- Garbage men don’t roll empty carts up to the stoop like that. Peer in the front window, give a little wave. They just don’t do it. I yank the Chihuahua’s leash mid-squat and hustle him up the long driveway, tiny turds falling freely. They’ve found us, and they’re three houses away.
- “JACK AND JILL!” I yell. Code. From upstairs I hear bedsprings, a dresser drawer. I tuck Kevin the Chihuahua in his ventilated backpack and grab the go-bag. Hustle out the back door, Tess on my heels. This is no drill and she knows it. The truck is perpetually packed and fueled, the two-track leading out through the woods recently cleared. Knobby tires spit mud.
- Fifty miles an hour through rows of soybeans, across the ditch, a hard turn onto the interstate. Vehicles swerve and honk, but luckily no impact. “They knew the right area,” I say, “but thankfully not the house. How?” Her silence confirms my suspicion. A teenage girl isn’t meant to live like this. Still. “No more social broadcasting,” I tell her. “No more.” Her solemn nod gives way to the billion-watt smile. “Social broadcasting,” she mocks in her Southie accent. “Not a thing.” Kevin whines from the backpack.
- His gaunt face appears at the rest area. Sitting in the dull black Charger, window open, grinning as we drive by. “It’s him,” I say. “Angelo.” She tenses in the seat, recalling the gruesome scene from five years ago. Angelo standing over her father’s body gripping the bloody stiletto. It was her mother’s weekend. The girl wasn’t supposed to be there. I had done the research myself, yet in she walked, eyes wide, lip starting to tremble, this heavily pierced little goth who thought she was troubled but didn’t have a clue. Angelo spun, fingers tightening on the knife, and in that moment I became a changed man.
- The Charger falls in behind us, Angelo driving, his apprentice riding shotgun. Big Ray mandates the second man for accountability purposes. Angelo was mine. He’s the old man’s nephew, med school dropout, takes solace in screams. Our last job together was my third hit in twenty-plus years for Big Ray. It’s time to send a message, the old man said, knowing I’d disapprove but yet, ultimately, obey. Angelo promptly donned his scrubs, a gleam in his eye. Twelve-year-old Tess wondered in to find her father gagged and eviscerated. I clipped my sadistic partner and stole her out of there. Would have killed him, except for the girl. Never too late to salvage your conscience, I suppose.
- I keep to the speed limit. Pass a state cop in the median. “Michigan’s finest thumb-suckers,” says Tess, checking her Beretta. Two more muscle cars have joined the parade. “See them?” I ask, and Tess nods. She absorbed all the training I could throw at her, mental and physical, once we came to an understanding: 1) Your father, like it or not, was a very bad man. 2) So am I, but I’m all you got. 3) Big Ray will never stop coming after us, meaning … 4) Your life, as you know it, is officially over. 5) If you listen to me—If you do. What. I. Do.— you could live to see eighteen, twenty-one on the outside. Her lone crying jag was countered with a disclosure. I’ve got a nineteen-year-old son, an ex-wife I happen to adore, a mother with Parkinson’s. And yet here I am.
- The wingmen make their move, Angelo remaining to our rear. We’ll never outrun them. I look over at Tess. She’s a striking young woman, wise beyond her years, gritty. She’d break hearts given the chance. If she weren’t paying for a man’s mistakes. The first vehicle veers in front of us while the second pulls even, gun barrel extended. “You know, I never had a daughter,” I say, swerving at them as a shot goes wide. Tess rolls her dark eyes. “Don’t start that,” she says, and slides open the rear window. Levels her weapon at the Charger and sends off two quick rounds. I watch in the rearview as Angelo veers hard left, corrects right, and then loses it, the Charger spinning violently into a stand of hardwood. I punch the accelerator, closing on the lead man’s bumper, as Tess hangs out the side window, ponytail bobbing in the wind. “Steady!” she yells, and I smile, and do as I’m told.
- Twenty miles down the road Tess removes a shivering Kevin from his carrier and brings him to her chest. It’s decision time. I picked Michigan, so the next one’s her call, yet I know our destination without asking. The girl just got a taste of the life and something’s changed in her posture, in her eyes. Stroking the dog’s tiny head, she says, as casually as suggesting a trip to the park, “Let’s go see Big Ray.” I nod. Keep the rig pointed east.
Tess Gets a Taste
~ fin ~
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