Authors: Lauren Landish
“Just imported from Castellina last week,” the Don said. “Black rooster.”
“What can I do for you?” I asked, knowing there must be something.
He sat back, his chin seeming to disappear into his neck as he relaxed. It was a posture I'd seem him adopt countless times. If you were a confidant of his, he'd relax and slump into his chair when he was setting aside the distance between you temporarily, and was inviting you to speak to him honestly, man to man. On the other hand, he also used the pose with strangers, in order to let them underestimate him. I understood, as he wasn't the most physically imposing of men. Slumped like he was, a foolish stranger could easily mistake his nonchalance for lack of intelligence or strength, a mistake few had the opportunity to repeat.
In my case at least, he was relaxing, and letting me be more familiar with him. “You’re going to have quite a challenge on your hands, Daniel. My niece, she’s very willful.”
“She is a strong woman,” I agreed. “I believe that runs in the family.”
He considered what I said, then chuckled. “Point taken, Daniel. Are you concerned that you’ll have problems protecting her?”
“None at all. My only concern is that this Vincent Drake will be found quickly and brought to justice.”
“I’m for the moment letting the police handle that side of things,” Don Bertoli said sadly, “primarily because the other girl, Angela, her parents are raising hell in the press. Her father, he’s first generation from China, and he’s of the type that believes that the government is the solution to all our problems. Stupid man, but well intentioned.”
“Would you like me to do some investigating? I’m sure I can be useful in that regard.”
He shook his head, smiling. “Your entire life, you've always been an enigma, you know that? You came to my house when you were barely nine months old, and ever since you were out of diapers, you've been dedicated to learning whatever it is I ask of you.”
“You could have abandoned me to the state orphanage,” I replied, thinking back to my earliest memories. “You could have let me go to some foster home where I'd have grown up in a trailer park, or hacking it out in a Section 8 tenement. Or worse, I might have ended up adopted by some of the same people that you call fools. Instead, I was given a fine home and cared for. You made sure I was raised strong and well. I know we aren’t blood, but you’re the closest thing I have.”
The Don smiled, and reminisced for a moment. “You’ve comported yourself with honor and loyalty, more than anyone outside our line of work would understand. But now you have the most important task in your life. I’m counting on you, Daniel.”
“I won’t fail you, Boss.”
“You never have.”
After leaving Don Bertoli's house and returning to my apartment, I wasn't so sure. Keeping Adriana safe, that was nothing. I was sure that I could keep her safe from anything one man could throw at her. I'd probably be able to keep her safe against a squad of professionals, even. One fifty-three-year-old art teacher I wasn't concerned with.
Instead, I thought as I got out of my shower and looked at myself in the mirror, the biggest threat to the successful completion of my mission was looking at me in the mirror. I was worried because when she was in my arms at her apartment, it had taken every bit of willpower I had to not think of all the dirty things I wanted to do to her. The way her breasts felt pressed against me, the fluttering of her heart, and the soft little voice she used when she asked me to protect her? I was surprised my cock didn't bust a seam on my jeans.
“Face it, No Man,” I said, referring to my assumed last name as I talked to myself in the mirror, “you've wanted to fuck Adriana ever since you figured out what your dick was good for besides taking a piss with.”
Adriana always had a special place in my mind. Like the perfect template that all others were compared to, only to find them falling short. I'd never wanted any woman more than I wanted Adriana Bertoli.
Ten years later, standing in front of my own mirror naked, I shivered, both in desire and in fear. It had been at about that point that my typical banter with Adriana had taken on slightly sexual overtones, both of us becoming more brazen as she turned eighteen and finished up high school. Still, we both had that line that we were to never cross, even though I suspected that both of us wanted to.
Don Bertoli would never allow it. Adriana was his family, his blood. While I'd been loyal to him and served him well, and yes, loved him — I was an outsider, not even Italian. Besides, I wasn’t the relationship type, and that’s what she deserved. The rumors of me tagging the entire girl's volleyball team my senior year were true. Come on, with those ass hugging shorts and all that jumping? Most of those girls were more than ready to put those ass muscles to work once they got a glimpse of what I was working with.
No girl ever got two nights though, even after high school. It’s probably what concerned Don Bertoli, and was one of the main reasons I wasn’t allowed to even think about being with Adriana. If I'd been the sort of guy who had a history of being loyal and dedicated to my woman, he
have considered it, he was a fair enough man. But a player who fucked and flew? No way.
Was it unfair? Sure. After all, the Don's two sons weren’t any different. But men were allowed to be men, except for the man who was to be good enough for his Bella. That man would have to be perfect, a saint who was also a warrior. And sadly, I was no saint.
“Fuck it, just do your damn job and keep your dick in your pants,” I said to my reflection. “Now get yourself to bed. You've got work tomorrow, remember?”
* * *
at Adriana's safe house the next morning at five forty five, still wiping the sleep out of my eyes. I'd spent most of the past seven years since graduating high school working the night shift, and these early mornings were definitely not what my body was used to. Still, as I sucked down an energy drink, it could’ve been worse. After all, the Don had let me go early the night before, and I'd been able to get plenty of sleep, even if it was disturbed with dreams of Adriana.
“How'd the night go, Julius?”
Julius, an older man in his mid thirties who'd been with Mr. Bertoli since I was in elementary school, stretched his arms over his head and groaned. “Not too bad. She had a few bad dreams, but I guess you'd expect that considering what she saw. I had more than a few myself my first death scene.”
“Since we caused our first death scenes, I think it's a little different,” I replied with a slightly regretful sigh. “Is she still asleep?”
Julius nodded. “Yeah, she told me before she closed her door that she'd set her alarm for six thirty. She wants to be out of this place by seven thirty. Something about first class of the day, and this place being further from campus than her old place. Hell if I know.”
I wasn't surprised, considering that Julius was a high school dropout whose grandest idea of higher education was truck driving school. He was good in a fight, but pretty much dumb as a rock. Still, he was a good soldier and did his job well. “Okay. You had any breakfast?”
Julius shook his head. “Nope, I was thinking of grabbing some drive through on the way back to my place. I know my old lady ain't left nothin' for me — never does.”
Julius' wife was a former Bertoli whore who'd found herself unable to overcome the binge eating that came from her childhood history of growing up starving. Growing up on the wrong side of Seattle where the time between meals sometimes counted in days rather than hours did that to you.
On the other hand, she was a lot smarter than Julius, and had at least gotten her associates degree. She worked for the Don as an office assistant in his import/export business that operated out of SEATAC. “All right then man, tell you what. Let me put together a little breakfast for the three of us, if you want to hang around an extra fifteen minutes.”
“And save me ten bucks? You throw in some coffee, and it's a deal,” Julius replied. He was even more of a skinflint that I was. “What're you making?”
“Let me look,” I said, opening the fridge. I'd picked up some basic groceries with Adriana the afternoon before, so I was a little disappointed to find the cooling remains of a Papa John's box inside. “Yours or hers?”
“Mine,” Julius said. “I was jonesing about eleven or so. Don't worry, the order was in my name, and this place is in another. And I paid cash.”
“Still,” I said, wondering if I should say anything about it to the Don. I decided against it, Julius was normally a reliable man, and everyone gets the occasional urge for sausage pizza. “Well, on the good side, at least that means most of the stuff I bought yesterday is still here. Do you like spinach?”
“My mother used to make me eat that stuff three times a week, said it'd make me strong. Don't know if it worked or not, but I hate the shit now.”
“All right then,” I said, setting the baby spinach back inside. “Guess we'll go with an omelet.”
I made one of my go-to breakfasts, a three egg white, one whole egg omelet with ham and cheese, cutting it into three pieces when I was finished before whipping out another one, knowing how much I tended to eat.
I heard the door to the back open, and Adriana poked her head out, her red hair tousled and her eyes still bleary. She looked adorable, and I had to remind myself to pay attention to my tea before I poured some on my hand. “Is that an omelet with cheese I smell?”
“Yeah, you ready to join us?”
“Give me two minutes,” she said, giving me a grateful smile that I appreciated more than I should have. “Thanks, and good morning.”
“Good morning, Adriana.”
Julius looked from me to her, then back at me as Adriana ducked her head back into her room and closed the door. “I've watched you two from time to time. Why didn't you two ever get together?”
I gave Julius a sideways glance, and shook my head. Loyal, but dumb. Picking up the pan with the omelet, I started to plate. “You know exactly why. If it's all the same to you, I'd like my head to remain acquainted with my neck for as long as possible. I mess around with Adriana, the odds of that become about the same as the Mariners winning the World Series this year.”
“Gotcha, man. You’re right. Well, if you don't mind, I'ma eat now, and hit the road.” Julius ate his breakfast in about five big gulping bites, looking kind of like a shark swallowing a fish, but at least he rinsed the plate and dropped all his stuff in the dishwasher before wiping his mouth. “Take care, Daniel.”
“Thanks, Julius. See you tonight.”
He left, just as Adriana opened her door and came out, dressed in jeans similar to the ones I'd chosen and a printed t-shirt that had a silk screening of Mt. St. Helens on it with the caption “Look out, she's gonna blow!” underneath it. I wondered if Adriana grasped the double meaning of a woman wearing such a shirt, then decided she knew exactly what she was doing. Rolling my eyes, I set her plate on the table. “Here you are. Coffee, tea, or orange juice?”
“OJ if it's still in there,” she said, giving me another somewhat shy but enticing smile. “I didn't know you were a chef. This smells delicious.”
I turned, trying to hide my reddening cheeks. “There are all sorts of skills of mine you don't know about. Maybe you’ll get to see more of them.”
“You show me yours, I show you mine,” she teased back, “in another lifetime. Maybe when I'm desperate.”
to say that I was able to throw myself back into my studies without any problems. I'd like to say that I was supported by everyone, who took me having an escort and bodyguard in tow with no problems. I'd like to say that the next week was productive and helpful, and that I was enjoying being an upperclassman in college.
I'd like to say all those things, but I can't. Instead, my first day back on campus ended within an hour of me getting there, with me jumping at nearly every snapped shut book or glittering object that came into my line of sight. Considering that I was walking around the arts building of a major university, that was a lot of books.
Finally, after my first two classes, I couldn't take it anymore. Both of the professors had given me the hairy eyeball when Daniel came in, to the point that I had to threaten to call the campus registrar about it with my photography professor. The other students stared, with more than a few whispered comments and understated conversations that I knew were about the murder, jacking up my stress levels even more. The final straw came when a door slammed, and I jumped nearly a foot in the air, a small scream in my throat before Daniel had me, holding me in one arm while his eyes constantly scanned the hallway around us. “Come on,” he said, talking softly in my ear and walking me along
We ended up going all the way out of Seattle and south a little bit, stopping along the coastline at a random resort town and picking out a cafe. “You looked like you could use the break,” Daniel said simply when he got on the Interstate. “There was no way you were getting anymore learning done today, not with the way you're looking.”