Thea McAlistair © 2020
All Rights Reserved
When Sev first asked me to run away with him, he’d mentioned exotic places like India and Australia, warm countries far away from the seedy city we were living in. It had sounded romantic and wonderful, and when we finally left—well, fled—I had hopes of going somewhere like that. Instead, we ended up in Chickadee, Vermont.
Chickadee was a small town, about a half-hour drive from the Canadian border and about a six-hour drive from our old home in Connecticut. In all my twenty-three years, I’d never set foot in the countryside, and now there was all this empty space. Blue sky. Trees. Cows.
“Bella wants us to stay here?” I asked as I gaped at the maple forest flashing by the car window. “It’s so…rustic.”
“Well, just think, Alex,” grumbled Sev, his faint Italian accent tinged with unease as he guided the rickety borrowed Oldsmobile over bumps on the dirt road, “it’s better than the alternatives, yes?”
Considering the alternatives were dead and arrested for murder, he was right. Less than a month ago, I’d been living my dull life, writing during the day and serving as a bodyguard for the mayor in the evenings, and then all hell broke loose. Now nine people were dead, including my friends Martin and Donnie, and the corrupt cops wouldn’t even think of hearing my side of the story. Targeting the big guy with a chip on his shoulder the size of New England was almost too easy for them.
“It’s pretty here!” chimed Pearl from the back.
I twisted to look at her. She perched on the edge of the seat, her already-large eyes expanded in wonder. Her cat, Daisy, sulked in a metal cage next to her. I still wasn’t sure it’d been the brightest idea to take a six-year-old on the lam with us, but it was too late now. At least she seemed to be enjoying the trip. And why wouldn’t she? She wasn’t the one running from murder charges.
“Bit different from the city, huh?” I asked, careful to keep my voice cheerful for her.
She nodded and returned to staring at the trees.
I slumped back into my seat, grateful she didn’t seem to share my unease.
Sev nudged my arm. “Which road do I take?”
I straightened and peered out the windshield. We were coming up on an intersection, if a split of one dirt track into two could be called that. I scrambled to unfold the map I’d crumpled in my distraction. Sev’s cousin Bella—the most notorious gangster in Westwick—had given us these directions and all our fake identification papers first thing that morning.
Why Bella had chosen Chickadee to hide us from the cops was a mystery. She hadn’t given me a straight answer when I asked, only that she had friends there and Sev would be working with one of them. Most likely the location had something to do with the rum-running routes she’d controlled until about six months ago. While the end of Prohibition had cut the bottom out from under her main moneymaker, there were many other ways to make an illegal living, and why leave when she already had a foot in the door?
“Left,” I said, tracing the hand-drawn line with my finger. “Looks like another mile and we reach town.”
Sev obeyed, taking the left fork. The car turned in a wide arc around yet more trees. Both sides of the road were obscured by underbrush and shadow. Sev swore under his breath in Italian and slowed even more.
“They should clear this,” he muttered. “Someone’s going to get hit one day.”
“Who’s going to get hit?” I answered. “There’s no one out he—”
Sev slammed the brakes as a figure darted from between the trunks. I jolted forward and got the wind knocked out of me as I smacked into the dashboard. Pearl screamed, tumbling into the back of my seat. The rattle of the cat cage almost drowned out Daisy’s yowls.
Blinded by pain, I groped for Sev. “Everyone okay?” I gasped.
He grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Fine,” he said.
Pearl wailed. I turned, ignoring the objections of my bruised ribs. She huddled in the space between the back bench and the front seat, clutching her wrist. My already-pitching stomach dropped. I’d brought her with us to get her away from all the pain in her past, and now here was more. I scrambled out the door and around the back to get her.
“You’re all right; you’re all right,” I mumbled in an effort to convince myself my assurance was true. “Can I see?”
Pearl snuffled and presented her arm. Already her wrist was red and swelling. I held back the curses bubbling in my mind. In a flash of anger, I whipped around to see what jackass had done this.
To my surprise, I only saw a girl straddling a sturdy bike. She was maybe sixteen or seventeen, wearing men’s dungarees and a gingham shirt. Freckles were splattered across her face, and ash-blonde braids draped down her back. She gnawed on her lip, her eyes huge with fear.
“I’m so sorry,” she squeaked. “There’s almost never anyone out here—”
“Alex?” Sev called. He sounded muffled. I looked at the driver’s side door. He had gotten out and had one hand curled around the lower half of his face while the other scrambled in a pocket. “I think I might have been mistaken when I said I was fine.” He pulled out a handkerchief, and I saw both his nose and his upper lip were bleeding.
Fear, anger, and unbidden memories tangled up in my mind, freezing my mouth in one slack-jawed position, keeping me mute.
“Alex? Alex Carrow?” said the girl on the bike.
It took me a second to recognize my own fake last name. “Uh, yeah? How do you know?”
“Sorry, anyone new in town is big news. You’re renting the Reed place. I’m Fran, Fran Gaines. My family lives next door.”
It would be my luck for us to almost get killed by someone we were going to have to see every day. “Charmed. Tell me, kid, you have a doctor around here? Or someone who can at least have a look at Pearl’s wrist?” I glanced at Sev, blood leaking from between his fingers and giving me heart palpitations. “And ice?”
“There’s no doctor in Chickadee, but Mrs. Manco could set her in a splint until you can get to one. And she has an icebox. Follow me.” She took off down the road.
Follow her? How? I had no idea how to drive.
“Andiamo,” Sev waved for me to get back into the car.
“You need two hands,” I protested.
He shrugged and pulled the handkerchief away from his face. He had a split lip, but at least his lovely proud nose didn’t seem crooked. “It is mostly stopped now.”
With no choice, I jumped into the back seat of the car with Pearl. She curled, whimpering, against my side. I held her as the car jolted and skidded at odd turns. I wished, not for the first time, that Martin and Donnie were still alive. They would have known what to do.
I glanced at Sev more than a few times. I could tell he’d lied to get me into the car—fresh blood was smeared across his chin. And yet he showed no sign of pain or distress. No cringing or tears or labored breath. His calm personality kicking in, or was this sort of emergency driving usual for him? I hadn’t asked if he’d done anything for Bella besides laundering her ill-gotten gains, but life in a mob family often took peculiar turns. Learning he’d driven getaway cars or moved injured friends while injured himself would not have surprised me.
The trees thinned, and I caught a glimpse of town through the windshield. Rustic didn’t even begin to describe the place. Of the twenty or so buildings I saw, most were built with clapboard, a few with simple brick. The tallest one was a church, and even its white-painted steeple looked shorter than my boarding house back home.
Not home anymore, I told myself. As much as I had wanted and needed to leave Westwick, I still had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that I couldn’t go back. Emma had called the cops on me moments before I confronted her about her killing spree, and considering she was now very dead, there would be no calling them off. According to Bella, the cops were still sniffing even ten days after Sev and I fled to Boston.
Fran veered a hard right on the outskirts of town where only a few houses were scattered. We followed carefully. The few people out stopped and stared. And who wouldn’t? An unfamiliar car going about ten miles an hour had to look pretty suspicious. Maybe Bella had done this on purpose: sent us somewhere where a gang of yokels would tar and feather us for daring to intrude. I kept my anxieties to myself though. Pearl sniveled next to me, and Sev’s knuckles had gone white from gripping the steering wheel.
Fran skidded to a stop in front of a small house—more of a shack if I was being honest—with green shutters. With all the care of a mother laying her baby to sleep, she propped the bike against the nearest tree before scampering to the door.
While Sev killed the engine, I checked on Pearl’s arm again—still red, swelling more. My anger flared, but I remembered how Donnie always told me to breathe before letting my temper get the better of me. So, I heaved in a lungful of air to tamp everything down before I opened the car door.
By the time I got myself and Pearl out, Mrs. Manco had already stepped outside. She had a darker complexion than I expected, closer to Sev’s Mediterranean olive than my English ruddiness. In fact, she looked almost like a younger Bella with her dark hair and eyes. Unlike Bella, however, everything about this woman was small and simple, from her delicate bun to her tiny booted feet. She wiped her hands on a faded floral apron as she stared at the strange car haphazardly parked in front of her house.
Fran started in right away. “Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Manco, but they had an accident on the way here.”
Shrewd kid, leaving out the part about how she’d been the one to cause the accident. I interrupted her as I stuffed my own clean handkerchief into Sev’s hand. “My name is Alexander Carrow, and this is Se—” I almost tripped on Sev’s fake name. “Seb Arrighi. And this is Pearl.” I nudged her forward. “We heard you might be able to set a splint.”
Mrs. Manco’s eyes widened as they tracked between the three of us. “Bella’s friends?” Her words came out in an Italian accent much thicker than Sev’s. She hurried forward. “I was not expecting you to come today.”
Well, we’d found one of Bella’s contacts. Somehow I hadn’t expected a housewife. “I’m sorry; how do you know Bella?” I asked.
“Oh, how rude of me. I am Cristina Manco,” she answered. She knelt in front of Pearl. “Please call me Crista. I knew Bella from childhood, and my husband worked with her.”
Recognition lit in Sev’s eyes. “Is his name Leo, by any chance?”
Crista paused as she reached for Pearl’s wrist. “Yes, his name was Leo.” She glanced at Sev. “I’m afraid he passed away about two years ago.”
“My condolences. I met him several times, and he was always a pleasure to speak with.”
“Thank you.” Crista went back to examining Pearl. “Some good news for you: it’s just a sprain. No doctor needed. I will wrap it up for you.” She straightened and stepped up to Sev. “Now you.”
Her fingers touched his face, and heat bloomed up my neck and all the way into my ears, making them itch. Are you really going to be jealous about this? She just wants to help. But I couldn’t squelch the jealousy. I hadn’t been in love in a very long time, and even the hint anyone could get between us was overwhelming.
“Well, your nose isn’t broken,” said Crista as her hand moved away. “We should get you something to clean up with though. Please.” She gestured at her house. “Bienvenue.”
I didn’t particularly want to walk into the home of a stranger, but she was willing to help Pearl and Sev, and that was good enough for me. Besides, she wasn’t a complete stranger. Sev apparently knew her through her husband. Leo must have been up to something illegal if he worked for Bella. Bootlegging perhaps? Sev hustled Pearl through the front door as I salvaged Daisy’s cage from the car.
Fran made to follow us in, but Crista held up a hand. “Thank you for bringing them. You may go.”
The girl froze midstep. “I hoped I might show Mr. Carrow around town?”
Underneath her wide-eyed pleading look was an expression I’d grown to recognize and fear in young women: infatuation. Oh Lord, just what I didn’t need, some kid thinking she fell in love because I had a strong jawline.
“I’m sure Mrs. Manco knows best,” I said. “But if we need a guide, we’ll come straight to you, okay?”
Fran’s eyes darted between the two of us before she moved toward her bike. “Sounds fair enough. I’ll be heading home now, ma’am.”
Crista nodded her acknowledgment and raised her face to me and gestured at the door. “After you, Mr. Carrow.”
The living room reminded me of nowhere so much as Martin’s home in its tidy shabbiness, and another pang of sadness echoed through me. At the far end was a fieldstone fireplace, unlit in the over-warm June weather. Next to the fireplace was a scuffed rocker. Pearl had taken a seat in a patched-over armchair across from an equally threadbare couch. Sev hovered in the middle of the room. I placed Daisy’s cage on the floor, hoping the threadbare rug and pitted wood might muffle some of her howls.
Crista followed me inside and slipped through an interior door to the immediate right—a kitchen, by the smell of bread emanating from it. As I stood there, I was struck by how the only sounds I could hear were the cat’s complaints and Pearl’s soft, pained sniffles. Such deep quiet sent a chill through me. In Westwick, and in Boston, there’d always been some kind of background noise—cars, children, factories. Here, there was nothing, and it felt like there was emptiness beyond the four white-painted walls.
Crista reappeared within a moment, holding a bundle of rag strips and a soaked dishtowel. I edged out of the way to stand next to Sev. She handed him the dishtowel, and he started wiping the blood off his face.
He saw me anxiously watching him and smiled. “See? Not so bad. A little cut.”
Cleaned, the laceration on his lip was barely anything, and his nose had stopped bleeding. I relaxed a little but couldn’t shake the panicky feeling coiled like a spring in my chest.
“I apologize for Frances,” said Crista as she crouched in front of Pearl. “She can be difficult.” She glanced at us. “Her parents fight a lot.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
My own condolences rang oddly in my ears. Already everything I said in this place sounded like stilted dialogue in a play. And I was acting, wasn’t I? I wasn’t Alex Dawson anymore-queer writer and terrible bodyguard-but Alex Carrow, and I wasn’t quite sure who he was supposed to be. The papers Bella had given me were a driver’s license and a birth certificate with false names and dates. Nothing that made a person a person. While Sev and I had agreed on some points to cover our mutual existence, I hadn’t bothered making myself a background. I’d have to make something up on the fly. Hopefully, Sev had put a little more effort into these false identities than I had.
Crista took Pearl’s wrist again and began wrapping the bandages. “You will leave this on the rest of the day and tonight, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She nodded. “Miss Bella told you we were coming?”
My heart skipped a beat. This kid was going to be my death. Casually chatting about Bella Bellissima, the mobster queen? It was like asking for more trouble. Not that Bella was anything more than an overbearing aunt—like figure to her. Bella must have done quite the complicated dance in the last few days to keep Pearl from seeing anything too unseemly. Then again, maybe her criminal empire had been quiet. There had been her husband’s funeral to attend to, after all.
“She sent a telegram earlier this week to say you might be coming and again this morning saying you were on your way,” said Crista. “You are welcome at any time.” She tightened the gauze and kissed the back of Pearl’s hand. “And a kiss to make it better.”
Pearl giggled through her tears as she took her arm back.
Sev cleared his throat. “Gattina, why don’t you play outside for a little while? Alex and I would like to talk to Mrs. Manco, and it would be very boring.” He gave me a look. “Isn’t that right?”
“Uh, yes. Like chores and…taxes.” Shit, I was even worse at this than I thought. “Stay in the yard. Don’t go wandering into those trees.”
Unperturbed by my bad acting, Pearl shrugged. “Okay. Can I take Daisy?”
“Sure. But don’t let her out. If she gets lost, we’ll never get her back. And be careful with your wrist!”
Apparently, that was good enough for her because she sprang up and grabbed the cage. Daisy yowled her displeasure but, thankfully, didn’t try clawing through the bars. Once they were gone, I allowed myself a small sigh of relief.
“Our apologies,” Sev said. “We did not mean to surprise you by arriving so quickly. We only knew we were coming ourselves around eight o’clock.”
Crista shrugged. “I think we are all rather used to, ah, emergencies when we work with Bella.” She nodded at us. “I imagine something must have gone very wrong if she sent you here.”
Sev snorted. “Wrong is an understatement.”
Her eyes scanned Sev’s face, lingering on the scar running down his left cheek from eye to chin. A souvenir of prison, though she had no way of knowing. Still, if she knew Bella, she had to know men with scars like that were not to be trifled with.
“Well, I am happy to help,” Crista said. “I consider it returning the favor. Bella has been very good to me since Leo died.”
Bella, good to people? What a riot. Then again, she had poured what had to be hundreds if not thousands of dollars into setting up this new life for us. And she had a soft spot for her now-deceased daughter and husband. She might want to help a childhood friend, particularly if said friend was now the widow of a man in her service.
“In any case,” Crista continued, “you may tell me your story or not. Either way, I will still help you. I will make you answer one thing though: Is the little girl safe?”
“She is,” Sev replied. “She is not running from anything. It is us who need to hide.”
Crista’s eyes narrowed. “Then why bring her?”
I took a breath. Time to test our story. “Why wouldn’t we? We’re her family.”
“My stepdaughter,” Sev added. He gestured at me. “Alex is my late wife’s brother.”
Crista’s gaze tracked between us, looking for the lie, maybe. After a second, she nodded. “I can imagine how hard raising her by yourself must be.”
“I am not by myself.” He smiled at me. “But yes, it is a new experience.”
Christ, he was a much better liar than me. I almost believed Pearl was his daughter, and I knew he’d met her less than a month ago. Crista was buying it. Her expression switched from squinting suspicion to pouting pity.
“If you’ll forgive me, what was your wife’s name?” she asked.
“Marianne,” I said quickly. Maybe too quickly. “And we had a brother named Martin who died a few days ago.”
Sev’s brow furrowed for a moment before smoothing back to placid earnestness. We had agreed on the fictional woman’s name, not that Martin was supposed to be family as well. But Pearl would start talking about him at some point and having him be her other uncle would make everything sound a little less peculiar. While Martin would have never hurt a fly, grown men taking care of children who weren’t their own always raised a few eyebrows.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” said Crista. “Both of you.”
“Thank you, we miss them both very much,” Sev murmured. “Now, signora, if you will excuse us. We thank you for your help and your hospitality, but I believe Alex and I must go find this house we are to be living in.”
“Yes, of course!” She took the now-bloodied dishtowel from Sev. “It’s on the other side of town. Not far though. I can point your place out from the porch.” She smiled. Even her teeth were petite. “I will meet you outside in one moment. I must put this away.” She disappeared through a door on the far side of the room.
As soon as she left, Sev smiled at me. “How friendly she is.”
I tried to smile with him. “Yeah, friendly is one way of looking at it. You did a good job there, selling the dead wife thing.”
He shrugged. “Loss feels the same, I think, no matter how it happens.”
I winced. How stupid of me. He’d given up everything for me—nice home, easy job, his mother’s love, all in the last few weeks—and here I was asking how he managed to sound so pained. “I didn’t mean—”
“I know what you meant.” His smile turned sad. “That’s one of the things I like about you. Your face shows everything, even when your words are not the best words.”
I laughed uneasily. “Right, tell the writer his words aren’t good. Good revenge.”
He stared at me a moment before heading for the front door. If my face was an open book, his was a lockbox of state secrets. The easy grins, I’d already learned, were a front for so many other emotions. Had he actually forgiven me, or was he still hurt? My stomach knotted up thinking about the latter.
He turned his head. “Caro.” He walked outside without another word.