Mark couldn’t help but smile as he stepped into the restaurant. The bamboo beams overhead, wicker furniture, lush greenery and the bright tropical blooms reminded him of the Tiki house in Disneyland. Plumeria and white ginger lightly scented the air, complementing the delectable scent of sizzling meats. Hawaiian music played softly over the good quality sound system. None of it was overdone; the place certainly wasn’t a caricature of the south Pacific. He felt like he’d stepped into the real thing, an exotic holiday, and he could almost swear he felt a faint mist from the ocean on the light breeze created by the ceiling fans. He took a deep breath and could feel his muscles relaxing.
A pretty waitress with ash blond hair to her shoulders, sparkling green eyes and a wide smile framed by dimples, greeted him at the door. She sported a Hawaiian shirt with such bright rainbow colors that it would make the judge envious, and white shorts cut to show off her long, gorgeous legs. After welcoming him to The Fire Pit and ascertaining that he was alone, she led him through the busy restaurant to a quiet table in the back. Leaving him with a menu, she was only gone moments before she returned with an icy cold serving of the beer he’d requested. He ordered a steak and then leaned back in his chair, drinking it all in. Having however briefly owned his own bar and grill, Mark had a good idea of what it took to run such a successful establishment. He hadn’t even met her yet, but he was already impressed by this ‘Lindy’ – and even more doubtful that she’d give up what she had created here to run off with Jimmy Cavalieri.
The steak was perfectly done, tender, and graced with a side of mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and a stuffed baked potato. He took his time savoring every bite, looking around the restaurant as he ate. There was no hurry and whoever Lindy was, she would have more time to talk once the dinner rush was over, if she was even there. Finally, after swallowing the last delectable bite of warmed apple pie and cinnamon ice cream, he ordered more coffee and asked the waitress if Lindy was around that evening and, if so, would she join him for a cup of coffee.
Evidently startled by the request, the waitress asked, “Why do you want to see her?”
Flashing his most charming smile, Mark replied, “I need to talk to her.”
“Does she know you?”
“No, but we have a mutual friend who asked me to deliver a message for him.”
She tilted her head, considering him, and then gave a brief nod before going to the serving station to fetch a second cup of coffee. Sliding into the chair opposite him, she stated, “I’m Linda McPherson. What’s this all about?”
“You’re Lindy?” he exclaimed softly, surprised and very disappointed that the waitress he’d been intending to ask out before he left was the woman his ‘client’ loved and hoped would run away with him. “Wow. Ah, sorry,” he rushed to say when she blinked in bemusement. “It’s just that, well, I wasn’t expecting her to be you. I mean, I thought the proprietor of such a successful restaurant would be, I don’t know, old and counting the profits in the back.”
She grinned at that and shook her head. “More profit if I work and not just sit back, paying someone else to take care of my customers. Not that there’s much profit at the best of times.”
“It’s a lot of work for not much return, isn’t it?” Mark replied with an admiring glance around the room. “I used to have a place a bit like this. I know what it takes and how much it costs to stay in business.” A brief silence fell between them, and then he remembered why he was there. “Uh, anyway, Jimmy Cavalieri asked me to tell you that he’s really afraid you might be in danger from his brother, Joey. He wants you to meet him at Union Station tomorrow afternoon at three, so you can leave town together.”
Her generous lips parted as she listened and a small frown of confusion puckered her brow. “I don’t know any Jimmy – what did you say the name was? And I sure don’t know why his brother might come after me. Are you sure you don’t have me mixed up with someone else?”
Mark stared at her as he tried to make sense of her words. “You’re kidding, right? Jimmy Cavalieri. Guy about my age and height, dark brown hair and eyes, nervous habit of looking over his shoulder? I just met him this afternoon and he gave a great impression of guy who is madly in love with you and terrified for your safety – and his, too, for that matter. I gather this Joey is bad news.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” she demanded, leaning back in her chair, putting distance between them. “Are you making this up?”
“No, no, I swear,” he vowed softly, even as concern blossomed in his chest. What was going on here? “Seriously? You don’t know him? He’s not bad looking just, well … he seemed a bit weak, maybe a little odd.” He bit his lip, chastising himself for being less than complimentary about the guy who was, sort of, his client.
Her eyes narrowed. “Odd?” She tilted her head, thinking about it. “I wonder if you mean J.J.? He’s a guy that matches your description except he’s not nervous. If anything, he’s so calm that it’s surreal. He’s been coming in here every day, for either lunch or dinner, sometimes both, for several days now. He’s asked me out a few times, but … well, you’ll think this sounds nuts,” she said, hesitating.
“Believe me, nothing you could say at this point would sound any nuttier than a stranger asking me to deliver this ‘run away with me’ message to a woman who doesn’t even know who he is,” Mark asserted.
She looked away and, for a moment, he thought she wasn’t going to say anymore. Then her green eyes met his, and he could see the worry growing in them. Unconsciously, he reached across the table to cover her hand. “Hey, whatever this is about, we’ll figure it out, okay? What bothered you about this J.J.?”
Lindy blew a long breath and said, “It’s just that the calm didn’t seem real; more like he was working hard to seem calm when he really wasn’t. And, um, well, once in a while … it was like there was someone else behind his eyes, someone cold, watching me.” She pulled her hand away and crossed her arms. “I told you it sounded crazy. But he gives me the creeps. If that’s who you’re talking about, there’s no way in hell that I’d ever go anywhere with him.”
“Something’s not right here,” Mark murmured, beginning to suspect that Jimmy, or J.J. as he apparently called himself to Lindy, was not so much a lover as a stalker. Belatedly, he recalled that the man had done time, but he’d been so distracted by Teddy, and the rambling story about being framed by brother Joey, that Mark hadn’t asked what the crime had been. But Teddy said he’d known the guy a long time, and vouched for him, so Jimmy, at least, had to be harmless.
“You said he’s a ‘stranger’? If you don’t know him, why’d you agree to deliver a message for him?” she asked, watching him warily, as if he might be as weird as the man who’d been frequenting her restaurant.
Mark lifted his hands in the traditional non-threatening sign of surrender. “I swear, I only met him for the first time today. A friend of mine knows him and vouched for him. You see, I’m a law student, and my friend thought it would be like a lawyer representing a client. Made sense to me. Never occurred to me that you wouldn’t know who he is.”
She nodded, if reluctantly, and her tense posture eased. “Okay, I guess I can understand that.” She shrugged and started to rise. “Well, you’ve delivered your message. If I’m lucky, he’ll get on that train tomorrow and I won’t ever see him again.”
Mark looked past her and felt a sudden chill of foreboding. Jimmy was striding swiftly toward them through the now nearly-empty restaurant. Only the guy wasn’t acting like Jimmy. This guy wasn’t nervous. Nor was he particularly calm. No, this guy’s expression and posture looked scary dangerous. “I guess this isn’t your lucky day,” he said quietly as he quickly stood to get between her and Cavalieri.
She whirled and gasped in surprise, her hand going to her throat. “J.J.,” she breathed.
“Jimmy,” he confirmed.
“You’re both wrong,” the man said as he pulled a pistol from his pocket, holding it so only they could see it. “I’m Joey.”
Mark gaped at him – the man was a dead ringer for Jimmy. “What are you?” he asked. “Twins?”
“Something like that,” Joey replied with a slow, cold smile. He waggled the gun and lifted his chin as he said, “Sit down and make like we’re all having fun until it’s closing time and everyone but us is gone.”
“What’s going on here?” Mark demanded, still between Joey and Lindy.
Joey cocked the pistol. “I said sit. We’ve got the rest of the evening to sort things out.” Glaring at Mark, he added with icy calm, “Don’t even think about being a hero. You try anything and I’ll shoot her. And then I’ll shoot you.”
“Okay, okay, no need to get excited,” Mark soothed nervously, as he helped Lindy back into her seat and then took his own.
Joey sat between them, his back to the wall, the weapon hidden by the table.
Brittle silence fell amongst them. Lindy’s fists were clenched to prevent them trembling and she stared at the table top; she had gone pale with fear – or Mark thought it was fear until she glanced up at him and he saw the fury blazing in her eyes. Only then did he realize she was struggling hard to maintain control and he wondered what she’d do if she lost the battle. Scream? Strike out? He desperately hoped she wouldn’t do anything that would push Joey into pulling the trigger. He could feel the tension rising the longer the silence went on, and knew he had to do something. If he’d been alone, he would have taken his chances with trying to get the pistol away from Joey. But he wasn’t, and he didn’t want to risk Lindy’s life, or the lives of the others still in the restaurant.
“Alright, we’re all sitting down, just like you wanted,” he began, wishing he had a clue about how to diffuse the situation. But he was blown away by how much Jimmy and Joey – and apparently, J.J. – all looked alike. It was possible that Jimmy called himself J.J. to Lindy, maybe to sound more ‘cool’; but the way she described J.J, he was very different, except in appearance, from Jimmy. Triplets, maybe? The whole thing felt weird or maybe, he thought – a chill shivering up his spine – if ‘they’ weren’t twins or triplets, ‘crazy’ would be a better adjective. Whatever was going on, he had to do whatever he could to diffuse the situation and ensure nobody got hurt. “Why are you here, Joey? What do you want from us?”
“I don’t want anything from you,” Joey snarled. “You were supposed to just give her the message and go. But no, you saw how gorgeous she is and you just had to make a move on her, didn’t you, huh? You betrayed Jimmy. Everybody always betrays him, hurts him. Stupid bastard trusts the whole world and I have to clean up the messes he gets himself into.”
“How dare you come in here with a gun!” Lindy hissed, fast losing her tenuous control. “I don’t know you; don’t know this Jimmy. I don’t want anything to do with any of you.”
Joey’s head snapped back, as if she’d slapped him. “You don’t mean that,” he countered. “You’re just saying that because you’re upset. They love you, would do anything for you, you know that. Don’t tell me you’re just another faithless bitch!”
She opened her mouth to yell back, but Mark got in first. Kicking her under the table to distract her and get her attention, he quickly interjected, “Hey, easy, you’ve got it all wrong, Joey. I wasn’t making any move on her.”
“I saw you through the window. You were holding her hand.”
“No, no, I was just, uh, comforting her because she was worried about J.J.; worried about why Jimmy thought they need to leave town tomorrow. She wouldn’t do anything to hurt, uh, Jimmy, for anything,” Mark cajoled, striving to sound convincing but he kept tripping over names. ‘They love you,’ Joey had said. So Jimmy and J.J. were two different people. And yet it seemed as if Joey was blaming Jimmy for trusting them, as if Jimmy knew Lindy. And how could Jimmy be in love with her if she had only ever met J.J.?
Joey snorted in disgust at Mark’s efforts to smooth things over, clearly not believing him. Mark couldn’t blame him – he was having trouble believing this was happening at all. There was something here that just didn’t add up, but he couldn’t put his finger on just exactly what it was. Unless, he thought, the chill of foreboding settling in his gut, there weren’t three different Cavalieri brothers. At most, there might be two.
But Mark was being to suspect there really was only one.
And that thought scared the hell out of him.
Man, when was he going to stop letting Teddy talk him into stuff – it always ended up being trouble. Taking a breath, doing his best to sound calm, Mark asked, “What happens next, Joey? Once everyone else in the restaurant is gone – what are you going to do then?”
“We’re going to go for a ride,” Joey replied, again with that chilling smile that held only bloodcurdling menace.
“Where to?” Mark asked. “Why?”
“We’re going to a place where no one will ever find us,” Joey told him, a wild light of excitement in his eyes, “and then I’m going to punish you for betraying Jimmy.”
“Oh boy,” Mark breathed, his mouth going dry. This guy was a whack-job, completely out of his skull. And scary as hell. Taking a chance, he asked, “Do J.J. and Jimmy know you’re doing this?”
“They can’t stop me,” Joey crowed. “They aren’t strong enough to stop me.”
“Not strong enough? Will they be there?” Mark asked, hoping that even if they were only personalities as opposed to different men, neither J.J. nor Jimmy would go along with Joey’s ideas about ‘punishment’.
“Uh, maybe. I don’t care. Doesn’t matter. I’m going to make you sorry for trying to steal Jimmy’s girl,” Joey said happily. “Very sorry. And you know what, I’m going to really enjoy because you’re Hardcastle’s friend – you told Jimmy that, didn’t you? I’ve wanted to get back at him for a long time now.”
“But you won’t hurt Lindy, right?” Mark pushed, trying to find the boundaries to the guy’s insane ideas about betrayal even as he shuddered at what could be in store for him. “She hasn’t done anything wrong. And they love her. They wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to her.”
Joey just frowned and looked at Lindy, as if he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with her.
“I don’t understand any of this,” Lindy stammered, fear having apparently won the battle over fury. “I don’t know why you’re doing this.”
“I have to,” Joey said with blunt assurance. “I have to clean up the messes. Have to fix things. Have to … to punish the bad ones. The ones who hurt Jimmy. I’m the protector.”
“What about J.J.?” Mark asked. “Are you protecting him, too?”
Joey shook his head and growled venomously, “I hate J.J. He thinks he’s so much better than us. He ignores us; pretends we’re not here.”
Mark stared at Joey, puzzled by the way he referred to his brothers. More and more he was certain that his assumption about what was going on was right on the money, and his certainty chilled him with a kind of horror. How did you reason with a mad man?
What the hell had Teddy gotten him into? More important and to the point: how was he going to get out of it? Jimmy was the only one who knew he was coming here and Mark was pretty damned sure that Jimmy wouldn’t be any help at all.
Milt finished cleaning up the kitchen counter and sink after his simple meal of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. After pouring himself another cup of coffee, he turned to peer out the windows at the darkness. His gaze flicked to the clock over the refrigerator and he frowned. Mark had said he wouldn’t be long, but he’d been gone over four hours.
Seemed like dinner with Teddy was taking longer than expected.
Uneasiness curled in his gut, but he shook it off. There was no reason to imagine Mark had run into trouble. Besides, the kid was good at taking care of himself.
Still … Teddy sometimes came up with some wild schemes. “Stop worrying,” he chided himself. “McCormick knows better than to be taken in by Teddy’s bright ideas.”
But it wasn’t really Teddy he was worried about, and he knew it.
Deciding he didn’t need any more caffeine, Milt emptied his cup into the sink. Then he headed down into the basement to pull out the old case file. Wouldn’t hurt to review his notes, just in case Frank was right about the escapee being a possible danger to him … and maybe to McCormick.
“Hey, Lindy, the kitchen’s all cleaned up,” the chef, a big burly guy with a Kiwi accent, blue tats and a hairnet, called from the doorway into the back. “You need anything else before I go?”
Lindy hesitated, but Joey glared at her and nodded down at the hidden weapon. Staring at him, her posture rigid, her voice holding only the slightest tremor, she replied, “No, Robby, that’s fine. Have a good night.”
The chef nodded and disappeared back into the kitchen. In the silence, they could hear the back door to the alley open and close. Robby was the last staff member to leave for the night, and Mark knew they’d run out of time. He had to do something. Had to get that gun away from Joey. Even as he tensed, getting ready to flip the table up and over toward Joey, as a distraction if nothing else, the man swiftly stood up and back. Levelling the weapon at Mark, he said, low and dangerous, “Don’t even think about it, hot shot.” Gesturing with the pistol, he went on, “On your feet, both of you. Time to go for a little ride. Lindy, where are your keys? We’re taking your car.”
“In my purse, in the kitchen cupboard.”
“Well, let’s go get them,” Joey directed. Lindy nodded nervously and turned around to lead the way.
Mark held back, to let Lindy get ahead of him. As soon as he was between her and Joey, he spun around, yelling, “Run!” while slicing his arm down to knock the pistol from Joey’s hand.
But he must have done something to telegraph his intentions because, once again, Joey anticipated the resistance, staying just far enough back that Mark’s arm swept down through air. Before Mark completed his turn, Joey brought the pistol down hard, bludgeoning the side of Mark’s head and dropping him to his knees.
Badly dazed, Mark heard Lindy yell, “Don’t!” When he looked up it was into the barrel of the pistol that was only about five inches from the middle of his forehead. The weapon trembled slightly; Mark forced himself to look past the gun to the man holding it. Joey looked so livid with rage that his breath caught in his throat. Mark was sure his head was about to be blown right off. The silence that stretched between them was brittle with the threat of violence. Barely able to see straight for the pain hammering in his head from the heavy blow, Mark managed a sick grin and raised his hands. “Sorry. Bad idea, huh?” he joked in what he knew was a pathetic effort to break the tension. Behind him, he heard Lindy sobbing with fear.
“Yeah, very bad idea. Get up,” Joey grated, taking a step back out of Mark’s range. “Try that again and it’s the last thing you’ll ever do. And you’ll leave me all alone with the lovely Lindy. You don’t want that, do you, hero? Huh?”
“No, no, I don’t want that,” Mark agreed though, in truth, he didn’t see how he was going to stop Joey from doing whatever he wanted. Swallowing against a sudden surge of nausea and fighting the dizziness, feeling utterly impotent, Mark stumbled to his feet and stood wobbling, hands half-raised. “She hasn’t done anything, Joey. She doesn’t deserve to be … uh, punished. Let her go.”
Joey just laughed. “Turn around,” he ordered. “Where are your keys?” he demanded of Lindy.
It was all Mark could do to stay on his feet. The way the world tilted and shifted, darkness swirling on the edge of his vision, he figured he must have a slight concussion. Whatever half-baked plans of escape he had faded dead away. They’d barely even started this dance and he was sorely afraid that Joey had already won.
They were in trouble. Big trouble.