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Casper still has expensive tastes, doesn’t he? Amara Justice Nixon, simply known as A.J to everyone but the government, mused. Smirking, she took in Casper’s opulent office from her position atop his desk.
Everything in this room screamed luxury; from its gigantic size to the marble floor, from the large surveillance screen that showed scenes of the nightclub below to the leather and dark wood furniture that filled it, from the smell of expensive cigars that hung in the air to the grilled floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out into the busy New York streets. But what caught A.J’s eye was the artwork littered around the room.
An untrained person would’ve assumed that the art was pretty but fake. However, A.J had been in this business long enough to know the real deal. And those were real, and extremely expensive.
Her chuckles echoed in the room when she noticed the Miró sculpture seated on one of the side-tables in the lounge area. Trust Casper to put a stolen sculpture where anyone could see it. The man had balls on him.
She was about to hop off the desk to get a closer look at the Miró when the doorknob suddenly turned. Instantly alert, she trained her gaze on the door. A second later, the door swung open and Casper walked into the room.
If Casper Henson ever decided to start a skincare line, it would be a success. The man was fifty-seven years old yet looked like he was in his early forties. His smooth, chocolate-toned skin barely showed any wrinkles, and the stylish, slim-fit suit he was wearing showed off his athletic and tall physique. In fact the only clue that he wasn’t as young as he looked was the light streaks of gray in his hair.
Obviously, her time away had had absolutely no effect on him.
Closely following behind Casper were two men; one white, one black. Both men were tall, heavyset and wore dark suits and sunglasses. A.J snorted beneath her breath as she took them in. The two looked liked the supporting cast of a bad gangster movie.
At first, the three men didn’t notice A.J.
Then they did.
All three froze for about a second before the two minions reached for the guns tucked at the waist of their pants. But they were a second too late.
“Uh uh uh,” A.J warned as she pointed her two pistols straight at them. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
The minions froze with their hands on the grips of their handguns. Casper, after recovering from the shock of seeing her, was now watching her with uncomfortably intense eyes and a forced smile.
“Guns on the floor and kick them here,” A.J ordered, her gaze unwavering as she watched the three men.
Apparently her order wasn’t clear enough because one of the men pulled out his gun and aimed it at her. One pull of her trigger and a bullet whizzed right towards the man. It hit his gun with a loud bang.
“Ugh!” The man yelled as his gun flew right out of his hand to the floor.
Casper and the other minion jumped away from him in shock. If the room wasn’t soundproof, the gunshot’s echo and the minion’s subsequent howling would’ve surely brought people running into the room.
A.J pulled the trigger again, and another bullet went flying towards the guy. This one went right between his legs, missing his groin by just a few inches, to embed itself into the wall behind him. The sound the man emitted was somewhere between a strangled scream and a squeal. His gaze lowered to his groin then to her. To his groin then back to her.
A.J raised one eyebrow. “Next time I won’t miss.”
This time there was no hesitation. Both minions kicked their guns towards her.
“A.J, A.J, A.J,” Casper finally spoke. His sharp gaze followed her as she hopped off his desk so she could grab the two pistols on the floor. “You’re finally out. What a wonderful surprise.”
A.J tucked her guns into the holsters underneath her jacket then bent to pick the minions’ guns. With quick, expert movements, she unloaded the guns. Their bullets fell noisily to the marble floor. She tossed the now impotent guns back towards the two men’s feet. Then she turned back to Casper.
“Is it really a wonderful surprise?” Her voice ringing with sarcasm, she added, “I noticed that you weren’t at the prison gates waiting for me, Dad.”
“I wanted to come. Really, I did.” Casper shot a furious look at his men, who were now cowering near the wall, before walking towards the lounge area. He settled on the plush armchair then reached for a drawer beneath the coffee table. Pulling the drawer open, he said, “But you know this place, and how busy it can get.”
“I know it’s busy.” A.J’s sneakered feet barely made a sound as she sauntered back to his desk and sat on its edge. “But you could’ve made time for your oldest daughter.”
Casper didn’t say anything. All he did was frown at the now-empty drawer.
“Looking for this?” A.J pulled out a gold-plated pistol from her back and waved it at him.
Casper’s eyes widened when he saw his pistol. That shock was soon replaced by annoyance when A.J unloaded it too then tossed it to the floor with a loud clang.
“I see you haven’t lost your edge,” Casper said, his voice tight with restrained rage, as he sat back in his seat.
“Actually, I had a lot of time to sharpen it.” A.J’s gaze was as icy as her tone as she reminded him, “We had a deal, Dad. And you broke it.”
Casper’s nostrils flared. “I don’t recall any deal.”
“I knew you’d say that.” A.J sighed before pulling a phone from her jacket pocket. “Which is why I kept this.”
She swiped her finger over the screen and skimmed through a couple of files before coming to the one she wanted. When she pressed play on the recording, Casper’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Just take this one for me and I’ll send them five thousand dollars,” Casper cajoled, his tone sugary and pleading.
“Five thousand every month,” A.J’s recorded voice echoed in the room. “Until we’ve given them our whole take for the job.”
“Five thousand. Every month,” he agreed eagerly.
“See.” A.J pressed stop on the recording. Swinging her feet to and fro, she said, “We had a deal.”
“You recorded me?” Casper’s voice shook with anger.
“I recorded you.” A.J nodded. When Casper opened his mouth to speak, she cut in, “And don’t even claim you made the monthly payments. I already know you didn’t.”
His mouth thin with anger, Casper asked, “So what are you here for? To kill me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. What would I gain from that?” She tucked her phone back into her pocket. “I’m here for my money. All five hundred thousand dollars of it.”
“I don’t have it,” he retorted.
“Then get it.”
“Trust me, A.J. I want to pay you. I do.” Casper offered her a forced smile. “But I don’t have any cash on me right now, and the way my accounts are set up… Well, it might take a while for me to get that money.”
“Ah! The way your accounts are set up… where have I heard that before?” A.J turned to heave a black, leather art-tube from the bottom of the desk. “Then I suppose you won’t mind if I hold on to this while you look for my money.”
Casper stiffened. “What’s that?”
“I believe it used to hang…” She pointed to a now-empty frame hanging on the far-left wall. “… over there.”
“Is that my…” Casper sucked in a sharp breath and shot to his feet as his gaze swung from the empty frame to the art-tube. “Is that my… my Schiele?”
She smirked. “Yes, I believe it is.”
His eyes were filled with horror as they flew up to meet A.J’s. “You cut my Schiele? My Schiele that’s worth almost two million?”
“Don’t worry. I was very careful.” She patted the art-tube fondly. “And now it’s safely stored.”
His jowls trembling with rage, Casper turned to his minions. “Get my painting.”
Neither of the two moved.
“Now.” Casper barked.
The minions traded looks, then the black one stammered, “B-but Chief, she’s got guns.”
Casper’s top lip curled in a sneer as his blazing eyes settled on A.J. “She won’t shoot you.”
He was right about that. A.J wasn’t the type to shoot people. Besides, she’d only loaded her guns with two bullets each since she was only planning to scare these idiots. But that didn’t mean she’d let them catch her.
While the minions were still debating the riskiness of coming at her, she slung the art-tube over her shoulder by its strap then hopped off the table. Her movements brought the two thugs alive, and they started towards her.
Mr. Black (as she’d now branded the black guy) was the first to throw a punch. With lightning speed, she ducked his fist then grabbed his wrist. Deftly, she twisted. His pained screams rent the air. A.J rolled her eyes. Oh come on! It was just a twisted arm not a gunshot wound.
Mr. White came towards her, his leg lifted in a low kick. Still twisting Mr. Black’s arm, A.J deftly sidestepped Mr. White’s kick. Reeling from the miss, Mr. White stumbled forward. A.J helped him along by kicking him in the back. Hard. He went sprawling to the floor.
Mr. Black tried throwing a punch with his free and uninjured arm. A.J bent low to duck the punch, let his wrist go then punched his stomach. When he staggered backwards, she lifted in a roundhouse kick that met his jaw and sent him tumbling to the ground in a dead faint.
She thought she was done with the two thugs, until a heavy arm suddenly wrapped around her throat, chocking her. Acting on pure instinct, she drove her elbow into the soft belly behind her. With an ‘oomph’, Mr. White let her go. A.J whirled around and when he tried to grab her with both arms, she bent down and grabbed the sides of his suit-jacket. She pulled the fabric up until it covered his head, then while he was blinded, she kicked him twice in the stomach then let him go. He stumbled backwards and fell to the floor with a pained groan.
Both minions were now on the ground, curled up, groaning and showing no signs of coming at her again.
Barely a minute and the fight was over? What were thugs coming to these days?
Shaking her head in disappointment, A.J turned to Casper. “You should get yourself better bodyguards.”
“My men are everywhere,” Casper threatened. “You won’t be able to get out of the club.”
“Won’t I?” She took a step towards him. Casper stood firm, his smirk showing his confidence that she wouldn’t do anything to hurt him.
One of these days! A.J narrowed her eyes as she stared at him for a long drawn out moment. One of these days!
She heaved a long deep breath to cool her temper before taking her phone out of her pocket. She tossed the gadget to the couch nearest to him.
“My number’s there as well as your copy of our verbal contract,” she said. “Call me when you have my money ready.”
Before Casper could get another word in, she spun on her heels and headed to the door. When she opened the door, she found two other minions standing guard a few feet away. Surprise widened their eyes when they saw her emerge from their boss’s office.
When she edged closer to them, one asked, “When did you get in?”
While the other asked, “Who are you?”
“Me?” A.J shrugged. “I’m your boss’s daughter.”
While they were still chewing on that, she slipped between them and started for the stairs. But before she could get to the stairs, Casper’s irate voice rang behind her. “What are you doing, you fools? Get her.”
Fresh adrenalin already pumping within her, A.J started to run.
* * * * *
“CHEERS!” LEE MARWICK, who was standing on a couch, held up his glass. “To several more weeks of the highest ratings in our timeslot, and to making sure Game of Thrones doesn’t steal our thunder with their stupid dragons.”
The twenty or so men and women who made up his main crew lifted their glasses. “Cheers!”
The second floor was high enough from the dance floor that the booming music below was a mere hum in the face of their enthusiastic shouts.
“And to our showrunner-” Sam Vantoch, the head of cinematography, joined Lee atop the couch. He slung his arm over Lee’s shoulder. “- who got us all here despite all our whining, kicking and screaming.”
Sam’s words were met with roaring laughter and cheers.
Though Lee had been in showbiz since he’d graduated high-school, this was the first TV show he was running on his own. When Indira Gates, creator of their sci-fi thriller, American Legends, and its first showrunner, had stepped down, she’d handed the mantle to Lee. Everyone had complained that at twenty-eight, he was too young and green to handle such a big show, but Indira had insisted that Lee was the only one she wanted. He, she believed, was the only one who understood her vision and could be trusted to keep it alive while still delivering good ratings for the network.
As it turned out, Indira was right. Lee had delivered spectacularly. Despite being in its fifth season, the show was breaking all its own records and kicking the asses of competing shows. Even Lee had to admit that he’d done better than he expected.
While the cheers and speeches continued, a grinning Lee stepped off the couch to join his friend, and one of the writers of their show, Fabián Arias, at his table.
“Brilliant speech, brilliant speech,” Fabián teased. “I saw Obama in you.”
“I know right?” Lee grinned. “Did you hear when I said, ‘steal our thunder’? It was inspired.”
“Pure genius, my friend.” Fabián fought to hide his grin. “Pure genius.”
“Leeeeeee.” Jodi Butler, their forty-something costume designer, sidled next to Lee. It was obvious she was already drunk by the glazed look in her eyes and the heavy alcohol-tinged smell that smacked Lee in the face when she leaned closer. “What are you doing? Why don’t you drink more?”
“I’m already drinking.” Lee pointed to his half-full glass. He tried to shift away from her but she slung her arm around his waist to keep him close to her.
“Has anyone ever told you, you have beautiful eyes?” She gazed up at him adoringly. “They’re sooo green and sooo beautiful.”
“That’s what I always tell him,” Fabián piped up.
“Don’t encourage her,” Lee warned.
“I’m just saying.” Fabián’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “Your eyes are beautiful. Right, Jodi?”
But Jodi wasn’t interested in Fabián or anything he had to say. She only had eyes for Lee. Soaking him with more of her alcohol-breath, she said, “This place is noisy. Would you like to go to a quieter place?”
“Not really.” Lee pushed her arm off his torso. He tried to shift away from her but Fabián was seated too close to him. When Lee nudged Fabián to move, all his friend did was give him an evil grin and shift the wrong way, forcing Lee closer to Handsy Jodi.
Beneath his breath, Lee muttered, “I’m going to kill you when we get out of here.”
“You can certainly try.” Fabián laughed as he brought his beer-bottle to his lips for a quick gulp.
Jodi grabbed Lee’s arm to yank his attention to her. She whispered loudly, “Are you sure you don’t want to go to a quieter place?”
“Even if I offer to make it worth your while?” She tried to wink at him but it ended up as a weird face contortion that left Lee wincing.
Damn! She would regret this in the morning.
“Stop!” A sudden shout pulled Lee’s attention from Jodi’s antics to the stairs that led up to the third floor.
Just then, a tall, slender, black woman wearing a gray bomber-jacket over a black tee and black jeans and carrying a tube-like bag over one shoulder hurtled down the stairs.
“Stop.” The two men who came rushing down the stairs behind her yelled, “Stop.”
But the woman was as swift as a panther and quickly outpaced them as she weaved her way between tables. Unfortunately, the men’s shouts had attracted the attention of the three bouncers manning their floor.
Lee shot to his feet when he saw one of the bouncers step right in the path of the woman. He wasn’t sure whether he stood to protect the woman, to help the bouncer or to better see what was happening. Either way, the woman’s next actions froze him.
In a move that Lee had only seen done by stunt-men and in movies, the woman’s hand shot forward in a slashing motion and hit the bouncer’s throat. The bouncer staggered backwards, clasping his throat. His strangled cry echoed above the shocked gasps of the patrons. Before he could recover, she slipped past him.
When a second bouncer stepped towards her, she pulled the bag off her shoulder and smacked him in the head with it. While the bouncer was distracted by the hit, she drove him backwards with a hard, swift kick to the stomach. Her expression impassive, she slung her bag back on her shoulder.
Moses on a motorcycle! Lee’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He’d never seen a woman fight like that. His colleagues were just as surprised because most mouths were half open as they watched her come closer. The closer she got, the more beautiful Lee realized that she was. Already, she had the model-like, lanky figure going. Add in the dark chocolate smooth skin and almond-shaped eyes and they had a winner. How in the world had a beautiful woman like her become such a deadly fighter?
Along with his awe at her beauty came an odd sense of familiarity. Like he’d seen her before.
Had he seen her before? No. No way. There is no way in hell he would’ve forgotten a woman like her.
Just as she was about to pass their table, the third bouncer started towards her. He was a little way ahead of her while the two suited-men who were chasing her initially were behind her. Basically, she was between them.
“Hey lady, you can stop running now,” one of the suited men yelled out as they approached her with victorious smirks.
“You can’t beat us all,” the bouncer added. “And don’t think I’ll go easy on you just because you’re a woman.”
The woman’s gaze shifted from the suited men to the bouncer then back to the suited men. Then she smiled.
Lee’s heart bumped in his chest. Something about that smile told him that she was about to do something he’d remember for a lifetime. And she did. In a deft move, she vaulted onto their table. He, Fabián, Jodi and the other crew members around the table, reared back in surprise. Before anyone could stop her, she edged closer to the railing and looked down.
Lee already knew what she would see. The dance-floor down, down, down below them.
She turned back to her pursuers and gave them a cheeky salute… then she jumped.
Oh. My. God. From that height? Was she trying to break a leg, or worse, kill herself?
Sharp intakes of breath, ‘ohs’ and ‘shit’ rent the air as everyone, including Lee, moved to the railing. Lee expected to see the woman splattered on the floor below them, but there was no splatter, human or otherwise. However, a second later, he found her. She was hanging from the bottom rail. Smoothly, she used her arms to move across the railing until she got to a pillar and deftly slid down to the first-floor. Then she did the vault, swing and slide thing again to end up on the ground-floor.
Weaving her way past dancers, who knew nothing of the gymnastic feats she’d performed, she headed to the exit. No one stopped her this time.
For a moment, Lee stood frozen, unable to believe what he’d just seen. Then instinct took over. He raced away from the table, past her shocked pursuers, and down the stairs. He couldn’t vault over railings or slide down pillars like Miss Beautiful and Dangerous, but, damn it, he used to run track. Within minutes, he was at the club’s exit.
The cold, night air smacked him in the face when he emerged on the street. Panting, he looked left and right, searching for the woman. All he saw was two bouncers groaning on the floor and shocked revelers asking them if they were okay.
She was nowhere to be seen.
“Damn!” Lee cussed. What he wouldn’t have given to have gotten that lady’s number.
A week later, A.J was still waiting for Casper to find her. Oh, he’d called a couple of times, each time almost blistering her ears with his cussing. However, he still hadn’t shown up at her doorstep, which meant he didn’t know where she was. Frankly, it was disappointing. Her father was getting slow in his old age.
“I can’t believe you actually have your own shop,” Kelly Garner, A.J’s former cellmate, wandered around the store taking in the antique items displayed around the space. Though Kelly was as dark-skinned as A.J, she was a bit plumper and about a head shorter. Her eyebrows shot up when she picked up a terracotta sculpture of a naked woman and an elf kissing. “Well, this is… um… racy.”
A.J, who was a few feet away, polishing a brass plate, laughed. “That’s by Nicola Sica. He was inspired by Clodion’s Nymph and Satyr Kissing.”
Kelly gave her a blank look. “Am I supposed to know who those people are?”
“Clodion’s pretty famous,” Tamsin ‘Sin’ Jacob, A.J’s other friend and also an ex-con, quipped. The pretty caramel-toned woman was seated behind the checkout counter, a hairpin in hand as she fiddled with the lock on one of the drawers. “Don’t you know him?”
“Get away from the counter, Sin.” A.J glared at her. “There’s no money in there.”
“Do you even know who Clodion is?” Kelly eyed Sin with narrowed eyes.
“Yes,” Sin said even as she continued to fiddle with the lock. When both her friends gave her disbelieving look, she grinned. “Fine, No, I don’t know who Clodion is. But it felt good to act like I was smarter than Miss Lawyer over there.”
All three women laughed.
A.J hadn’t planned to make friends while in prison. She was a lone wolf by nature. But these two had attached themselves to her and before she knew it she was part of a clique. A clique. The thought alone was enough to make her shudder. But these two were good eggs… if she had to have friends, then Kelly and Sin weren’t the worst choice.
“Where did you even get the money to open this place?” Kelly asked,
“I had a little saved up.” A.J shrugged. “And I bought it before I went in.”
The plan had always been to retire from the thief game while she was still young. Three years ago, it had seemed like the perfect time. Other thieves wanted to retire with private planes, fast cars, mansions and their personal harems. A.J just wanted a little antique store of her own and to never have to worry about money.
Once she’d decided to retire, she’d bought this one-story building and the antique shop below it from the elderly woman who owned it. She’d even gathered a collection of valuable but legal antiques of her own. If she hadn’t fallen for Casper’s ‘last score’ bullshit, she would’ve been living her dream before now.
Thankfully, her dream was still intact when she’d walked out of prison three weeks ago. June, the previous owner of this building, had died a year ago. However, she’d left explicit instructions in her will that the building and everything in it belonged to A.J. June’s relatives were as decent as she was. As soon as A.J turned up, they handed over the building without a fuss.
If A.J had to describe Warehouse 17, she’d say that it was a high-end antique shop. Everything in here was more than a hundred years old yet still looked new and valuable. The store itself was large enough that she’d sectioned off different parts of the room so she could display similar items together.
“Should I move?” Sin asked when A.J kicked her away from the checkout counter.
“Move where?” A.J asked.
“Here.” She pointed upwards, to A.J’s apartment.
A.J reared backwards as an instinctive ‘No’ rose to her lips. But Kelly beat her to it.
“Why would you do that?” Kelly, who’d recently moved in with her fiancée, Spencer, stared at Sin like she’d lost her mind. “You have my whole apartment to yourself.”
“Yeah!” Sin shrugged. “But this one’s bigger and I like sharing with someone.”
“No,” A.J said. “You’re not moving in with me.”
“Why?” Sin whined.
“Just no.” A.J had spent three years sharing her space with different women, some messier and louder than others. She wasn’t doing it again unless she had to. And in this case she didn’t have to. Besides that, she and Sin were very, very different people. She loved her friend, but the woman wouldn’t know a vacuum cleaner if it bit her in the ass and announced itself. Plus, she was too happy. Consequently, people were to drawn to her, like bees to honey. If Sin moved in, A.J’s apartment would turn into a cheerful, crowded sorority house.
The horror! Ugh!
A.J shook her head more vehemently. “Hell no!”
“You don’t have to say it like that.” Sin pouted.
“Sorry,” A.J said. In case her friend still hadn’t gotten the message, she repeated, “No.”
“We got it, A.J.” Kelly laughed. “You want to live alone.”
Sin glared at her sulkily. “I hope you get robbed.”
“Imagine that!” A.J chuckled. “A thief getting robbed.”
Her friends’ answering laughter rang in the store. About an hour later, Kelly and Sin left. Kelly was off to meet Spencer while Sin was headed to her part-time job – something about playing a fake-girlfriend to a nerd who was on his way to his high-school reunion. A.J stayed behind to man the store.
The pieces she stocked were interesting enough that several curious people walked in just on the strength of her display-window. She even sold a few things.
This was a good investment. She smiled as she handed a client her receipt.
At around two p.m., her part-time store-clerk, Pete walked in for his shift. The short, chubby, pale-faced, bespectacled, young man was June’s grandson and had managed the shop before and after June’s death. He was the logical choice of employee. She still planned to hire one more assistant, but for now he would do.
“Pete, I’m heading out for a bit.” A.J grabbed her jacket. “Are you okay alone?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Pete reassured her. “I’m good.”
“Mrs. Wood said she was coming back for her bust today.” A.J put on her jacket and zipped it up over her white top. “Don’t forget to pack it up for her.”
“Sure thing.” He nodded. “Are you staying out for long?”
“Not too long,” she said. “I should be back by-”
The sound of wind-chimes ringing and the door opening cut into her words. A moment later, a somewhat pudgy, white man who was one or two inches shorter than her walked into the store. Judging by the wrinkles that lined his face and the gray streaks in his black hair and goatee, most people would’ve estimated that he was in his early sixties. And they would be right. He was sixty-three.
How did A.J know his exact age? Because she knew him.
Mason Marwick. His presence here sent immediate shock ricocheting through her. What was he doing here? In this neighborhood? In her store? He was supposed to be in Arlington.
“Hi, Mr. M,” Pete greeted him.
“Hello, Pete,” the older man greeted before turning to A.J with a toothy grin. “Well, hello there.”
“Hello.” Knowing that he didn’t even know who she was, A.J forced a smile. “Welcome to Warehouse Seventeen.”
“Warehouse Seventeen, huh?” Mason chuckled as he strolled towards her. “Great name.”
“We tried.” A.J was trying so hard to keep her smile intact that it felt like her face was about to break. “What can we help you with today?”
“Just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood.” Once he was close to her, Mason held out his hand. “I’m Mason Marwick. I own the shop right across from you.”
“Ah! The furniture store?” A.J asked even as tension tightened her stomach muscles.
With a grin, Mason nodded.
A.J’s tension increased. If Mason owned a place in this neighborhood, did that mean that Lee was around here somewhere? If he was, was she supposed to be happy or nervous? Both?
Her smile was even more forced as she accepted Mason’s vigorous handshake. “I’m A.J. It’s great to meet you.”
“Likewise.” Mason’s gaze swept around the store. “This place is so different from when June ran it.”
“Different in a good way?” A.J asked.
“Different in a good way.” Mason nodded. “You have some amazing stuff in h-”
He suddenly stopped speaking. His eyes widened as they zeroed in on a romantic landscape painting that was displayed prominently above the checkout counter. “Is that a Samuel Hurst?”
“It is.” A.J wasn’t sure what was more surprising; that Mason was in her store or that he knew about one of the forgotten black painters of the nineteenth century. “You know Samuel Hurst?”
“Of course I know Samuel Hurst.” Mason edged closer to the counter to examine the painting. His eyes still wide with awe, he asked, “How much for it?”
A.J winced. “I’m sorry, that’s not for sale.”
“It’s not.” Disappointment flashed in his expression.
“No.” A.J rushed to add. “But I’ve got other paintings that are just as good and might interest you.”
A few people walked into the shop while she showed Mason around, but fortunately, she had Pete. A.J wanted to ask Mason so many questions as they walked around her store, but she knew she couldn’t, not without revealing her identity. Mason, on the other hand, had no problems asking questions. Fortunately, all his questions were about her antiques.
When he wasn’t examining the pieces she showed him, he was giving her advice about how to run a business in their neighborhood. He threw in some marketing advice and gave her the down-low about their neighbors.
He said, “You need to be careful with Susan, the lady who owns the bakery next-door.”
“Oh?” A.J arched her eyebrows.
“She’ll act all sweet and nice when she comes in here then grill you about your personal life. But once she’s out of here, all your personal business will be out there too.”
A.J winced. “That bad?”
“That bad.” Mason nodded. “Don’t tell her anything you don’t want people knowing.”
“Noted and appreciated.” A.J smiled. It was good to know that time hadn’t changed Mason. He was still a good guy, looking out for everyone around him.
When Mason stopped in front of a toddler-height, marble sculpture of several children rolled up in a ball, she explained, “This was done by a Romanian sculptor called Ion Popp in 1908. I got it from his great-granddaughter.”
“I haven’t heard of him.” Mason examined the sculpture. “But this is… thought provoking.”
He was so into the sculpture that he eventually bought it despite its eyebrow raising price. “I can’t take it with me right now, but I’ll drop by for it in the morning.”
A.J smiled. “That works for us too, since we have to buff it up a little then pack it.”
“Great.” Mason grinned. “And don’t be shy about crossing the street to my store. My furniture is probably a little too ‘new’ for you, but it’s not so bad.”
“I don’t mind new stuff.” A.J laughed. “I’m actually redecorating my apartment so you might find me haunting your store sooner rather than later.”
“Can’t wait.” Mason beamed. “The best part is if you want to make it yourself or restore some of your stuff, I’ve got a pretty big workshop you can use. Plus, I offer DIY Woodwork workshops every Tuesday and Thursday for anyone who wants to learn wood-stuff.”
“Don’t think I won’t take you on that offer,” A.J joked, earning a booming laugh from Mason.
Once Mason left the store, A.J set off for her errands. First, she stopped by her bank to withdraw five thousand dollars. The money stuffed in her purse, she took the subway to the Bronx. Her destination wasn’t too far from the station so she chose to walk. Thirty minutes later, she stood in front of a rundown, four-story building.
Though the neighborhood around A.J was as rundown as most of the buildings that flanked its streets, it pulsed with life and excitement. A group of children were dancing and singing along to the Reggaeton music blasting from a pimped-out car, while a group of men, most in wife-beaters, jeans and timbs, watched them with amused expressions. A couple of scantily clad, young women were preening around on the other side of the street as if waiting for the men to notice them.
A homeless woman pushing a supermarket cart smiled at A.J as she passed by. A.J smiled back before making her way into the rundown building. More loud music met her entrance.
“What’s up, Mama.” The teenage boy seated on the bottom stair smirked and winked at her. “You fine as-”
The wintery look A.J shot him was enough to shut him up. Without a word, he scooted to the side to let her up the stairs. Peeling paint and the faint smell of urine met her as she went up. It was only when she got to the third floor that she hesitated for a brief moment. She made sure that the hallway was empty before emerging. Her steps deliberately silent, she crept to apartment 312.
She slipped the envelope of money under the door then knocked twice before swiftly making her escape. Fortunately, she ducked behind a wall seconds before the door to the apartment opened.
The woman who emerged from the apartment looked beaten down. She was all bones, stringy hair and shadowed eyes. The dress she was wearing was too big and too worn out.
“Mama, who is it?” a girl shrieked from inside the apartment.
“There’s nobody here.” The woman said. She started to close the door but stopped when she noticed the envelope on the floor. Frowning, she picked it up. When she saw the contents of the envelope, the frown turned into shock.
“Dios mío!” Her gasp echoed in the hallways. Her wide-eyed gaze swept left and right, but A.J’s position was too hidden for the woman to see her.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” A teenage girl emerged in the doorway next to the woman.
“Someone left this under our door.” Her shocked mother showed her the contents of the envelope.
“All this?” The girl’s gasp was even louder than her mother’s.
Satisfied that her gift had reached its intended recipient, A.J slipped away from the wall and down the stairs. As she took the subway back home, A.J couldn’t help the sadness that overwhelmed her.
That woman, Rita Nolasco, and her daughter, Denise, were living like this because of her and her greed. If A.J and her crew hadn’t killed Rita’s husband, Juano Nolasco, the family’s breadwinner, Rita and her daughter would likely be living a different life.
Lee was having a nightmare.
He was six years old again, and stuck in the corner of a pitch black, eerily silent room. Despite the darkness, he could see the shadows that danced and jumped on the wall, silently cackling as they watched him cower. But what held his attention was that door ahead; the large door that seemed so far yet so near. The door that if opened would let in his monster.
I should run, he thought as he sat curled up, trembling and cold in that corner.
Stand up, he ordered but his body refused to move. Or maybe it just couldn’t move. Not when fear was racing up and down his spine and freezing his every limb.
A sudden creaking sound pulled him from his thoughts. His eyes flew back to the door. The doorknob was turning. Slowly. Slowly. Excruciatingly slowly. Then the door began to move inwards. If he thought what he was feeling before was fear, then he was wrong. This – this was fear. Terror circled Lee like a vulture gleefully eyeing its prey even as he watched that door move.
As the door opened, a light so bright that it blinded him filled the room. The cackling shadows jumped back, receding into the depths of the room as if they too feared what was coming through the door. Lee blinked, trying to see past the white light. But it was too bright. That only meant one thing; his monster wasn’t at the door otherwise it would be dark not bright.
This was his chance. His panicked thoughts prodded him. Run now.
Ungluing his frozen limbs was a herculean task, but somehow he managed it. The next moment, he was running out the door and down the stairs. A sudden thumping sound behind him forced him to turn. His stomach almost fell to the floor.
There was his monster. Right behind him.
Though it had an obscenely long body and long arms, it had no face. There was only darkness where facial features were supposed to be. It was the most horrifying thing Lee had ever seen and it was coming after him. Time slowed down, pacing with the monster’s slow footsteps. Fresh fear spurted through Lee. Like poison, that fear inched through his veins, leaving him feeling sick to his stomach.
His speed down the stairs increased. Now he was running down one flight of stairs, then another, then another… My God, why weren’t these stairs ending? They seemed to go on and on. As soon as he thought the thought, a wall abruptly appeared before him, blocking him from moving any further. And the monster kept coming, coming, coming.
Lee opened his mouth to scream but only one word came out. Amara.
The monster stretched its long arms out, slowly reaching for him.
Amara, save me, Lee silently screamed as he tried to get away from those hands. His back bumped against the wall. There was nowhere to run. Amara. Where are you? Amara, Amara, Amara.
Though the monster had no face, Lee could feel its smile as its slippery fingertips grazed his face. Amara.
Lee jolted up in the bed with a gasp as he finally dragged himself from his nightmare. His panicked gaze darted around the dimly lit room as he tried to figure out where he was. Then he realized where he was. He was in his own room, in his own apartment. Not that strange house with the monsters and never-ending stairs.
Thank God. Pulling in a shaky breath, he wiped his face. He glanced at the clock. Three a.m. He sighed. These nightmares would be the death of him. Usually, he could sleep an easy seven hours. But in the last week, his sleep had been marred by the same nightmare. No matter what time he slept or how bright he kept the lights, he was up at exactly three a.m., heart pounding in his chest, body bathed in a cold sweat and sheets twisted around his limbs.
Trying to go back to sleep after a bout was a waste of time because the nightmares always left him with a nagging feeling that he was being watched. That if he closed his eyes, something would slip into bed beside him.
The last time he’d had these nightmares, he was in junior high. Even then, they’d been as vivid as they were now. In fact they’d gotten so bad, that he’d gone without sleep for several days so he wouldn’t have to experience them. When he’d finally collapsed from exhaustion, his parents had forced him to see a therapist.
And now those nightmares were back again.
Should he start seeing a therapist again? Lee wondered as he showered. Nah! That hadn’t worked out last time. The nightmares had disappeared on their own without him or the therapist figuring out why they’d started in the first place. Maybe that would happen this time too. If he just waited them out, the nightmares would leave him again.
Yes, that’s what he’d do! Lee decided as he threw on a t-shirt and jeans. He’d wait the nightmares out.
It was only once he was dressed that he realized that he had nowhere to go and nothing to do. And not just because it was four-thirty a.m.. Because their show was pre-produced, they were done editing all the upcoming episodes. Unfortunately, his next project started in two weeks, which left him with nothing to do now but twiddle his thumbs.
With a sigh, he settled in front of the TV. Soon, he found an interesting thriller movie. However, barely ten minutes later, his mind wandered back to his nightmares. Why was it always that room? And what was up with that faceless monster? At least give him a face to be afraid, or a maybe a skeleton. Hell, if he was making a movie out of his nightmare, he would give it a pasty face with burnt eyes and a bloody smile that stretched to its ears.
Stop it, Man. Are you trying to make the nightmare worse? Shaking his head, he turned off the TV. This wasn’t working. But he knew what might. He grabbed his jacket and car keys.
Despite the early hour, there were a few cars on the road, but not enough to delay him. Twenty minutes later, he parked his truck in front of his father’s store. As he was closing the driver’s door, his gaze strayed across the road to the building directly opposite his father’s. A smile lifted Lee’s lips when he saw the sign atop the building that declared the store to be Warehouse 17.
Judging by the new paint job and name, it was obvious that the building had a new owner. Even without stepping into the antique store, Lee already knew that whoever it was that had taken over from June was his kind of person. Any Sci-fi shows’ fan would’ve quickly picked up on the store’s obvious homage to Warehouse 13, one of Lee’s favorite TV shows. He’d visit it later today to check out who the new owner was, he decided as he let himself into his father’s store.
Mason’s store was a veritable nirvana for the furniture connoisseur. Various pieces were strategically arranged around the large space; desks, beds, couches, vanities… and much more. Lee crossed the room making a beeline straight towards the door that led into the workshop. He pushed the door open.
As soon as he entered the workshop, the pleasant, almost cherry-like smell of wood welcomed him. Several fluorescent lights hang above lighting up the spacious room. Around the space were several work tables, each holding different machinery and tools necessary for working with wood. On the west wall were several slabs of wood waiting to be cut and transformed.
Lee hung his jacket on a hook behind the door before striding to the radio. After tuning into his favorite rock-station, he grabbed safety glasses, ear muffs and gloves. Once he was appropriately geared up, he picked up his father’s big book of records. Usually, this was where his father noted down pertinent details relating to pending orders.
Despite the bad drawings and the squiggly instructions in the book, Lee had worked with his father long enough to know precisely what he wanted for each order. A minute later, he picked a project then strode to the corner of the room to grab a slab of pine. He hauled the wood to the worktable then grabbed the motor saw. Soon the sound of the metal cutting into wood mingled with loud rock music.
He was right! This was exactly what he needed to dispel the nightmares. Cutting the wood required such precision that he had no time to linger in his thoughts. Before he knew it, it was seven a.m. and he had all the pine pieces he needed for the base of his dining table. He was gluing the two-by-four pieces against each other when the door to the workshop swung open and his dad walked in.
“Morning?” Lee said, an instinctive smile lifting his lips as he turned to face his father.
Most people wouldn’t have pegged Lee and Mason as father and son. Lee was several inches taller than his father, had green eyes instead of his father’s brown ones. His hair was a chestnut brown instead of his father’s midnight black (though now it was speckled with gray). However, rumor had it that Lee was a carbon-copy of Mason’s younger brother who’d died overseas.
“Morning.” Mason strode towards his son. “I didn’t know you were coming in.”
“It was an unplanned drop-in,” Lee said, but didn’t elaborate further. He saw no need to tell his father about the nightmares, it would only worry him unnecessarily.
Mason stopped next to the worktable. “What are you working on?”
“Donald Carson’s-” Lee’s breath hitched as he used the clamps to bind three pieces of wood. “- dining table.”
“Aah. You know it needs a heavy base, right?”
“Yeah. I’m gluing three pieces together at a time,” Lee said as he set the now bound pieces together.
“Good. Good. Good.” Mason nodded approvingly as he inspected Lee’s work. “How long are your pieces?”
“Two-by-four like it says in your book.” Even though Lee knew what he was doing, he asked, “That’s okay, right?”
“Yeah. Should work.” Mason nodded. Striding towards a freshly built dresser, he added, “But stop holding that clamp like it’s an egg. Put some force into it.”
“You’re not even looking at me,” Lee countered. “How do you know I’m holding it like an egg?”
“I know you and your girl hands,” Mason retorted as he inspected the dresser’s drawers.
“My girl hands? You should know since you gave them to me.” Lee scoffed, earning himself an amused snort from his father.
Soon, the two men were working on their separate projects in companionable silence.
Lee cut into the silence. “Dad?”
“Yeah?” Mason didn’t look up from the painting he was doing.
Lee paused for a second then asked, “Did we have stairs in our old house in Saint Louis?”
Mason’s eyes widened and he swallowed convulsively. “No. Why do you ask?”
“Just asking.” Lee shrugged. Though they’d moved from Saint Louis when Lee was seven, Lee had no memory of the event.
The older man had stopped polishing and was now watching him. “You know you’ve asked me this question before.”
“Yes. When you were in high-school and having those nightmares.” Mason’s uncomfortably unwavering gaze zeroed in on Lee. “Are you having nightmares again?”
“Of course not,” Lee instinctively lied.
Even now he still remembered how worried his parents had been during that time. He didn’t want to worry his father unnecessarily.
He hedged, “I was just asking because I want to learn how to build staircases and wanted to see pictures of our old house to see if it had one.”
“Sorry, it didn’t have one.” Mason’s keen eyes studied Lee as if searching for a sign that he was lying.
“Oh, well.” Lee forced a smile then changed the subject. “Hey, I saw that someone new moved into June’s shop.”
“Yeah. Her name’s A.J.” Mason suddenly drew in a sharp breath. “Oh, I just remembered… I’m supposed to pick a sculpture I bought from her.”
“Let me go get it for you,” Lee offered as he peeled off his gloves. “I wanted to go check out the shop anyway.”
Moments later, he was crossing the street. Wind-chimes rang as he opened the door that led into Warehouse 17. His first impression of the store was that it was large and classy. Everywhere he looked, beautiful pieces of art met him.
“Good morning.” The black woman who was behind the counter dragged his attention to her.
The moment Lee’s eyes met hers everything in him stilled. He knew those eyes. He knew those eyes very, very well. And he knew her. She was the woman from the nightclub.
“Welcome to Warehouse 17.” With a smile, she stepped away from the counter.
My God, she was tall. Just the right height for him to kiss without having to bend. His eyes immediately lowered to her smiling lips; thick, moist and oh so tempting. He already knew that they’d taste amazing. Those lips parted.
“I’m A.J, the own-” She suddenly stopped speaking. Her eyes slowly widened as she took him in. Then she gasped, “Lee?”
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