’t stopped him from putting forth his best effort. He forced his entire body to go rigid and planted his feet firmly on the floor. Alvin tried to counterbalance Mr. Foat’s weight, which caused Mr. Foat’s body to begin rocking back and forth. And so did his penis. It swung up and down, up and down as if it too was in battle. It was Michaela’s gasp that caused Alvin to glance down. He saw what was swinging madly at him and had enough. He tried holding Mr. Foat away from him, but Mr. Foat made a lunge toward him and gripped him in a wrestler’s hold.
Alvin managed to untangle himself. “Mr. Foat, stop this madness!”
Mr. Foat returned with, “G-yah! G-yah!”
“Michaela! Is this your patient?” Alvin yelled.
Another nurse appeared from behind a curtain, blinked at what was going on, then stood stupefied, her eyes telling Alvin he was on his own with this one. But she did offer, “Michaela!” as if Michaela possessed the cure-all to calm Mr. Foat down.
A nurse stuck her head out from behind a curtain. “Mr. Foat, come away from that door! Haven’t we told you over and over you can’t walk around like this? You must stay in bed until the doctor has a chance to see you.”
Mr. Foat was now rocking vigorously, as if to shake Alvin senseless. He then closed his eyes and yelled, “June! June!”
Michaela dropped the syringe in her medication cart’s drawer and slammed it shut, then hurried toward Mr. Foat. His eyes opened and widened when he saw her; she knew what would happen next. Although he was nearing eighty-two he pulled away from Alvin with great strength, shuffling across the linoleum like a toddler imitating a locomotive picking up speed. And then he was off, his gait unsteady.
“Catch him before he falls!” Alvin yelled.
Michaela reached out toward him, but he slipped through her fingers like something oily and made his way to the counter that used to be the old ER admittance desk. He gripped it tightly, then held on for dear life. “June! June!”
Alvin slammed the waiting room door, closing out the instant roar of laughter behind it. “There is most definitely a full moon tonight,” he said as he slipped back behind a curtain to hang an IV.
Michaela grabbed Mr. Foat gently by the shoulders. “Come with me, Mr. Foat. Your bed is over there.”
“Where’s June? You’re not June! She was just here. What the hell did you and all these people do to her?”
His family assured the staff there was no such person in his past, but Michaela wasn’t so certain.
“June! Where the hell are you?”
She whispered in his ear, hoping the staff didn’t hear what she said. “Mr. Foat, June is looking for you.”
His brown rheumy eyes squinted as his mouth gaped open. “What? Speak up. I can’t hear you.”
“June!” Eva, the ER clerk, said loudly. “June is over there!”
Mr. Foat’s chin lowered to his chest, his arms hung limp by his side. He climbed on his gurney unassisted. Michaela pulled the blankets over him and saw that the gown he’d worn earlier had been tossed in the trash. As she bent to retrieve it she heard a groan. She straightened and saw that Mr. Foat had just that quickly fallen asleep. She gazed at the curtain behind his bed and knew then that the groan had come from behind it.
She lifted the bed’s safety rails hoping this time Mr. Foat couldn’t escape. She tossed the gown in a hamper outside his curtain, then crossed the room to wash her hands. As she dried them she gazed at the curtain beside Mr. Foat’s and saw an orderly slipping from behind it. The patient behind the curtain was Carlo Mancini. She decided to check on Mr. Mancini to make sure he wasn’t in any more pain. As she neared the curtain a woman tapped her from behind. “Nurse?”
Michaela had forgotten about the Demerol. She hurried to her medication cart, double checked the dosage in the syringe, then followed the woman behind a different curtain to give the patient there the injection. Ridding herself of the syringe, Michaela hurried toward Carlo Mancini’s curtain.
She ripped it back, took one look at the bed and screamed louder and more maniacally than Mr. Foat had for June.
Mr. Foat’s head was first to come through the side of the curtain, and then the rest of his naked body followed. “Gal, what the hell you do to this feller’s chest?”
Homicide Detective Jesse Richards was last to arrive.
The hospital’s residential neighbors were out in full mass. Some of them still in trick-or-treat get-ups, some in pajamas and robes. One of them held a sign that read ‘no room for NY mobsters here.’ The sign was turned over. The other side read ‘a crime like this need to stay in NY.’
News vans claimed every inch of the curb, and would remain there until they captured live footage of the body being loaded inside the coroner’s van.
A small drive for unloading patients sat in front of the ER entrance doors. Jesse recognized the many unmarked Crown Victorias and Dodge Chargers crammed tightly together. There wasn’t much left of the drive’s asphalt; still he had no intentions of parking anywhere else. Pressing down on the gas, he pulled as close as he could, door to door, to a Vic similar to his.
At that moment a black Chevrolet Tahoe turned the corner and parked in a red zone, the last part of the street that hadn’t been staked. Jesse was certain the two men, dressed in grey suits, climbing out were federal agents.
An officer manning the yellow crime-scene tape lifted it high enough for him to stoop underneath. More officers inside recognized him and gestured for him to head toward them. One of them handed him a pair of blue nitrile gloves to wear. The officer’s name was Studebaker.
“It’s gotta be him. The piece of shit. They’re all in the back waiting for you.”
Forensics agents were everywhere making notations, documenting, drawing sketches, taking hordes of pictures, video recording and removing anything they felt could be used later as physical evidence.
His partner of seventeen years readily stepped away from an officer and headed his way. “You’re not going to believe this,” Edwards said. “Hell, I almost didn’t believe it myself. Half the fucking world is out looking for this scuzzbag. Twice he was featured on ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ but neither airing resulted in anything concrete. From what I’ve heard, the FBI exhausted all their leads.”
“They’re here. They just showed up.”
“It’s him, Jess,” Edwards said, trying to disguise a smile. “Vito fucking Russo. And someone offed him here – inside this hospital in our jurisdiction. Wait ‘till you see him.”
Edwards led him deeper into the examining area. All other patients had been removed. There were more agents, officers.
Against a wall, in the middle of the room, a narrow bed was trapped between two curtains. The man lying on top of it was beyond dead. Gray toes. Large purple bruises underneath his legs where what was left of his blood had settled. The blunt end of a scalpel was sticking out of his chest.
A forensic agent was standing beside the bed waiting for him.
Jesse took in the crime scene. There was something totally wrong with what he was looking at. Where was the blood? A small amount was contained to the bed. The floor underneath still looked cleaned and polished. The walls were free of blood stains and spotless. At first sight it looked like Vito Russo had committed suicide by sticking a scalpel in his chest and had somehow managed to keep the scene of his death as contained as possible while he laid there and barely bled. That is until Jesse got closer. It became obvious that someone had given Vito a little help in entering the afterlife. Vito Russo had a large perfect smile where there shouldn’t have been one. A hamper sat perpendicular to the bed. It was filled to bursting, its lid tightly closed.
“Our killer?” Jesse asked Edwards.
“They found everything exactly like this.”
The agent pointed toward the too large smile. “I think your killer is left handed. He started on the left side of the neck just below the ear. The first cut severed the carotid artery, but your killer didn’t stop there. He continued here making sure to cut deep enough. It looks to me like he sliced through the vocal cords, but the M.E. will have to confirm this.”
“He didn’t have a chance to scream?” Jesse asked.
“The scuzzbag never had the chance.” Edwards answered, glancing over his shoulder at the sound of footsteps. Jamison, their lieutenant, sidled up to the bed.
Jamison said, “Judge Wendell was interrupted while dining at the Vagabond. Everyone is anxious to get to work on this if you haven’t noticed. What have you got?” The question was directed at both detectives.
Edwards spoke up. “His medical records have already been bagged and tagged. I got a chance to get a peek at them. One of the nurses gave him a strong sedative and a killer amount of pain medication. It could be that more than one person was trying to do him in. My guess is he never even realized what was happening to him.”
“Why didn’t one of the doctors phone the police as soon as he arrived?” Jesse asked.
“None of them recognized him. He was going by the alias Carlo Mancini,” Jamison answered.
Jesse glanced down at the grey yet pleasant expression on Vito Russo’s face. The vic couldn’t have known he was dying or the expression would have been different. There wasn’t much he knew about him, except for what he’d seen on television. He was the ex-don of the Manzara crime family in New York. During the 80s and 90s he was mentioned on the news often. Murder, extortion, but mainly he was remembered for operating one of the largest prostitution rings in Manhattan.
After one of his best girls leapt from the minor leagues to the majors by becoming a madam and taking two other of his best girls with her, Russo sent out a few of his button men to make an example of her. The woman, Jennifer Pettis, was twenty-two at the time, a teenage runaway with a thousand-dollar-a-day drug habit. She was porking an up-and-coming senator when Russo’s goons burst through her bedroom and riddled them both with bullets. An investigation proved that Russo knew Senator Jim Bannock would be there, and that it was Senator Bannock who had given Jennifer the balls to leave his organization for a small slice of the pie. Russo, who had helped pitch the senator into the limelight, ordered the senator be whacked, too.
Not only did the DA get the murder charges to stick, Russo couldn’t believe it when indictments were also handed down for one hundred and thirteen prostitution-related crimes. And this is where things get sketchy. A reliable tip believed to have come from a nearby precinct alerted him of exactly when the cops were coming for him. Russo went on the lam. That was eighteen years ago. Every image that Jesse remembered of him was of a much younger man wearing tailored suits and dark sunglasses, who was always surrounded by a horde of inhumanly beautiful babes.
The man on the bed was twenty pounds underweight and almost bald, and other than being dead appeared to have been living well.
“Why was he here?”
“Leukemia,” Edwards answered. “Diagnosed a year ago. At his last visit his doctor gave him only months to live.”
Agent Morales was examining the neck wound again when his head suddenly lifted. “Someone definitely wanted him dead sooner.”
Jesse leaned closer to Russo’s neck. “Now that’s a clean cut.”
“Better than a surgeon’s hand.” Morales gave a smile of pride. “The cleanest I’ve ever seen, if I may say so. It almost looks like surgery. No blood splatter. It’s amazing there’s no trajectory. We checked. Not a single drop of blood hit the walls or the floor, none of the furniture.”
“But you’re gonna keep looking, right?” Derision crept into Edwards’ tone.
“Because our killer took his time, ” Jesse answered, ignoring Edwards’ question. He turned Russo’s head and caused aimless eyes to avert across the room, the pleasant expression mocking Jesse as he gazed at it. “Too much time.”
“Someone had to see something,” Edwards insisted. “The problem is, so far, all of the staff is saying they saw nothing unusual.”
On Russo’s chest the killer had carved the word ‘besa,’ then plunged in the scalpel so it stuck out like an exclamation point.
“Besa means kiss in Spanish,” Edwards speculated.
“Something tells me it means something else,” Jesse said. “Fingerprints?”
“Not a single one that will lead to anything. Someone wiped down the bed, at least the exposed areas where we should have found prints. Not even on the bedside table. The top of it was also wiped clean. As for the hamper, it came from a new shipment that hasn’t yet made its way to the floor, except this one.”
“You’re telling me our killer took the time to clean?”
Jesse gazed around the room and noticed for the first time that most of the people inside it were looking busy, but weren’t actually doing much. And now he knew why.
“Who found him?”
“The nurse who took care of him since he arrived.”
“Where is she?” Jesse asked.
“The nurse’s lounge,” Jamison answered. “I commandeered it to use for questioning. Pattison and Trigg are questioning the other staff, but I told them to hold off questioning her until you got here. Get answers on this one. As soon as you can. The next time a camera and microphone is shoved in my face, I want to have something more than a goddamned, unconvincing smile.”
No one knew anything. Security guards, nurses, doctors, housekeeping; none of them saw anything unusual except a patient named Foat who had run around naked.
Nurse Cosenza sat visibly trembling at the table nearest the corner, her hands constantly flicking back her hair. A nervous reaction. Jesse had seen it time and time again. Edwards had been asked to stay near the door and observe. Jesse hadn’t wanted to frighten her more than she already was. Half of his department believed she was the killer. Jesse wasn’t so sure.
Michaela sat up in attention as he approached, her eyes widening.
Jesse smiled and sat down. “You like coffee? How about a cup?” He reared back in his chair and glanced over his shoulder. “Coffee. Two cups. Lots of sugar and cream in both.”
Within seconds two vending machine cups were placed on the table.
Jesse pushed one of them forward with his fingertip. “Long night?”
Michaela nodded at him and lifted the cup with shaky fingers.
“I hear ER was chaotic tonight. A patient by the name of Foat ran around naked twice. I hear he’s a regular, just like Mr. Mancini.”
“I never met Mr. Mancini before today.”
It made sense. The patient known to the hospital as Mancini should have been admitted as soon as he arrived. The hospital had booked a bed for him on one of the upper floors well in advance. Why he had been in ER was still a mystery at this point. Whenever he asked, none of the staff seemed to know the answer.
“Did he look familiar?”
She shook her head.
He leaned forward. “Tell me what happened, Ms. Cosenza. Everything.”
Michaela sat the cup on the table. “Mr. Foat had been worse than ever. He kept removing his gown. The man’s like Houdini. One minute there. The next minute gone. I must have chased him from every corner of the ER tonight.”
“How close was his waiting area to the victim’s?”
“Right beside it.”
“While you were chasing him did you see anything unusual?”
She shook her head.
All of the other nurses and doctors had said the same thing. None of them had seen anyone go behind the curtain, except Nurse Cosenza.
“Mr. Mancini was very quiet – didn’t say much.” A tear came to her eye. Very slowly she licked off more of her lipstick. “He just laid there and asked for more and more pain meds. His chart said it was okay, you know?”
There was something in her voice that alarmed him. She knew something – something she wasn’t telling.
“Something had to happen, Ms. Cosenza. You saw what Mr. Mancini looks like now, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t do it!” she screamed, and then she leaned back in her chair and flicked him off, and then she flicked off the officers huddled in the doorway.
A loud sigh escaped her lips. “I know what you’re all thinking. That it was me.”
Jesse shot back with an equal amount of frustration. “He was your patient.”
This winded her. Slightly.
The next thing he said he knew would push her back into her corner. “You were the only one seen going behind his curtain.”
Her chin lowered.
“One of the nurses was quick to tell us that you have family in New York – that you’re Italian and that you often brag of having family and friends linked to the mafia.”
Her head lifted sharply; her eyes were huge.
“What the hell does that have to do with anything? I’m Italian, okay! So what, I’m from New York. Mr. Mancini knew what was going to happen to him! He wasn’t in pain. I can tell. And he wasn’t a drug addict either. I can tell that, too. He wanted to be overmedicated. I know he did. He knew someone was coming after him and didn’t want to feel what they were going to do to him. He wanted to see who was coming. He kept telling me not to close the curtains. He kept asking me when we were moving him upstairs where it was safe.”
“Did anyone hear him ask for pain meds?”
More tears fell. Her head shook.
Jesse traced a finger over his lips. He believed her, but still he knew she knew something more.
“Did you close the curtains?”
“Yes, but only after he had fallen asleep!”
“He refused to be covered with blankets. You saw him. He wasn’t wearing much. All of the patients who passed his bed kept staring at him. In nursing school you’re taught to preserve patient dignity.”
“Where do you suppose the killer got hold of the scalpel?”
“Behind the curtain next to Mancini’s bed.”
“Was anyone in that room?”
She shook her head. “It hadn’t been cleaned after the last patient. It sat empty for a long time.”
Jesse sat forward. He was finally getting somewhere. The killer could have been hiding behind those curtains waiting for his opportunity.
“Did you leave the curtains in that examining area drawn or closed?”
“Closed. It was a mess. There was blood on the bed, the floor. The patient was given an emergency trach. Housekeeping was called to clean it, but they never showed up. I don’t know why.”
“Tell me about the groan.”
Russo couldn’t have groaned. The wound on his neck and the expression on his face proved it. Jesse suspected the killer made the noise as he plunged the scalpel in as far as it could go.
“I thought he was in pain.” She tried to lift the coffee, but now her fingers were trembling uncontrollably, and then her head lifted high above her shoulders like someone had kicked her in the rear. “An orderly!” she blurted loudly. “After I heard the groan. I had gone to wash my hands. When I gazed back I saw an orderly step from behind Mr. Mancini’s curtain.” She leaned forward in a rush. “He was walking toward the waiting room. He was slightly shorter than you, but not by much. He was wearing gloves. I couldn’t see his hair, because he wore a green paper protection hat. I saw his face, but it was covered.”
“What do you mean covered?”
“He was wearing a mask. And he must have been wearing protection goggles, because I don’t remember seeing his eyes. I think he saw me, but I can’t be sure. I thought it was Anthony Cook, because he works on the oncology unit. I thought he had come to transport Mr. Mancini upstairs, because Mr. Mancini was to be admitted.”
Jesse ravenously munched on a handful of Skittles as he stood beside the hospital’s security team.
Anthony Cook, the orderly assigned to transport Carlo Mancini to the Oncology Unit, had never left his floor. His whereabouts at the time of the murder were verified by the staff working that evening. This excluded him as a suspect. There were still a few other ER doctors that needed to be questioned, but Jesse was certain that none of them had anything to do with the murder.
He popped more Skittles in his mouth.
Edwards stood closer to the security feed monitors, his eyes telling the security tech to get on with it. Edwards was coughing continuously, but was unfazed by the looks given to him by the others in the room. He had been coughing for days. Tonight it seemed worse.
“Are you all right?” Jesse asked.
“I’m good. I’ll do even better once we get on with this. By the time this techie brings up anything, our killer could be long gone.”
The technician rolled his eyes and continued working with the feed to get it to the right hour they needed. If they could get a glimpse of the security feed recorded in the ER, they may have the opportunity to see their killer in the flesh.
The tech began manipulating more buttons, then began to play the feed slowly.
“That’s the parking lot,” Edwards said. “We need to see inside the examining area.”
“Ain’t going to be able to do that. Cameras are not allowed in the examining areas.”
“What about the waiting room?” Jesse asked, pitching the empty Skittles bag in a nearby trashcan. “As close to the examining rooms door as possible.”
The room became silent when the killer suddenly appeared onscreen. He emerged into the waiting area a few seconds before Nurse Cosenza screamed. He was wearing hospital scrubs, all of his skin covered so his nationality wasn’t clear. He wore latex gloves and a green paper hat so that his hair color wasn’t visible. His face was covered in a mask, his eyes shielded behind a pair of safety eyewear as Nurse Cosenza had suspected. What made both detectives alarmed was the killer didn’t walk out of the hospital, but turned into a hallway that led toward the chapel and other offices.
“The son of a bitch is still here,” Edwards said.
Jesse ran back to ER only to discover that Nurse Cosenza had been given the rest of the night off.
The killer leaned against the wall of the parking structure smoking a cigarette. He was no longer dressed in hospital scrubs, but in regular clothing. The hospital was on lockdown. No one was being allowed to enter or leave without permission. This he knew would happen and was the reason he had gotten out before the police had arrived.
As he expected, Nurse Cosenza had been allowed to leave early. She made her way toward the parking structure with her head down, her feet moving quickly. Just as she reached him he dropped his cigarette lighter on the ground in front of her.
She stopped. Both of them lowered to retrieve it. She looked him square in the eye, gave a wan smile, then continued walking. She climbed inside her car without once looking back, then pulled out of her parking spot and drove away.
It was all the killer needed to know. She didn’t recognize him.
He finished his cigarette, then climbed onto his MV F4 750 motorcycle. He waited until he was certain Nurse Cosenza had left the parking structure, then put on his helmet before leaning forward to ride away. He had been prepared to gun the engine when he heard a noise behind him.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw a tall black guy running toward him. He was in plain clothes, but everything about him reeked cop.
The cop stopped running when he saw him; his eyes traveled down to the license plate.
The killer sped away before the cop could memorize the plate number.
Her apartment sat at the southwestern edge of Mohave Street, some eighty-one miles from Los Angeles. The city she lived in was Victorville, relatively unheard of to those who lived outside of California. One of the city’s highest employers was Wal-Mart, and in future one of the city’s most notable residents would be Katie Vernola, at least it was rumored that Katie had been born in the city. Katie Vernola would be the Playboy Playmate of June 2010. One of her pictures, the one that would be most memorable to men, was of her lying with a fruit bar in her hand and dripping its sweet stickiness down her bare, sun-kissed, ample breasts. In the eyes of Aaliyah Monique Richards, the city had nothing going for it except juvenile crime, low housing and a mall so small the elderly used it as a personal gym. As sad as it all was, the city was home and, as far as she knew, she was stuck there for perhaps eternity.
She had no way of knowing this would all soon change.
She pulled her late model Ford Taurus into her parking stall and prayed the key didn’t get stuck in the steering column as it usually did. She fidgeted with the key for several seconds, then sighed with relief when it finally pulled free. She grabbed her purse, and the half eaten tuna sandwich on wheat she had saved for a midnight snack, then climbed out.
As always a group of young black men sat on the cement stairs in front of her apartment. They sat seven deep and almost on top of each other as they passed a beer wrapped tightly in a brown paper sack between them. The air was heavily tinged with marijuana. From the corner of her eye she saw that a joint was also in rotation. Seeing it caused her to lower her head as she passed them.
“Hi, Aaliyahhhhh!” they all sang.
One of them stood.
“Yo, Aaliyah. When you gone stop walking pass us so fast? You always pass us like you don’t know what time it is.”
She knew exactly what time it was. It was time to get inside her apartment and bolt the door behind her, but first she had to check on her next door neighbor, Mrs. Simpson.
She let herself in with the key she’d been given and hurried to the bedroom. Mrs. Simpson looked like a pile of blankets, only her nose and eyes visible. As always, the volume of her television was set to blast as loud as possible so that everyone in the apartments surrounding hers knew exactly what she was watching and at what hour. Also, as usual, all of the apartment lights were burning brightly.
She leaned over the disabled woman to make sure she was still alive. A small segment of the blanket trembled as Mrs. Simpson sucked in air and then blew it out again.
Aaliyah did as she did every evening. She turned off all of the unnecessary lights, turned the volume down on the television, set a fresh glass of water on the bedside table, and distributed the right dosage of pills that Mrs. Simpson relied on into tiny plastic cups before placing the T.V. remote underneath the pillow within Mrs. Simpson’s reach.
She turned to leave when she saw movement from the corner of her eye. She startled, then became relieved when she saw it was Mr. Silent.
She had given him the name, because she had never heard him speak. For over a year he refused to speak a single word to her; not even hello, no hand gestures, and he didn’t speak to Mrs. Simpson either, at least not while Aaliyah was in the apartment. Besides never speaking, Mr. Silent was a mystery to her in other ways. He visited the apartment only at night; she had yet to see him come during the day. Each time he visited he stayed exactly thirty minutes, sitting in a chair in the corner of Mrs. Simpson’s bedroom. He would watch carefully every move she made. He didn’t seem threatening. It was odd, actually, because she felt she could trust Mr. Silent more than she could the guys who sat outside on the stairs. What was stranger still was Mrs. Simpson would behave as if he wasn’t there. She didn’t speak to him or acknowledge his presence, not even with her eyes. It was almost as if he was invisible. She would carry on in conversation as if she and Aaliyah were alone. Some of the things she would say would make Mr. Silent smile. Other than that he never showed any other kind of emotion.
Aaliyah had never questioned Mrs. Simpson about her visitor, and Mrs. Simpson never spoke of him, which to Aaliyah was peculiar because Mr. Silent had the same black hair as Mrs. Simpson. He also had the same startling blue eyes, his skin tone the same olive hue. The bone structures of both of their faces were proof enough for Aaliyah that neither had been born in the U.S. Both of them appeared imperviously European, but, then again, Mrs. Simpson spoke with a strong accent, similar to what someone from Russia might use when English was a second language.
Aaliyah seriously doubted they were Russian immigrants.
She sensed from the way he walked that there was something different about him tonight. He didn’t cross the room and sit in the chair that only he used, and he was dressed differently. He wore all black as usual, but tonight his attire was of someone going out on a date. To say he was good looking was an understatement; he had a body and face comparable to an A-List Hollywood legend.
He leaned on the door-jamb and folded his arms. “I’m glad I caught you.”
She turned to him in surprise.
She had imagined for a year what his voice would sound like, but what she heard wasn’t what she’d expected. It had great depth, and like Mrs. Simpson, heavily accented.
He spoke in a lazy drawl; it was a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rocky Balboa. The man definitely had sex appeal. As a matter of fact, he oozed with it. His foreign accent to her made his sex appeal stand out even more.
She glanced at him, smiled, then lowered some of the blankets away from Mrs. Simpson’s face. “Why is that? I didn’t think you knew how to talk.”
His hands slid inside his pockets. “I never had anything to say before.”
Definitely Rocky Balboa, less the stroke inspired slur, but the same baritone.
“Not even hello?”
“I didn’t want to complicate things.”
To this she let out a small burst of laughter, then waved a hand airily at him in the air. “Okay. Whatever. It’s not like the first words out of your mouth should have been anything complicated. It wasn’t like I expected you to propose. I don’t know your name. You don’t know mine. Mrs. Simpson never speaks of you, but she’s also never told me that she fears the dark haired man that visits her only at night, so I thought nothing of it. The truth is she seems happier the mornings after you visit.”
She watched as Mr. Silent gave a genuine smile, then averted his eyes toward the bed. “I do know your name. It’s Aaliyah. You’re nineteen years old, soon to be twenty. You graduated from Victor High and work at Wal-Mart like everyone else in this city.”
Mrs. Simpson let out a long breath, made nasty noises with her mouth as she licked her lips, then began to breathe heavily again.
Mr. Silent pointed down the hall. “Can we talk outside?”
She followed him out of the apartment, but when she saw the men on the steps gazing at them questioningly she quickly walked him to her apartment and opened the door. She noticed that Mr. Silent had gazed curiously at the men before stepping inside behind her. She closed the door and bolted it, then realized that Mr. Silent was just as much a stranger to her as the men were outside.
He must have sensed her unease, because his hands slid out of his pockets and stayed where she could see them.
“I wanted to get the key back that Mrs. Simpson gave you. You won’t need it any more. As of tomorrow she will no longer live next door. I’m sure she’s told you more than once how much she appreciates all you’ve done for her. She’s told me countless times you wouldn’t accept any form of monetary gift. Offering money was her way of saying thanks.”
Aaliyah pulled the key from her key ring and handed it to him. “I wish her the best.”
As he gazed down at the key a dark shadow fell over his face. It was there one second, then gone, and then he gazed up at her, but not completely. To her, he seemed a man heavily conflicted with thoughts. And then he spoke. “My name…” He quieted, glanced around the room. His eyes then tightened as if she was forcing the name out of him. “My name…is Dardian.” He gazed up then. The expression on his face was contemplative. He gazed around the front part of her apartment as if he needed to familiarize himself with it. She watched as he noticed how sparsely furnished it was.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
He gazed at her inquisitively. And then she smiled. “You’re here with me so that means I’m not alone.”
His eyes found hers, but he didn’t smile as she’d expected him to at her little joke.
“You, Aaliyah, are the first person I’ve told my name to for quite some time.”
She didn’t know what he meant or if she even believed it. She held out her hand.
He gazed at it as if uncertain he should take it. He wasn’t shy; this was obvious to her. He was instead quite confident. She knew his hesitation was bred from something she wouldn’t understand unless he revealed it. When he finally gripped it she saw her first clue of the man he truly was. Between his thumb and finger was a small detailed tattoo. It had a vivid red background. In the center of it was a double-headed black eagle with spread wings.
He saw where she was looking and withdrew his hand.
“I better get going.”
She ignored his comment and walked to the kitchen. She sat her purse and tuna sandwich on the breakfast bar then opened the fridge. “Have something to drink.” She couldn’t understand why she felt she could trust him, but she did.
She spoke with her back to him. “I have bottled water or soda.”
When he didn’t answer she glanced over her shoulder, because he had a habit of coming and disappearing without making a single sound. Sometimes he frightened her with how silently he came and went.
He was still there; his eyes were on her legs then lifted up to her breasts, then her face. “Soda,” he answered.
She didn’t bring the can of Pepsi to him, but stood where she was and held it out toward him. As he neared she pulled the Pepsi in closer, and closer still, then held it behind her back. She smiled inwardly when he didn’t hesitate to play her game. His hard muscled body pressed tightly against hers; his hand slipped behind her. He gripped the Pepsi and held onto it until she finally released it. They held each other’s gaze. They were very close. His lips were very close to hers. They were eye to eye.
He pulled the can from behind her, then took a step back. He had wanted to kiss her as much as she had wanted him to, but held back purposely. But then why did he lean against her only to stop there? He was a puzzle, an enigma. She suddenly felt like a detective peeling the layers of her hardest case.
She didn’t want him to leave; she pointed toward the small scarred table that represented one fourth of the furniture she owned.
He hesitated, but eventually sat and she knew why. He was as attracted to her as she was to him. She had known this from the first day they met. She wondered if he was holding back because he had a girlfriend. For some reason she couldn’t imagine that he did.
She leaned casually over her breakfast bar and faced him. “So tell me, Mr. Silent…”
He heard the name and finally gave her the smile she’d been waiting for. He opened the Pepsi and brought it to his lips. She didn’t know how many men could look sexy while sucking from the end of a can, but Mr. Silent definitely was one of them.
“Was there anything else you wanted to tell me? I got the impression you wanted to say something that you didn’t want Mrs. Simpson to hear.”
He sat down the can and leaned comfortably in the chair. His black leather jacket fell open and revealed his designer tee that concealed the firm chest of rippling muscles she had felt moments before. Just as she was studying him intently, he was also studying her equally intently. His eyes took in her Wal-Mart vest that she had yet to shed, then traveled up to her dark hair.
She left the bar and sat close beside him.
“I wanted to ask if you would consider leaving your job to work for me.”
Whoa! She hadn’t expected this. Her eyes gazed down at the tattoo on his hand. He no longer tried to hide it. “What kind of work will I do?”
“The same things you did for Mrs. Simpson. Shopping, housekeeping and…looking after a few dogs.”
She gazed at him curiously. She sensed from the tone of his voice, the way he sat, he wasn’t used to socializing, which she thought odd. He was definitely hiding something, and the more she studied him the more she noticed that underneath the handsome exterior, he possessed what could have been a dark nature. But still she wasn’t afraid.
He drank more of the Pepsi.
“Are you serious about the job or is this your way of coming on to me?”
He rewarded her with a small laugh this time, then stopped abruptly and quickly gazed around her apartment as if checking to be sure no one else had been around to hear it. And then he gazed at her, smile, laugh gone. “Very serious about the job.”
“What about the part of coming on to me?”
His eyes found hers.
“You don’t come on to girls too often, do you?”
“You should get out more. You’re out of touch with the dating game.”
“I haven’t thought of dating.”
His lips curved up slightly in each corner, his eyes intent with amusement. “Are you always this forward?”
“It’s one of my weaknesses. If you were planning on coming on to me you could have said something flattering. Like, ‘Aaliyah, no other woman can wear a Wal-Mart vest as good as you.’”
“Those vests aren’t attractive on anyone, even a woman as beautiful as you.”
She tilted her head back and laughed. “You got me there. They are ugly. Are you always this honest?”
“Most men won’t admit they can be dishonest. What kind of work do you do?”
She watched as he kept his eyes on hers and began to roll the can gently between his palms. The gesture made her feel as if she were seeing another part of his true self, because she sensed that the awkward shy man he always represented was nothing like the man he was behind closed doors.
“I own a farmhouse.”
She leaned provocatively over the table toward him and whispered, “You’re being dishonest again, Dardian. You are not a farmer.”
“So what do you…”
He finished the Pepsi and stood to his feet.
She continued to sit. “You can hire what you’re looking for from any agency. Why offer me the job?”
“Other than me, no one has ever been inside my home. I know I can trust you if you took the position.”
“No one has ever been inside your home?”
She chewed on his answer. “Don’t you have friends?”
He didn’t answer.
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a small piece of paper. On it he had written his address and phone number. “You can come and check things out first if you like. On top of your salary I’ll continue to pay your rent here so you can always have a home to come home to.”
She did stand then. She was looking down at the address. “How do you know you can trust me?”
He hesitated before answering. “Inside a drawer in Mrs. Simpson’s bedroom is a substantial amount of cash. Since you’ve began taking care of her not a single bill has come up unaccounted for.”
She laid the address on the table. “You say you can trust me. The real question, Dardian, is can I trust you?”
He scratched irritably at the nape of his neck. A small smile was simmering in the corners of his mouth, but he didn’t give full vent to it. And then he turned and walked toward the door.
“Can I trust you?” she asked again.
He reached the door, then gazed back at her. “You can trust me with your life.”
He opened the door. “Drop in at any time. I only ask that you don’t give my address or phone number to anyone, including family and friends. I also ask that if you do take the job you don’t tell anyone that you work for me.”
Before he could step out into the night she called out to him.
“Do you have a last name?”
He turned; his face was once again serious – very serious. “My name is Dardian Gjon Dreshaj.” He even spelled it for her. “But…”
She cut him off. “I know. It’s a secret.”
And then he was gone.
As soon as the door closed she ran to the window and watched him walk away. His motorcycle was parked nearby and as black as the sky.
He climbed on top of it, then gazed at her window. He didn’t wave or make any farewell gestures. He put on his helmet, gunned the engine and sped off as quickly as he had come.
She dropped the curtain and ran to her computer. She searched the Internet for expensive motorcycles, because his looked like it had cost him a fortune. An image of the motorcycle appeared. It was a MV Agusta F4 and, just as she thought, it came with a hefty price tag. She Googled “double-headed black eagle,” then leaned back from the computer when images of the Albanian flag appeared. She clicked on one of the images and learned that the flag of Albania was a common tattoo for men who were in the Albanian mafia. She then typed in Dardian Dreshaj, but nothing came up. She typed in Dreshaj alone and found that it was a common Albanian surname.
Any woman in her right mind would have stayed away from Mr. Silent and Mrs. Simpson after the conversation she had with Dardian. But if this was so, why did she feel so intrigued by him?
He’s in the mafia. Get a grip.
She pushed this thought from her mind and went to the kitchen to tidy up. She had begun to turn off the light when she remembered the Pepsi can.
She gazed at the table, but it wasn’t there. She looked in the trash, the refrigerator. She searched the entire front part of her apartment, but the can was nowhere to be found.
She hadn’t seen him take it, but knew the can hadn’t sprouted legs and run out of her door to explore the world.
As she lay in bed she thought of Dardian and wondered if it was common for Albanian mobsters to steal the empty cans of Pepsi they had drunk from inside of other people’s homes.
The killer drove to the LA/Ontario International Airport and purchased a ticket to New York in cash under a fictitious name.
He arrived in New York the next morning, rented a car and then rented a room in the Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx. He ate lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant. As he sat in the window he watched the street. After he finished he paid the bill then stepped out onto the curb, gazed at his surroundings, and walked to a nearby park. He watched mothers with their children, hugging them, laughing with them, and pushing their tiny legs high into the air on swings.
He sat in the park for exactly an hour before heading back to his hotel room. He took a shower, then lay on his back fully clothed on top of the bed. He awoke on instinct hours later, and while the rest of the world was sleeping.
He dressed in black, then took the time he needed to wipe down the room to remove any fingerprints he may have left behind. Afterwards he removed the comforter and dropped it off in the laundry room in the hotel’s basement to be sure it was one of the first loads to be washed that morning.
He climbed into the rental and, although it was pitch black outside, had no trouble finding the address he was looking for. He eyed the apartment of Calvin Pollard.
Several lights were still lit behind its curtains. He saw shadowy movements in several rooms, which meant Calvin wasn’t alone.
He parked along the street amongst a horde of other cars.
Wakefield was known for its high level of crime. If anyone did see him watching the apartment, none of them would report him to the cops for fear of retribution. Most of the residents of Wakefield lived in the neighborhood because they were stuck there. Good people who didn’t make much on their day job and made do with what was given to them. All of them except Calvin Pollard. He was thirty-one years old, a petty thief who bragged of being a member of a local gang. His arrest sheet was ten pages long, half of the crimes having been committed when he had been a teen. The police knew him well, but knew he wasn’t a true threat to the community. Until recently he had never used a weapon when committing a crime, the stolen items not valued high enough to bring a felony charge. He was a heavy marijuana user, and slept in every morning.
If Calvin had stuck to his usual MO he wouldn’t have been listed for death. A week ago he and another gang member shot and killed two Albanian mobsters while robbing them of three-hundred thousand dollars in cash. Their plan of getting away was thwarted when another member of the Albanian mafia espied Calvin and his friend driving away. The mafia member followed Calvin back to his apartment on instinct. He could have killed Calvin himself that night, but the Albanian mafia didn’t operate in this manner. It wasn’t about the money. The night the money had been stolen the same Albanian crime family had earned ten times as much. Calvin needed to be made an example of so that other thugs knew exactly who they were up against in the future. And the perfect person to teach this lesson was the contract killer who was known on the streets of New York as Padukshëm.
Padukshëm got comfortable behind the steering wheel of his rental and smoked a cigarette. As he smoked he scoped the street and saw that Calvin had planted protection in a nearby car. A dark, colored battered Mazda – maybe black, maybe navy blue – was parked along the curb, the man behind the steering wheel surveying the street with a pair of binoculars. He saw Padukshëm and dropped the binoculars. Padukshëm lay low on the passenger seat and pulled a drag off his cigarette as gunfire shot out the rental’s windows.
He then heard the shooter rush out of his car.
Padukshëm quietly opened the passenger door and crawled out. He pushed it closed, stayed low to the ground and made his way to the car parked in front of him. He peeked around the car’s front tire and saw that the shooter was staring inside the rental’s shattered window. The shooter stepped back from the car, studying the street. Padukshëm could see that he was wondering if he saw what he thought he did. When he saw no one and heard nothing, he began to run back toward the Mazda.
Padukshëm withdrew a pistol from the small of his back, aimed and pulled the trigger. The shooter dropped in the center of the street with his legs twisted beneath him. A window from Calvin’s apartment opened. A man half hidden behind a curtain was trying to glance down to get a visual of what was happening. The man’s final mistake was getting close to the window to get another peek. His final move placed him dead center in the XTR scope on Padukshëm’s pistol. His body slumped against the window after a bullet penetrated his right eye.
The street became alive at that moment, most of the noise coming from inside Calvin’s apartment. Padukshëm casually stubbed out his cigarette, but didn’t drop the butt on the ground. He never left evidence at the scene of a crime.
He placed the butt inside his pocket, then stood and walked unhesitantly across the street. He pressed his back against the wall of the apartment complex’s building near the entrance door and waited. It took only seconds for a new shooter to open the door and spray the darkness with bullets. Nearby windows shattered. Car alarms split the night with sound. Padukshëm quietly pulled a knife from a sheath strapped to his thigh. He studied the position of the smoke curling in the doorway, then stabbed the knife six inches above it. The end of the blade lodged into the shooter’s neck. Gunfire began to shoot straight up in the air. Padukshëm applied pressure at the same time he swiped the man’s foot from beneath him. Before the man could fall Padukshëm put three bullets in his forehead.
Another shooter had come out of the apartment and was on the stairs.
Padukshëm pressed himself against the wall when still another shooter appeared, this one with a semi-automatic rifle. The wall in front of Padukshëm was riddled with holes the size of grapes. Padukshëm inched further away from the gunfire, and into a safer area near the door. He stuck the knife back in its sheath and pulled an electric shock pistol and mirror from his leather jacket. He positioned the mirror to see where the shooters were.
The shooters stopped firing, they too now waiting. The one carrying the AK-47 slowly descended the stairs. He got close enough to see the mirror and opened fire.
Padukshëm fell hard onto his belly. As quickly as he could, he retrieved the pieces of the mirror and stuffed them inside his pocket. The shooter didn’t hear any return fire and ran in Padukshëm’s direction. As soon as he turned the corner, Padukshëm fired a single shot. Two electric probes sliced through dense stagnant air that smelled of cigarette smoke, poverty and piss, and burrowed into the man’s center mass. Padukshëm pressed the red button on his weapon so hard that his hands shook with the violence he intended to administer. The shooter jerked violently from the electrical currents coursing through his body.
“What the fuck!” the other shooter yelled, then ran back upstairs.
A police siren could be heard approaching in the distance.
Padukshëm released the red button long enough to press a green one. A single shot rang out. It buzzed through the air like a missile zooming in on its target, striking the shooter directly in the chest. And then it detonated, removing a good size chunk from the shooter’s torso. The man fell like a two-hundred-pound book falling onto a hardwood floor.
An apartment door above slammed closed.
Padukshëm stood to his feet and retrieved the long thin wires and electrodes of his gun. He examined the leather gloves on his hands to make certain there were no rips or tears. Then he walked toward the end of the hall, knocked out a window and crawled outside. He was walking calmly along the street and away from the complex when the first cop pulled up at the scene.
There was no need for him to worry about the rental. The ID he had used to rent it was fake, the picture belonging to someone else.
He pulled out a cigarette, lit it, took a long drag, and turned left on an adjacent street.
Two blocks away, he found an abandoned car with most of its windows knocked out. The front and rear seats had large rips in the fabric, the cushion exposed and dirty. He climbed into the car, got as comfortable as he could, set the alarm on his watch, closed his eyes and fell asleep.
He was up and back in front of the apartment before dawn inside of a stolen car. No police were around and the street was empty. He smoked a cigarette, then waited for Calvin to appear. He didn’t have to wait long.
Calvin and another guy left the building cautiously, their eyes roving the street for any possible sign of threat. They leapt inside the battered Mazda, then sped away.
Padukshëm followed them at a safe distance.
Calvin was dropped off at the subway on 233rd Street, and then the Mazda drove off.
Calvin constantly looked over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. He was visibly trembling, the night before having set his nerves on edge. Whenever he saw anyone that looked of Italian or Albanian descent, he diverted his footsteps in the opposite direction. He didn’t calm until he was on the northbound platform of the number 2 train. It approached at a fast speed.
He climbed inside, then sat beside a group of black men. The men gazed at him, said hello, then all of them sat quietly as passengers left and boarded. When the train began to pull away Calvin let out a sigh, closed his eyes, then allowed his chin to rest against his chest.
Men sat on both sides of him, others stood in front of him. It was rush hour, most of the passengers on their way to the jobs that kept their families fed and clothed. Padukshëm had entered the car behind Calvin, and feigning tiredness, leaned low on his seat so his face wasn’t visible. Still he could see Calvin clearly through the throng of people around him.
He stood to his feet and reached inside his pocket for the writing pen he kept on his person at all times.
He held the pen tightly in his left hand.
He feigned the need to get to the end of the car where it was less packed. He purposely bumped into people, then apologized profusely. Calvin had awakened, looked up, spotted him, then kept his eyes on him.
Padukshëm waited until he was close before he averted his gaze directly on Calvin. Calvin let out a noise, then climbed on top of his seat and ran his hands and feet against the wall as if he could scale it like Spiderman. When he realized he was going nowhere, he turned and saw that the Albanian was now too close for comfort. He pushed his way through the people in front of him. It was at that moment Padukshëm feigned to trip. As he fell he reached out with the pen and stabbed it into Calvin’s thigh. Calvin felt the stab, grabbed his leg, and hurried toward the end of the car.
Padukshëm apologized to those around him, then sat in the seat Calvin had vacated. He folded his arms over his chest, and surreptitiously hid the pen in the jacket he wore. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. He didn’t need them open to know that Calvin was watching him closely.
At the next stop Padukshëm yawned, stood to his feet and exited.
Once he was gone Calvin bunkered down, then slept until his exit arrived. He departed with hordes of other people and caught a bus to a relative’s home in Manhattan. He was there all of six hours when he was rushed to the hospital because of fever. He constantly rubbed at his thigh, but thought nothing of the small red pimple that had formed. The doctors weren’t so sure.
The patient had been admitted with flu-like symptoms, but something about the symptoms put them in the mind of arsenic poisoning. One of the doctors refuted this diagnosis when Calvin didn’t respond to treatment. They did everything they could to treat the patient who was becoming sicker as each minute passed. It wasn’t until three days later Calvin realized that he might not survive. He beckoned one of the doctors closer to his bed. “They got me. Those fucking Albanians. They sent Padukshëm after me. Little ol' me. I must have been important.”
He let out a small laugh, then rolled on his side and went back to sleep. He died less than an hour later. During the autopsy the red pimple on his thigh was examined. The doctor probed it with his fingers, then used a small scalpel and removed the superficial layer of skin. Within seconds he removed what appeared to be a very small pellet. He had it bagged and sent to the lab.
The attending doctor at the hospital had been right. Calvin hadn’t died from arsenic poisoning, but something much deadlier. Ricin. The amount of ricin the size of a pin’s head was enough to kill any man. The pellet found in Calvin’s thigh had been filled with quadruple the amount.
While Calvin was being autopsied, Padukshëm was on a plane back to California. He ignored the stewardess who constantly flirted with him and closed his eyes.
When the plane landed, he climbed on top of his motorcycle and drove to the nearest park.
He watched mothers playing with their children for an hour, then rode to his home.
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