He saw her slide out of the front seat of her Toyota Corona and close the door before opening the left rear door. A beauty in subdued mustard yellow. Long brown hair. Sculptured, athletic legs. A long, lithe, athletic body.
He almost smiled.
No wonder Little Gabe fell in love. Even from across the parking lot of the small apartment complex he could see both the beauty, and the country girl innocence, glowing like some neon light from her. Two things that would draw Little Gabe to her like flickering candles drawing moths to the dancing flames.
Tossing a long strand of hair over her shoulders she bent down and pulled out two large briefcases from out of the car’s back seat. Setting the briefcases on the trunk lid she turned, threw more hair over her shoulder again, and closed the car door. Aiming the clicker at the front she locked the car and then dropped the keys in her purse, threw the strap of the purse over a shoulder, and then reached for the briefcases.
Her name was Erica Norton. Teacher. Taught fourth grade in Howard E. Johnston’s Elementary School over on Pine Street. She was approaching thirty. Never married. Didn’t drink. Never smoked. Lived alone, except for a cat named Alex, here in this apartment complex. Regularly attended church on Sundays and Wednesday nights. A quiet mouse who lived a quiet unexciting, yet supposedly safe, existence.
Until she met Little Gabe.
Admittedly a beautiful quiet mouse. But someone who had no idea how close to Death’s final whisper she currently skirted in the darkness.
In the hot, humid night he stood partially hidden by a well manicured fir tree. From his unseen vantage point he watched Erica step onto the sidewalk leading to the front door of the apartment complex. A breeze was stirring, blowing strands gently away from her. An image straight out of a beauty magazine photo shoot. As she walked up the sidewalk the cloth of her dark yellow dress swished, revealing a lot of legs. She held her head high as she walked. Tall, statuesque. Beautiful.
In the darkness he slipped a hand into one pocket of his tailored slacks and wrapped hands around the cold steel of a switch-blade. Sliding the folded knife out he remained motionless as Erica walked past him, the cicadas chirping loudly as if they were happy to see her. In her wake the subtle aroma of expensive perfume filled his nostrils. Dark black eyes watched her as she approached the entrance to the apartment complex and disappeared through the door oblivious to the drama that was about to take place.
Click! Using a thumb to press the button the switch-blade in his hands snapped open angrily. Expectantly. Hungrily. But the dark-eyed man didn’t move. Blending into the night like some mythical harbinger of death he remained motionless his eyes turning to look again at the dimly lit apartment complex parking lot. He didn’t have to wait long.
No sooner had the door of the apartment complex closed behind her when two doors of a black Ford Escape popped open and two very large men got out. In the dim illumination of the tall light poles that rose like metallic Redwoods out of the parking lot asphalt he recognized them. Two major hitters working for Jimmy McDougall. A mean, vicious hood who didn’t take kindly to anyone within his organization stealing from him. Especially to the tune of 500 G’s.
Little Gabe should have know better. Should have known taking money from the boss–money that would be instantly missed–would have disastrous and instant results. Gabe found out the hard way. Four slugs in the chest after hours of being tortured was the justice metered out by Jimmy McDougall.
The problem was Little Gabe didn’t talk. Didn’t reveal where the five hundred thousand was hidden. That omission really pissed Jimmy off. So the order went out. Grab the girl and bring her to a safe spot where no one would find her. Maybe she knew where the money was.
Gabe had been a tough little kid. When he found him in a pool of his own blood strapped tightly into a chair in the middle of an empty warehouse it was too late to save the little guy. But the kid was alive enough to recognize the dark-eyed figure standing in front of him. One eye–the a other battered, pulpy, unable to open–looked up into the face of the dark-eyed man as a grin spread across his blood caked lips.
“You gotta save her, Smitty. You gotta save her! She knows nothing about my little stash! Nothing! But they’re gonna come after. They’re gonna do things to her. They’ll kill her, Smitty. They’ll kill her. You’ve got to save her!”
For a few second the compact, hard, coldly handsome killer stared down at a kid who once wanted to be a friend. A warm hearted, loud kid who loved to dance and play in a band. But a foolish kid. A stupid kid. Stupid enough to get himself killed. Still . . .
“All right, Gabe. Where does she live?”
So here he was. A dark shadow of waiting death eyeing two men walking toward the apartment complex with orders from their boss to find the money. Do whatever it took to find the money. But just find it. And get rid of any trouble makers.
The two large menacing silhouettes, walking shoulder to shoulder, moved past him on the side walk and stopped in front of the apartment complex entrance. That’s when he moved. Making not the slightest sound, the one known as Smitty came out of the shadows and stepped up behind the two.
“Evening,” he hissed softly almost in the ears of both men at once.
Their reactions were instinctual and violent. Both jumped visibly in the darkness and whirled to face who ever it was who had just given such a fright. Both were reaching inside their suit coats for guns hanging loosely in shoulder holsters. Neither moved fast enough. From out of the night the bright steel of a switch-blades slashed left and right with blinding speed. Both men grunted in startled pain–someone moaned–and then both fell to their knees with heads bent down and copious amounts of blood . . . their blood . . . flowing like dark waterfalls onto the sidewalk in front of the apartment entrance.
“That’s for what you did to Little Gabe, boys,” the savage hiss of a whisper came to them from out of the night. “But be thankful I didn’t finish the job. Both of you miserable miscreants will live. This time. Live to go back to your boss and give him a message. Do you hear me?”
One of the killers lifted a blood soaked, half mutilated face up and nodded. He tried to focus his eyes onto the black shadow standing in front of him. Hovering over him like Death itself. But his eyes couldn’t focus. Too much blood seeping down from his forehead stung his eyes and made them water uncontrollably.
“Tell him I’ve found his money. He’ll have it back within an hour. All of it. And when he gets his money it’s over. Done with. Finished. No one touches the woman. Ever. Understand?”
Both men nodded in the night. Both came to their feet. Their clothes were soaked in their blood. Both stood up wobbly. Both began stumbling down the sidewalk toward the parking lot. Smitty stepped to one side, folded the bloody steel edge of his switch-blade closed with both gloved hands, and watched the two best men of Jimmy McDougall move past him. As dark-black eyes watched the killers stagger down the sidewalk leaving a bloody wake behind him his eyes narrowed and a grim expression spread across his face. He should have killed them both. Both had worked over Little Gabe for hours trying to make him talk. Both loved that kind of work. If there was any justice in the world both should be dead.
But not now. Not here. Not tonight.
Eyes turned to look at the apartment complex entrance. And then eyes black as the night itself played across the front of the apartment building’s exterior. There was a security camera aimed at the entrance in the hallway on the other side of the door. He didn’t want to be seen tonight. Not ‘officially’ seen.
She came out of the hot shower reaching for an oversized towel waiting across the small bathroom sink. The small bathroom was a steaming sauna. The walls, the shower curtain, the small mirror above the sink dripped condensing water from the hot clouds of steam swirling around the bathroom. Drying herself off she eventually wrapped the large towel around her svelte frame and reached for a second, smaller towel. Throwing her luxuriant brown hair in a pile above her head she quickly wrapped the smaller towel her head and reached for the knob of the bathroom door.
Opening the door she came out of the bathroom, steam following her in a long vaporous trail in the process. Walking barefoot across the thick carpet of her bedroom she moved with the ease of a graceful feline across an African veldt to her queen sized bed. The towel wrapped around her firm body slipped to the floor as she bend down to pulled the covers of the bed back–a hand sliding underneath a pillow curiously.
When she turned around to face Smitty–revealing her beauty the ugly snout of a .38 caliber snub nosed Smith &Wesson was in her right hand and the hard look of a woman who knew how to handle the weapon on her lovely face.
“Good evening, Erica.”
The dark-eyed man sat in a chair pushed up against a wall directly opposite from the bed. A leg crossed over the other, hands resting comfortable on a thigh, Smitty sat in the chair calmly, the suggestion of a sneer barely creasing his thin lips, and eyed the beauty openly with admiration. She really was a beautiful, beautiful woman.
“Who are you? And what do you want?”
“The name’s Smitty. I’ve come to collect the little gift Gabe handed over to you the other day. And if I’m lucky—if you’re lucky—I might be able to save your life.”
“What?” she snapped, the ugly nose of the .38 unwavering as it aimed toward Smitty’s chest. “What are you talking about?”
“You know what I am talking about, Erica. You knew something like this might happen. Gabe’s dead. And Jimmy McDougall wants his money back.”
“I don’t have any money. Gabe didn’t give me any money. And I certainly don’t know anyone by the name of Jimmy McDougall!”
The sneer on Smitty’s lips widened slightly as dark eyes played across Erica Norton brazenly. Brazenly enough to make the gun in her hand drop for a second and a crimson flush sweep across bare flesh as she quickly bent down and reached for the towel lying on the carpet to cover herself with. He didn’t move. Just sat in the chair and watched as the woman wrapped the towel around herself tightly and then lifted the gun back up and aim it at him.
“He didn’t give you cash, Erica. Not five hundred thousand in cash. But something smaller. Much smaller. Something that surprised me when I found it.”
Beautiful eyes darted to one side–toward a large painting hanging on a wall to her left–worry and fear making her face turn even harder.
“You found it? The book of rare stamps? How? How did you know we converted the money into stamps? He talked, didn’t he! He talked! I told him not to say a word! No one would ever figure it out!”
The sneer on Smitty’s lips didn’t change. But somehow it became harder. Colder. Even cruel.
“That was it, Erica. That’s what tipped me off you weren’t the innocent little school teacher. Innocent no more. Gabe wasn’t smart enough to come up with the idea to rip off Jimmy McDougall. Wasn’t smart enough to know how to convert cash into a fortune of rare stamps. But you were, little girl. You were. You took the money and bought the stamps. You told Gabe no one would ever suspect him and then sent him off to his death. The only question left to be answered is this. Did you love him, Erica? Did you have any feeling for him at all?”
“That money was going to buy us a new life! A new life far, far away from this place! He didn’t want to work for his boss any more. He wanted to leave the mob. But he was about as poor a little bastard as I ever met. I told him we couldn’t run away without some money. Lots of money. He promised me he could get money. Lots of it! Now hand the book over to me. Hand it over or I swear to God I’ll shoot you where you sit!”
The hard eyes of a killer stared unblinking at the beautiful woman for a long time. And then, moving slowly, he came out of his chair and reached into his suit coat and withdrew a small but thick leather bound book. With a flick of the wrist the book sailed across the bedroom and landed on the edge of the bed beside her.
“Your choice, Erica. I either walk out of here and take the book with me and hand it to McDougall. Or I walk out of here and leave it with you. One offers you a chance to live a long and prosperous life. The other guarantees you will be dead inside a week. Which is it going to be?”
“I can take care of my self, you bastard!” she hissed, lifting the gun and rapidly pulling the trigger of the snub nose revolver three times.
Click! Click! Click! Three times the hammer of the Smith & Wesson loudly smacked onto empty chambers. Stunned, color draining from her face, she staggered back in disbelief and stared at the useless weapon in her hand.
Smitty walked in silence over to the bed and scooped the small leather bound book up in one hand and slid it into an inside coat pocket. Turning he moved across the room toward a set of sliding glass doors that led out onto a small balcony. Sliding one of the doors open he kept a hand on the door as he turned and looked at her.
“Jimmy McDougall ordered his boys to kill Gabe last night. But in truth you’re his murderer, Erica. His love for you killed him. Yet even as he was dying he wanted me to save you. Too bad, isn’t it? Too bad he loved you so much. Too bad he made me make a promise to him. Too bad you’re probably going to kill some other patsy sooner or later. Too bad justice has to be so blind.”
Erica Norton screamed. And screamed. And screamed. Screamed until she couldn’t scream no more. But only an open glass balcony door and a dark, dark night heard her.