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AT TWO IN THE MORNING, on this starry, moonlit night, Isadora Conner desperately wanted to drive back to her apartment, take a shower and shampoo the remnants of pudding out of her hair. Falling into bed for a deep sleep had become her holy grail. She was even more exhausted than usual, and her 23-year-old body ached as if Mike Tyson had used her for a heavy bag.
On top of that, her 2002 Toyota Corolla was acting up again, sputtering and skipping for the last two blocks. Not good since the dimly-lit, abandoned Marsden warehouse district echoed nightly with the sound of gunshots from gang violence and drug deals gone bad. It wasn’t a place a Navy Seal with a bazooka would care to be caught in after the sun went down. And here she was a woman without so much as a derringer.
But when she saw a man being surrounded in an alleyway by three menacing-looking dudes wielding knives, Isadora knew she had to help him. It wasn’t that she fancied herself some sort of superheroine. In fact, the word courageous wouldn’t even make the list of adjectives she’d use to describe herself.
According to her grandpa’s favorite actor, John Wayne, courage was being scared to death but saddling up anyway. Like the Duke, that’s what she intended to do. Besides, it was pointless to call the cops. By the time they arrived, the poor man could be cut to ribbons. Or worse.
Throwing caution to the wind, she went squealing into the alley, casting the four men into the glaring spotlight of her high beams. As she had hoped, the thugs scattered like roaches.
Isadora skidded to a stop, jumped out and met the tall, dark-haired man at the front of her car. He wore clunky, scuffed work boots and threadbare khakis covered with soot or maybe tar. His faded, black T-shirt was ripped across his broad chest, and she gaped in horror at a rivulet of blood. “Mister, are you all right?”
“I am now,” he said, blowing out a shaky breath. “I gave them my wallet and cell phone. I think they wanted a pound of flesh to boot.”
“Get in the car. I’ll drive you to the hospital.”
Looking down at his wound, he managed a smile. “Only the tip of his blade caught me. It looks worse than it is.”
“Then maybe,” a voice from out of the darkness behind them said, “I go a little deeper next time, eh?”
With her heart racing like a speedboat, Isadora backed against the bumper of her Toyota as the three thugs reappeared. They all wore ragged baseball caps tugged low over their eyes, leather jackets, faded jeans and expensive-looking tennis shoes. Their switchblades were out. The one doing the talking was a head shorter than the other two and bulky where they were skinny.
The handsome stranger she had sped to save moved beside Isadora and put his arm around her protectively. With a deep throated growl, he told the hoodlums, “You got what you wanted. Leave us alone.”
“How you know what we want? You think we don’t know this fat bitch got a purse in her ride?”
Despite the fear curdling her insides, Isadora felt her temper rising. She knew she should stifle the words tumbling toward her lips, but she might as well have tried to stop the tide. “You don’t look like you’ve missed too many meals yourself, shorty.”
The sexy man beside Isadora squeezed her shoulder as if to say Don’t antagonize them before he spoke to the attackers again. “Go ahead and take her purse and the car, too.”
She looked up at him. “You’re mighty damn free with my stuff.”
“I’ll replace it,” he said. “I can’t replace your life.”
Isadora almost rolled her eyes. He didn’t look like he could replace a pack of gum. She watched the slim thugs fan out, flanking them like a pack of wolves. It reminded her of the Texas Stompdown when she had to go it alone up against Mango, Pistachio and Red Velvet. It was always the same: even when they had you outnumbered, they didn’t have the stones to come at you straight on.
“Oh, we take that shit all right,” shorty said. “But we gonna get us some pudgy pussy, too.”
Her jaw muscles bunched as she ground her teeth together. The fear that had been roiling in her stomach hardened into a knot of fury. Grandpa Frank always said Conner women had a low threshold for bullshit and a short fuse which got shorter by the second when they felt they’d been disrespected. That second was now. With her eyes blazing, she didn’t care if the guy had a double-barrel shotgun; she was going to shove it down his throat.
The hunky, homeless-looking man grabbed her. She flailed and kicked to free herself, but she couldn’t have escaped the strait-jacket of his strong arms if she tried for a thousand years. “Turn me loose!” she seethed.
“In case it’s escaped your attention,” he whispered into her ear, “all of them have knives.”
“No, no,” the stocky thug said, “turn her loose. Can’t you see sassy mama wants some of Luther? Looky here.” Folding his switchblade, he slipped it into his hip pocket and then cupped his crotch. “Come on, mama. I’d rather stab you with my big dick anyway. We put on a sex show for these guys, eh?”
Blind with anger, Isadora jerked and bucked to free herself. But Mr. Hot and Hunky was an unyielding wall made of hard muscle and sinewy flesh. He pinned her body against the bumper, pressing his thighs against hers. “Much as I’m enjoying this,” he said under his breath, “you need to calm down before you get us both killed.”
Luther shouted, “Hey, Rico! Look at her. You should wish a woman wants you so bad!”
Their laughter was pissing her off even more than their threats. But sensing she was fighting a losing battle against the man holding her securely yet gently, she exhaled in exasperation and ceased her struggling. “Okay,” she whispered, “you can let me go now. As soon as I take Luther down—”
“The arrogant prick put his knife away. He thinks he’s going to fuck me, not fight me. You take the guy on the right. Then we both tag-team the last one.”
“I don’t think we should be taking anybody!”
“Hey, asshole!” Luther called. “You better not be trying to beat my time.”
“Don’t worry, he’s not,” Isadora said, pulling away from her protector. She smiled coyly as she sashayed toward Luther, stopped a few feet in front of him and spread her arms. “Well, come on, big boy. You promised your buddies a show. Show mama what you’ve got.”
The instant Luther turned to grin at his hooting friends, Isadora punched him in the throat. Bug-eyed and gasping, he clutched at his neck, and that was when she drove her tennis shoe up into his balls. As he dropped to his knees and pitched forward onto his face, she slipped the switchblade out of his back pocket and flicked it open.
As Rico stood momentarily stunned, her reluctant sidekick grabbed his wrist holding the knife and knocked him down with a crisp right cross to the chin.
“Looks like we took those two pretty well,” Isadora said.
There was no need to tag-team the third thug; as soon as he saw his pals on the ground without their switchblades, he took off like a scalded dog.
“All right, Rico,” she said. “Drag lover boy out of here. I’m calling the cops to give them your names and descriptions, so you wankstas might want to relocate.”
Luther was still writhing on the ground and groaning—one hand cradling his Adam’s apple, the other his scrotum. Helping him to his feet, Rico sheepishly asked, “Can we have our blades back?”
Isadora rolled her eyes and pulled out her phone. Before she could punch in 911, it rang. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the caller ID. “Frank, I’m on my way. Are you all right?”
“That’s open to debate. How far is Calvert Road from the house?”
“Stay right where you are, and don’t hang up.” Closing the switchblade, she flipped it to her fighting partner. Jumping into her still-running Toyota, she backed out of the alley and squealed rubber down the street.
LEVI JETT SETTLED ON a light-blue Oxford shirt, navy slacks and basic black wingtips. It was hard to know how to dress when your best friend was being super-secretive about where he was taking you. And at ten o’clock at night, no less.
As he walked sleepily down the hallway of his spacious penthouse on the top floor of the Schuyler Building, Levi clamped his hand over his mouth to cover a yawn. It wasn’t as if he had become some sort of homebody fuddy-duddy at the ripe old age of twenty-seven. Up until fourteen months ago, he had been as nocturnal as a night owl, typically dining after midnight before dancing until dawn in the swankiest clubs the city had to offer.
Of course, burning the candle at both ends was always easier when you were in love.
But ever since his heart had been brutally broken and practically ripped from his chest, working up enthusiasm over anything—even Carl Womack’s promise to treat him to a spectacular show that would knock his proverbial socks off—was difficult to do.
The insomnia didn’t help. Unable to sleep, he often sat in his recliner into the wee hours of the morning watching television or going over blueprints. Sometimes he went for long car rides in the country and listened to classical music in hopes the Sandman would pay him a visit. At other times he would drive out to a prospective renovation site to test structural integrity or pace off distances or make sketches.
Levi smiled through yet another yawn. After last night’s alley brawl, he figured it might be safer if he confined himself to his LazyBoy or Mozart amidst the meadows.
Safer, maybe. But, he had to admit, not nearly as much fun.
Carl’s five-eight frame was slouching on a creamy, Italian-leather-covered loveseat. When Levi entered the living room, his paunchy, full-bearded friend began shaking his sandy-haired head. “Oh, hell no! Go back to the closet and try again. I said super-casual, not 1980s preppy.”
“This is my casual.”
“Really? Because I’ve seen you wear that same outfit to hoity-toity meetings with the zoning board. For tonight, try to forget you’re an insanely-wealthy, big-shot architect. A brilliant designer who has erected beautiful buildings in every quarter of town. Just go put on a pair of ratty old jeans and a T-shirt like me.”
Levi grimaced. “Is that a gravy stain on your sleeve?”
Carl sniffed the dark spot. “I’m thinking it’s steak sauce. You’ll excuse me if I didn’t want to wear any of my really fancy T-shirts. Where we’re going, pal, it can get kind of messy.”
“Who are we going to see—Gallagher? Should I put on a poncho and goggles for when he starts smashing the watermelons?”
Levi and Carl were the same age. They had met in college, become fast friends, and their lives had been intertwined ever since. Long before Carl became an amazing, high-rise contractor who helped Levi turn his blueprints into steel girders and glass, the two had started their own small construction company by the time they were twenty-one.
Carl smiled. “Good guess, but I told you: it’s a surprise. Now do like I tell you. Trust me. The crap you’ve got on will stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of the Marsden district, so—”
“Hold the phone. Did you say Marsden?”
“Yeah. That ghost town of decrepit, hollowed-out buildings on the north side that butts up against Cleveland Park.”
Levi shook his head. “Thanks for the invite, but I’ll pass. Unless this show of yours has a matinee, I’d rather stay home and work a jigsaw puzzle. Maybe guzzle some warm milk while I’m counting sheep.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I was in the Marsden district last night. I didn’t get out of there until almost three, and I was damn lucky I made it out at all.” He unbuttoned his shirt and showed Carl the shallow slash across his chest. “If my reflexes had been half a second slower, that punk would have filleted me like a flounder.”
Levi told him about the encounter with the knife gang in a somber, serious tone. He refrained from any embellishment. The unvarnished truth was exciting enough. He recounted how he threw a perfect punch to drop one of the assailants in his tracks.
However, when he got to the part about the beautiful woman showing up and kicking the leader’s ass, Levi couldn’t keep from smiling. “She was something to behold,” he said, sighing wistfully. “She saved my life.”
“Woman like that,” Carl said, “I’ll bet she can bench press a Buick and has a face that would stop an eight-day clock.”
“And you’d lose, my friend.”
“You mean she’s good-looking?”
Levi remembered how incredible her shapely body felt in his arms. The softness of her cheek and the silkiness of her jet-black hair. He could still smell the intoxicating, sweet fragrance emanating from it, like banana pudding fresh from the oven. “I mean she takes your breath.”
“I see. What’s her name?”
“Where does she live?”
Carl nodded. “I’m starting to understand why you have a hard time getting dates.”
“I don’t want dates.”
“You don’t want a love life?”
“I had one, thank you. It nearly ruined me, emotionally and financially. What I want is to annex the Marsden district with Cleveland Park. That’s what I was doing down there last night when I couldn’t sleep. Drawing it up in my mind. Figuring logistics. It’ll be a boon for the people. It’ll make that economically-decimated area one of the crown jewels of this city.”
Carl looked sideways at him. “Uh-oh, there’s that let’s-turn-shit-into-something-shiny look in your eye. What have you got in mind this time?”
Levi grew even more animated. His work was the one thing that could override his emotional despair. “Think about it, Carl. The decay of neglect has turned both areas into havens for gangs, drug dealers and derelicts. I can merge the sections into a seamless fusion of an idyllic, forested park and a productive, revitalized downtown. There’ll be office workers walking to the park during their lunch hour, eating on gorgeous, graffiti-less benches while watching the neighborhood kids safely play on the swings, sliding boards and seesaws.” Levi paused for dramatic effect and to take a deep breath. “Picture happy, giggling children riding the little train that meanders around the perimeter to the far western end while, less than thirty yards away, their parents grab a mocha latte from any one of the cozy cafés.”
“Great,” Carl said, sitting forward. “You can lay it all out for me as we drive through on our way to the show.”
Levi blinked rapidly. “Did you miss the part where I didn’t get home until three in the morning? I’m beat. My ass is dragging, Carl.”
“You can rest when you’re dead. It’s one thing to stay out of the dating pool for over a year now. But I’m not going to let you turn into a full-blown monk.”
Blowing with exasperation and exhaustion, Levi said, “Fine,” and headed back up the hall.
Five minutes later, he returned, wearing an old pair of threadbare cargo pants, a faded, sleeveless flannel shirt ripped at the hem and his scuffed-up work boots. “Is this more along the lines of what you had in mind?”
Carl smirked. “Now you’re just trying to embarrass me.”
“Always. Come on. I’ll drive us.”
“Taking your BMW down there again, especially after what you went through last night, might be tempting fate. Unless you’d like to see it stripped for the chop shop and sitting on eight-inch cinder blocks.”
“Hey, it’s not like your Lexus is a ’71 Pinto.”
“Funny you should say that.”
They took Levi’s private elevator from the penthouse to the parking garage and exited the shiny, stainless-steel box. Carl headed straight toward a vehicle with a battered purple body, a caved-in, baby-blue hood and a missing front bumper. The cracked windshield had a large strip of silver duct tape across it. “Behold, the 1973 Ford Maverick.”
“Now you’re just trying to embarrass me.”
Carl shrugged. “The Lexus is in the shop. My mechanic’s got a warped sense of humor, so this is what he gave me for a loner. As it turns out, the joke’s on him. It’s perfect for the war zone we’re entering tonight.”
“It is if the gas tank doesn’t explode on the way.”
“You’re thinking of the Pinto. The Maverick looks like shit but was always a basically-sound machine. Hop in. On second thought, slide in very gently.”
LEVI LISTENED TO A pretty tight group called Three Dog Night on the eight-track player, cranking up the volume as Carl turned off Stenson Boulevard. After they drove around the wooded half-mile perimeter of Cleveland Park, the dark canopy of ancient oaks ended.
It crossed his mind again, as it had a dozen times from the second she stepped out of her Corolla, that he should have at least gotten the woman’s name. He could have Googled her and found her address. But she took off so fast he didn’t even have a chance to introduce himself or to thank her properly.
Chiding himself, he shook all thoughts of the sweet-smelling beauty away. He wasn’t interested in potential romantic entanglements of any kind. Levi was telling Carl the truth. He didn’t want dates. Not yet, anyway. Maybe not ever. Once burnt, twice shy. And he’d been fried to a fucking crisp.
Briarwood Avenue morphed into one-way Marsden Street. The pavement was cracked, full of potholes and bordered by raggedly broken-edges. Keeping a vigilant eye open for gang members, Carl drove slowly through a dingy, shadowy ghost town of boxy warehouses and rusty-brown brick buildings ranging from one to four stories. Not a single wall had escaped the vandalism of vulgar graffiti, and Levi didn’t see one window that wasn’t broken. The few streetlights that weren’t shattered had cast a sickly, yellow, nightmarish aura that made complete darkness preferable.
“Right over there, Carl, is where those guys had me surrounded,” he said, pointing to an alley between storage buildings. “If she hadn’t shown up when she did, I’d probably be lying there dead now.”
“It’ll be a great story to tell your grandkids. Oh, that’s right, you won’t have any. Because you first have to be married and have kids before you can have grandkids.”
“It’s not like I didn’t make the attempt.”
“You’ll make it again one of these days.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
Beneath one of the broken street lamps was a tree of red, octagonal, aluminum signs. Each metal limb was dinged, chipped and riddled with bullet holes. They were more sad symbols of ruination. The lettering was faded and scratched but still readable.
NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY.
IGNORE THE SIGNS AT YOUR OWN PERIL.
Levi felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in anticipation of the renovation. He couldn’t keep the enthusiasm from his voice. “Carl, just picture this place once your crew gives it an extreme makeover.”
“I don’t know, man,” he said, staring out of the driver’s side window at a stop sign someone had used for target practice. “If the owners of these buildings out here get wind of your annexation, they’ll jack up their selling price.”
“Then we’ll have to make sure word doesn’t leak out.”
Pursing his lips, Carl nodded. “Fair enough. I know you can sell ice to Eskimos. But I’m not so sure you can get the city to fund what you’re proposing. You do realize it’s an election year for Mayor Edwards as well as three of the five councilmen, don’t you? It would be political suicide for them to propose special taxes in order to tackle a project of this magnitude.”
“I’m not worried about those guys. It’s members of the zoning board, who are also up for election, I have to swing. Specifically, Tim Bobo and Leland Snuffle, both of whom have the imagination of a cardboard box.”
“How are you going to do that?”
Levi grinned. “I’m going to draw them a picture. I’m going to bring them down to Cleveland Park and park their big cabooses in the red one at the back of the little train. As we meander through the woods, I’ll point out all the dramatic but minimal-cost improvements in the facelift that will bring people back in numbers we haven’t seen since the seventies. We’ll stop at the west end right across the street from this area so they can visualize the connection. By the time I lay out my vision of a gleaming, sparkling, revitalized Marsden—one with a bronze plaque that includes their names for their civic foresight and initiative, of course—their reservations will disappear.”
Carl turned left off Marsden onto McBee Avenue and immediately put on the Maverick’s turn signal. “I can’t believe it works. Your surprise is in that building right there,” he said, slowing to a stop.
Levi looked past him at a long, faded-brick, two story that had once been TrustCom Bank. There were five parking meters along the curb in front of it, each looking as if it had encountered the business end of a sledgehammer. A giant, yellow, spray-painted, middle finger extended upward on the jagged glass of the entrance door. There was no light whatsoever behind it, only the foreboding silence of darkness.
“We must be early,” Levi said, “by about two days.”
Ignoring him, Carl eased his foot off the accelerator and turned down an alley between the bank and the old Voytnor’s Key Shop. As they coasted around back, Levi was startled to see about seventy vehicles parked inside a rusty, ivy-covered, chain-link privacy fence.
When they got out of the Maverick, Carl led him through the unlocked service door of the bank and down a dark corridor. Even after Levi’s eyes adjusted, it was almost impossible to see anything more than shadows.
At the sound of muffled noises, Levi pulled up short, grabbed Carl’s sleeve and asked, “What the devil am I hearing?”
His friend didn’t answer but kept stealthily walking deeper into the bowels of the building. As they moved down the hall, the indistinct din grew louder. Still, the vibrations were strong enough Levi could feel them under his work boots.
When Carl finally came to a stop, he turned and said, “Get ready to have those socks knocked off.”
“I’m not wearing any. I’m dressed down tonight, remember?”
Carl tapped on a metal door. A huge, muscular man wearing a skin-tight, black T-shirt opened it, and the muffled noise from earlier ramped up into a raucous, ear-splitting roar. Scowling, the big man extended a beefy palm. Carl covered it with two twenties.
“Enjoy the show,” the man said, pressing himself back against the wall of what Levi could now see was a steel, spiral staircase…
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