I fell in love with Jack and his ‘unusual’ plight. Then there is Artagan, the quintessential bad boy. The love story at the heart of this novel is timeless and the writer’s style descriptive and captivating. I highly recommend this novel.
I stare at the dull-black barrel of the 9mm pointed at my chest. My gaze shifts to my assailant’s face. His eyes narrow, and his mouth thins for an instant before curving into a smirk.
My grip tightens on the cardboard handle, causing the beer bottles to clink together. There’s no way this idiot is going to cost me my Prize Old Ale. It’s the store’s last six-pack, and who knows when I’ll get more? To the ordinary Joe, this might seem like a foolish thing to be concerned about, especially at a time like this. But it’s the good stuff, a taste of England, and the only enjoyment I have left.
I raise my free hand and keep my voice soft, as though coaxing a feral animal. “Let’s calm down. You don’t want to do something you’ll regret.”
The man’s glare slides to the name embroidered above the left pocket of my navy-blue shirt, and he curses. “Jack, huh? Figures. Now you listen to me. I’m in charge here, kid. Remember that!” The weapon jerks to the rhythm of his words, and his eyes, although wild, are committed to finishing what he started. I recognize that look. This man cannot be reasoned with.
Usually, I’m the only customer in here at this godforsaken hour of the night. But tonight, Mae, the elderly lady who lives in the apartment above Irene’s Liquor, must have decided she required self-medication to soothe her nightmares again—a
plight I sympathize with. I’ve carried her groceries upstairs enough times to know her fondness for Jameson and her propensity for using the spirits as a sleeping aid. Unfortunately, she came into the store at the same time the man pulled his gun. Luckily for her, he didn’t shoot, but her thready, asthmatic gasp must’ve made him think she was about to scream for help. He smacked her across her temple as easily as flicking a light switch. And I, of course, unable to mind my own business, stepped in to defend her.
A low moan rises from Mae, now sprawled on the dirty linoleum floor, and drags my attention from the man. Her faded pink and yellow housecoat is spattered with drying blood. Crimson trickles from the gash on her temple. Her eyes are closed, but her chest rises and falls at a steady pace. Still breathing. But for how long? Anger builds deep in my chest, and on cue, the sensation of icy pins and needles shoots down my spine. I drag in a deep, ragged breath.
When my scowl meets his stare, the man squares his shoulders, his nostrils flare, and the gun wobbles. I brace myself in anticipation of the pain. Despite having never been shot before, I’m pretty sure this is going to sting like hell. I find myself wondering if a bullet speeding through my chest might grab his attention, and even though I shouldn’t allow it to, a sense of hope sprouts.
I gesture at the elderly clerk cowering by the register, and he hunches out of sight. The gunman swings his weapon toward the counter. “Old man, are you deaf or stupid? Stand up!”
With his attention diverted, I set my beer out of harm’s way on a shelf behind me. I take advantage of the would-be thief’s distraction and lunge.
The gun swings back. A shot rings out. Another follows.
Each impact knocks every wisp of air from my lungs. I stumble, clutching my abdomen, and struggle for a single breath. The pain feels like two red-hot pokers— blunt ones, at that—being shoved through my insides. The bullets speed through flesh and organs. Spasms quake throughout my body and slam me backward into the shelving. The shelf teeters then collapses, taking me with down with it. Glass shatters, and the beer’s sweet aroma rises from the shards.
I shove myself up from the wreckage. A mixture of surprise and confusion streaks across the gunman’s face, wiping away his triumphant smile. Before he can act, I haul back my arm. A gratifying grunt spews out of him as my fist slams into his nose. Cartilage crunches, and he staggers backward, cupping his face with his hand. I wrench the gun from his loosening grip then smack the butt hard against his skull.
“You don’t hit ladies,” I say and glance down at the broken bottles at my feet. “And that was the last sixer of Prize, dammit!” I let my finger inch toward the
trigger. I can’t help but think how easy—perhaps even noble—it would be to rid the world of this scum. Instead, I rein my instinct and lift the gun over my shoulder. With a restrained swing, I slam the gun against the man’s temple.
The man slumps to his knees, disoriented. I walk around him, place the sole of my boot in the middle of his back, and apply pressure. With a rush of breath, he falls to the floor. After tucking the gun into my waistband, I pull his arms behind him and use the nylon twine from a nearby advertising banner to restrain them. He doesn’t struggle; actually, he doesn’t move at all while I loop the string around his wrists twice and yank it tight, finishing off the tether with a double-constrictor knot. Once his hands are secure, I fold his right leg behind his back and repeat the process then give the twine one last tug, surveying the restraint. All the while, the old clerk frantically blabbers the Lord’s Prayer from behind the counter.
The gunman moans, and a silent sigh of relief steals through my lips. He’ll have a whopper of a headache, but he’ll live.
The heat of adrenaline that pumped through my veins slips away, leaving a sharp pain in my gut. I press my hand to my stomach, and a warm stickiness seeps around my fingers. I shake my head to clear the wooziness, and my eyes flick to the door. Hope withers when I don’t see him.
“Another no show,” I grumble. “Unreliable son of a—”
I stagger forward, my boots sliding in the remains of my beer. The shards of glass and ruddy brown liquid froth around my feet. Nothing worth salvaging. I huff in disgust. Losing the beer pisses me off, sure, but not as much as his failing to show. Again.
I kneel to examine Mae. The bleeding has stopped, and her breathing is strong and steady. She whimpers something incoherent.
“Shhh,” I say, wiping a loose strand of white hair from her face.
“Is she okay? I’ve called 9-1-1. Should be here soon,” the clerk says from behind me.
Dammit. I hobble to the register, slam the gun on the stained counter, and duck out of the store into the darkness.
The clerk calls after me. His astonished babble fades away with a swing of the door, only to be replaced by distant sirens.
Safety is five blocks away. Each step brings a new fire of radiating pain. Despite this, I keep a steady pace. The pangs dull my sight, narrowing it to a blurry tunnel, and I frequently melt into the shadows to listen to my surroundings. The slightest sound—the yap of a dog or the honk of a horn—makes me flinch.
At the second intersection, three people pass. A tall, black-haired man escorts his two female companions, a wiry arm around each, his hands low, just above the hems of their skimpy minidresses. I’m a sight to behold. My shirt is bathed in
blood, and my jeans are stained with paths of dark scarlet. I lean against a building and pretend to vomit in an attempt to hide the gore. Without warning, the prickle— ancient and fresh, familiar and terrifying—stirs again and quickly blazes into an icy burn that surges up my neck. I’ve felt the sensation too many times to count— every time I hunger to take a life other than my own. I grit my teeth against the cold. My rigid fingers grasp at crumbling brick and mortar. Each helps me gulp back the craving.
The trio’s steps quicken, and the man’s baritone laughter echoes. They hustle out of sight, taking the wintery sensation with them. How haven’t I realized how close to the surface my monstrous need lurks? I have to get my ass home.
Once I reach Seventy-Fourth Street, I slip into the alley behind a rundown apartment complex. The air is damp and cool. No light invades the confined space. I relax a bit when I catch sight of the gray building. Hellhole, sweet hellhole.
I scale the back of the apartment building one step at a time. The fire escape complains with moans and rasps, and so does my body. Every movement brings a new wave of pain, making me groan. I slide into my apartment through my unlocked bathroom window, yank the shade closed, and flick on the light.
I lean against the sink and breathe deeply. My hands grip the porcelain basin, and a young man no more than twenty looks back at me from the mirror. No external scars to remind me of what I’ve been through. My only blemish is the one
I was born with—a sickle-shaped birthmark above my left eye. I see the same disheveled, sable hair of my youth, without an ounce of gray. My wide, square jaw and angular features have no wrinkles even though I’m nearly the ripe old age of one hundred seventy. The vacant blue eyes prove what I already know. I lost my heart a long time ago, buried it too deep. “Forever blessed. What a joke.”
After splashing frigid water on my face, I strip off my blood-soaked shirt and hunch my back to examine my wounds in the mirror. The jagged holes have begun to heal—two entrances and one exit. I rub my hand along my spine, finding the skin hot to the touch. I press against the hard, pea-sized protrusion under the surface about a third of the way up my back, and I grimace. But I can’t do anything about the bullet now. No time.
I wonder how long it’ll be until the shooting makes the news. Any normal guy would be bleeding out in the gutter after taking two bullets to the abdomen. If I’m found healed and healthy, I’ll become a sideshow freak and live out the rest of my existence Lord knows where.
I tug on a T-shirt and exchange my blood-splattered jeans for a clean pair, then I begin shoving my few belongings into a shabby black duffel.
“If he’d just shown up tonight, I wouldn’t have to deal with this crap right now.” I thrust another handful of dirty socks into the bag.
This isn’t the first time Death has let me down. He’s stood me up many times— stabbed through the heart and bleeding to death in a pool of my own blood, sitting on the rocky bottom of a lake until every breath left my body—the list goes on. Pain is as reliable as gravity, but Death never keeps his appointments. If he did, I would be enjoying the good life in paradise, with Lydia.
At the thought of her, the ever-present ache grows as if talons are ripping away pieces of my heart. Somehow, it keeps its endless rhythm. I know all too well that some wounds cannot heal. Instead, they remain open and raw. Having someone important torn away is bound to leave a hole. I gulp a deep breath, and anxiety winds into a ball in my stomach. Memories leak in behind my eyes, calling to me, but I groan and wrench my head to the side, ruthlessly shoving them back. I don’t have time for an episode right now; I still have one task left to do. I stretch a yellowed map along the flaky gray walls and pin thumbtacks into each curled corner. No one will notice, let alone care about, the holes in the poorly treated drywall.
I step back and kiss the dart I swiped from a pub in York back in 1918 on the day my sister died and I decided to quit England for good. Since then, the old dart’s become a talisman of sorts. “Where are we going this time, old friend?”
With a flick of my wrist, the dart glides through the air and sticks into the map with a thud. Just my luck. It landed in the damn Atlantic Ocean. Not caring where I
end up, I pick the closest city. Portland, Maine. Bloody marvelous. Still muttering under my breath about the annoyances of moving, I roll up the map and thrust it into the black duffel. I zip the bag and sling the strap over my shoulder, almost forgetting my knapsack as I walk out of the apartment and into the graffiti-tagged hallway.
The staircase is empty, so I punt the duffel down all seven flights of stairs to rid myself of some of the frustration. It somersaults and rolls down the steps without objection. At the bottom, I fling the bag onto my shoulder. Taking in a deep breath, I open the door and slink into the night, being careful to look up and down the sidewalk. No police, no sirens, no nothing. On the dark, lonely street, I secure the knapsack to the backseat of my old Triumph Bonneville with a couple bungees. After I slip the strap of the duffel over my head and shoulder, I climb onto the bike. I wriggle around, trying to find the most comfortable position. Although no longer painful, my back is tender, and the bag’s weight is a persistent reminder. I give up on comfort and turn the ignition. The motorcycle rumbles to life. I head out of Los Angeles and onto the open road.
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