Hunched over the computer, Birdie called up tomorrow’s edition of The Liberty Post.
It was past 10 P.M., and the final proof was late to the printer. She rechecked the lead about Mayor Ryan’s battle to rezone the streets west of Liberty Square for commercial use. The article wouldn’t make the front page in a metropolitan area, but the locals in this Ohio town protected residential areas with an admirable ferocity. Chopping down a mature tree was tantamount to murder. Council members went to lengths to ensure every road widened or new development built caused the least damage to the emerald necklace of forest surrounding Liberty.
Birdie’s thoughts wended back to Snoops. The brainy preteen could’ve been killed in the accident. Why had Wish played vehicular chicken with a child? Poor Snoops—in the terrifying moments before her bicycle crashed to the ground, had she thought Birdie was behind the wheel? Had she believed an adult she trusted would cause her harm? The prospect filled Birdie with remorse and a nearly uncontrollable rage at her mother. How could Wish stoop so low she’d harm a child?
From across the newsroom, Hugh said, “You don’t have to check the copy. It’s done.”
Yanked from her musings, she turned in the direction of his voice. He sauntered into the center of the barn, pausing before the rows of desks. Hector came in behind him.
She logged off the computer. “When did you have time to proof tomorrow’s edition?” she asked, certain he’d forgotten the task. “We spent hours at the hospital.”
“The last two stringers we interviewed? I hired them. They took care of it.”
He’d hired more employees without consulting her? As partners, they’d agreed to make all major decisions together. The fact that he’d gone ahead without her approval seemed further evidence of their disintegrating relationship.
The regret she felt seemed a good companion for the rage at her mother, but she refused to let the volatile mix tap into the more vulnerable emotions jostling inside her. Better to stay angry, and prepared for whatever happened next. Knowing her mother, they wouldn’t have long to wait.
She gazed at him challengingly. “Thanks for making unilateral management decisions. Are the new hires taking care of everything? Should I take the week off? Take up tennis or something? I’m not needed here, so what the hell.”
The assault made Hugh flinch. “Sure, whatever you’d like,” he said evenly. “Tomorrow go with Theodora to meet with the bounty hunter from North Carolina. Or spend the day with the women at The Second Chance. If you aren’t up to working, it’s understandable.”
“You can’t handle the newspaper without me—”
“I can,” he said, cutting her off. “You’ve got enough on your plate. Let me worry about the newspaper and Wish. Birdie, I will protect you.”
She stared at him, incredulous. “An hour ago you were planning to use me for bait. If that’s your idea of protection, you’re way off the mark.”
Reaching the desk, Hector sat his suitcase on the floor before elbowing his way between them. “Play fair,” he told her. “He didn’t come up with the stupid idea. I suggested using you for bait.”
Hugh laughed. “Are you defending me, pal? Shit, I didn’t see that coming.”
“I’m taking responsibility for a bad idea. I think they call it maturity.”
“Good for you. I wasn’t happy about taking the fall.”
Hector spied the candy jar on Snoops’ desk. “Let’s try this,” he said, strolling up. “How about a truce? The way I see it, if we take Birdie out of the equation we’ll get along fine.”
Hugh’s mouth tightened. “I’m not following.”
“Listen, I’m all for chasing a beautiful woman, but I don’t chase if she’s taken. I’m a stand-up guy.” He dug a chocolate from the jar and tore off the wrapper.
A whisper of relief crossed Hugh’s face. “Good to know.”
“Does this mean we’re friends?”
“Give me bonus points for trying.” Popping the candy into his mouth, Hector zeroed in on Birdie. “Since we’re on the subject of territorial habits, I have a question. If that asshole is on the outs with you, why are you still wearing his ring? Talk about mixed signals.”
Coming up with a response would’ve been easy if not for the lump forming in her throat.
She was still wearing Hugh’s ring because she belonged to him, body and soul. Wasn’t she responsible for putting their relationship on shaky ground? Since they’d moved in together Hugh had tried to lock her down to a wedding date, using hints and direct questions when he’d tired of her evasions. She’d continually stalled, coming up with excuses on why they should wait.
What, exactly, was she waiting for—a sign he’d remain true for life? A money-back guarantee? On an intellectual level she understood the fragility of relationships, how a successful marriage took time and nurturing and probably more dedication than she could imagine.
But her doubts ran deeper.
She was frightened of investing herself completely, of trusting Hugh with every ounce of her love. If her devotion wasn’t reciprocated, how to survive the disappointment? For someone who’d lived life on the fly, she wasn’t much of a gambler.
To Hector she said, “I’m still wearing his ring because he hasn’t asked for it back. Not yet anyway.”
The comment sent Hugh’s gaze to the floor. He studied his shoes like he’d never seen them before.
Hector nodded sagely. “So you’ll keep his ring unless he wants it back?”
“Smart girl.” He elbowed Hugh, drawing a glare. “You aren’t dumb enough to break it off, are you? Think, man. She’s one of kind. You’ll never find another woman who comes close.”
Hugh reached into the bottom drawer of his desk. “Aren’t you the guy who’s twice divorced?” He found a bottle of Jack Daniels and a glass. Downing a shot, he added, “Improve your batting average before you give me tips.”
“Low blow, pal. I didn’t ask for divorce. They did.”
“Both times? Hell, you are a loser.”
“I’m unlucky in love. It happens.”
Birdie snatched the glass and poured a shot for Hector. “Why did your wives divorce you?” she asked, handing it over. He’d gone blue around the edges, piquing her interest.
“Long story. Not worth telling.”
“C’mon, you’re among friends. Well, one friend and a grouch.”
Hugh scratched his armpit. “I am not a grouch.”
Hector poured acid into his smile. “You sound like Nixon when you say that.” He studied the glass, swirling the amber liquid. From over the rim, he told Birdie, “If you want the God’s honest truth, I have a thing for damsels in distress.”
Fairytales weren’t prominent in her background, and she wasn’t sure she understood. “Like you want to rescue women?” she asked. “Princesses who’ve taken a liking to poison apples and stuff like that?” It was nice, actually.
“More or less.” He downed the shot then scowled at Hugh. “I’d rather not go into the details. Romeo will hit me with an insult and I won’t like it. Don’t let the calm exterior fool you. I’m an emotional guy.”
Hugh smirked. “You mean you’re a cream puff.”
The phone rang.
Hugh beat her to it, snatching up the receiver. She heard shouting, a real fireworks display. Women in labor didn’t make as much noise as the guy on the other end. His mouth thinning, Hugh murmured soothing words that appeared to go unheard.
Hanging up, he said, “That was the bounty hunter from North Carolina. He’s not coming.”
The niggling sensation Birdie had come to detest started up her spine. “Why not? Theodora is expecting him.”
“He just talked to his wife. Their house was ransacked while she was at work. Think Mongols galloping across the Asian Steppe and a house in ruins. Wish left a note promising more trouble if he didn’t quit the case. The note was written in red nail polish. A nice touch.”
Hector grabbed the whiskey, poured. “Wait a second. Wish is here in Liberty. How did she break into a house in North Carolina?”
Birdie took the shot before it reached his lips and chugged. After the fire cleared her throat, she said. “My mother has friends, the seediest people imaginable. She got the name of the bounty hunter and paid someone to ransack his home. The perfect scare tactic.”
An even more worrisome thought intruded. It was the kind of thought sure to make an awful day end on a dreadful note.
She slid the phone toward Hugh. “You have the phone numbers for the other bounty hunters, right?” she asked. “Call them. Make sure no one else drops out.”
He stared at her, incredulous. “Your mother can’t scare them all off the case. How can she get the name of every man hired?”
“And woman,” Hector put in. “I saw the photos attached to Theodora’s list. She brought in a woman from Milwaukee who could box as a heavyweight. I wouldn’t last three rounds with her. You wouldn’t either, Hugh.”
“Whatever. All I’m saying is Wish doesn’t have the means to find every bounty hunter on her tail. She’s not a freaking magician.”
“Not on her own, she doesn’t,” Birdie said. “But the FBI can find virtually anyone. They can track down everyone Theodora hired.”
The disclosure sent an uneasy tension whipping through the office.
Why broach an embarrassing subject? Most of Birdie’s childhood memories resided uneasily at the bottom of her heart, rarely visited and never enjoyed. Some of the memories were a sheer torment. Yet the men needed every bit of her terrible knowledge.
Hugh leaned against the desk with the wary movements of a man preparing for bad news. Hector, too, remained silent, his eyes hooded.
She marshaled her thoughts then said, “When my mother isn’t working a more elaborate con she preys on men. Usually she picks a man grieving the death of his wife or someone who’s just lonely.”
Hugh grunted. “Old news. She targets a wealthy man in a small town and pretends she’ll marry the dupe. Then she cleans out his savings, robs his jewelry store or steals a ride from his car dealership—whatever she can get her hands on.”
“Like she did with Birdie’s father, the guy she didn’t know was her father.” Hector’s lips moved silently as he fished around in his brain. “Landon Williams, right? He still lives here, although I hope no one’s told him about our present situation.”
“He doesn’t know about Wish,” Hugh said grimly. “Landon struggles with depression. Learning that the woman who ruined him has returned . . . it isn’t something he needs to know.”
Birdie put in, “I talked to Meade. She had relatives in Chicago invite Landon for a stay. He left this morning.”
“Who’s Meade?” Hector asked.
“Landon’s daughter,” Hugh explained. “Meade is Birdie’s half-sister.”
“You have a one-track mind.” To Birdie, Hugh said, “What are you driving at? We know your mother uses men.”
“You know she uses vulnerable men. There’s more to it. A lot more.”
A sensation like suffocation bore down on her. The memories followed, a tumult of images rising as quickly as her fear. She recalled the man in the dark sedan who’d smelled of cigarettes and well-coiled rage. Then a second memory accosted her, of a tight-lipped giant with a forehead so massive it had reminded a five-year-old Birdie of a dinosaur egg in a favorite storybook. The giant had carried a sidearm longer than her arm.
In the dim recesses of her mind, she recalled how he’d barked an order for her to sit still. She’d been fidgeting on a bench in a park that could’ve been in Tampa or Phoenix or San Diego—the specifics were no longer clear. What did stick through the years was the brutal way he shoved her mother down the sidewalk, the stiletto heels on her pumps screeching as she thrashed desperately in his hold. The sight of Wish as a helpless victim—her mother, who brought men to their knees and crafted horrible punishments for her daughter’s slightest infractions—had filled Birdie with an emptiness so deep, she might have drowned in it.
Throughout childhood she’d understood there were two types of men. The harmless sort called her ‘sweet baby’and treated her like a princess. The others were as affectionate as a shark.
Bringing her attention back to Hugh and Hector, she said, “My mother doesn’t only con decent men. She keeps lovers in law enforcement, the type who have no interest in upholding the law. The worst sort. I think one of the men works at the FBI, probably in Washington. She’s always been keen on visiting DC a few times a year. That’s why she’s never caught. Her lover—or lovers, there might be more than one at the federal level—they give her a head’s up whenever she’s at risk of being apprehended.”
The explanation rolled over Hugh like a tsunami. “Your mother keeps lovers in the FBI?”
“Police, too. I saw a lot of badges growing up but never got any names. Maybe she’s not sleeping with an Ohio State Trooper, but an officer from New York or California? She’s good at strategy.”
Blinking, Hector took it all in. “So she does have a way to get the name of every bounty hunter. This is not good. We need to warn Theodora.”
“She won’t care. She’s convinced we’ll catch Wish.”
“That’s optimistic,” Hector said. “For all we know, Wish has the Feds tapping Theodora’s cell. If she’s heating up the sheets with a G-man, why not? It would be at the top of her to-do list.”
“And tapping our phones.” Hugh examined his cell like it carried typhus. “It won’t do any good to get replacements, not if she has someone in the FBI listening in. From here on out, no important conversations unless we’re standing in front of each other—preferably outside.”
“Works for me,” Hector agreed.
Hugh sent a black look. “Gee, pal. You’re taking this in stride. Wish probably has you targeted like the rest of us.”
“She won’t come near me. I’m untouchable.”
“Uncle Nick, that’s who.”
“The big brother of my late mother, bless her soul.” Digging back into the candy jar, Hector selected a red jellybean. He tossed it from hand to hand. “Outside of family reunions and weddings, I steer clear of Uncle Nick. He runs a trucking company and a few other businesses no one in my family talks about. All I know is he keeps us protected. Once my cousin Dimitri rammed his Toyota into a Philly lawyer’s Mercedes. Big lawsuit threatened—Dimitri was shitting bricks. Then Spider paid the good counselor a visit. The lawsuit disappeared.”
“Uncle Nick’s assistant. Scary guy, bigger than this barn. I kid you not—he’s got a tattoo of a black widow spider right on his kisser. Creepy looking thing. If my Uncle Nick has directed him to send a few Philly deadheads to sleep with the fishes, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Hugh stepped back, knocking into the desk. “Sleep with the fishes . . . what is this, The Godfather? You’re saying your uncle is a member of the Italian mafia?”
“Italians, Greeks—we mingle. But basically, yes.” Hector winked at Birdie. “Babe, I don’t care if Wish and her friends chase the other bounty hunters into the hills. I’m on the case.”
“I’m not your babe,” she said, moving the candy dish out of his reach. He was naturally high-strung without the sugar. “Still, I appreciate the sentiment. And your Uncle Nick’s protection, if that’s what you call it. I’m glad you’re staying on the case.”
“I’d ask him to send goons to nab your mother, but I it wouldn’t end well.”
The thought of her mother behind bars made Birdie heartsick, but at least Wish deserved incarceration. “I’m frightened of my mother, especially her vindictive streak, but I don’t want her harmed. Do you mind if we leave Uncle Nick out of this?”
Hector gave the thumbs up. “Glad we’re on the same wavelength.”
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