Dangerous Silence Sample Chapters
I wasn’t supposed to be outside. The rule was to stay in the shop, but Shep gave me a popsicle and moved onto the customer in front of him. I might have been a kid, but I knew when an adult wasn’t paying attention.
With my blue popsicle, I leaned against the walls of the butcher shop, looking down the street. Not many cars drove back here, but Shep could work in this neighborhood. As the last real butcher in the city, people drove from all over to see him. A drop of the blueberry juice went down my wrist. I licked it up.
Three men on the corner huddled together. I recognized a few of them, though I don’t know why. A car stopped. The one wearing a black sweatshirt talked through the open window, and handed the driver a small object, like a fidget disc or something.
As the car disappeared around the corner, the man, the biggest one out of them, looked over at me. He was big, like he could squish my older brother with his thumb. Each stomp was louder than the last, until he was standing over me. I looked him in the eye like my father taught me. Veins like spiderwebs crisscrossed over his pupils.
“What are you staring at?” he asked. Spit flew from his mouth, landing on my nose. I flinched. “You too good to answer, pussy boy?”
“Hey,” someone from his group said, “Ain’t that Gerard’s kid?”
“Shut up,” the big man said. “I know who it is.” I took a lick of the popsicle, still staring him in the face. “I know you’re Gerard’s kid.” I took another lick. He knew my father? So what? A lot of people knew my father. “Gerard’s got a pussy for a kid.” He kneeled down in front of me, our eyes meeting at the same height. “Where’s your daddy now?”
His face was round, his beard uneven. Why did he care so much about my father?
“Busy,” I said.
“Too busy for his own son.” The big man laughed, then stood up, blocking out the sun. He seemed taller than before. “You know, Gerard and I are good friends. He even took one of my fingers once.”
I glanced at his hand. At first, all I saw was his thick metal ring, but then I saw it. His pointer was missing.
I raised a brow, then licked my popsicle again. Father always said the business could be demanding at times, and missing fingers were common. I had never thought anything of it. But why would he take a finger? What did he want with it? I didn’t know what he did all day; only my big brother, Derek, was allowed in my father’s office. Wil and I weren’t allowed yet.
“Answer me, pussy boy,” the big man said. I blinked up at him.
“My father probably threw it away,” I said.
A punch seared across my cheek, banging my head back into the brick wall. A ringing started in one of my ears, vibrating through my head, then disappeared. I instantly regretted saying anything.
As soon as the world came into focus, another punch hit me.
“Come on, Baby Adler,” the big man said, punching me again. “Stand up and fight me like a man.”
“He’s a kid, man.”
“I didn’t ask you.” He glared at his friends on the corner. “He’s still an Adler.”
I glanced at the other two men, but neither of them did a thing.
“You’re not going to snitch, are you? Your daddy doesn’t like a snitch, does he?” the big man asked.
Another hit knocked my skull against the brick wall, hurting worse than the one before. He was laughing hard, crouching down, yet still bigger than me, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t fight. My big brother had taught me how. Holding my popsicle in one hand, I made a fist with the other, then hit the big man in the eye. Like he had done to me.
My knuckles pulsed. His head was harder than I thought.
The big man’s mouth opened, then his eyes narrowed.
“You actually got me,” he said.
I smiled, pleased with myself, but as soon as I saw his frown, I knew it was a mistake. He stood up.
“Your daddy isn’t going to save you now,” he said.
His fists railed into me, his ring catching my lip. Then again. The metal digging into it. My mouth hurt—hurt worse than a brain freeze. Worse than getting the flu. I dropped my popsicle and rammed my punches forward, but the big man laughed and hit me harder. My head turned towards the men on the corner. Maybe they could help; they seemed to care. But where were they? I could barely focus before another hit landed on my face. I spit; deep purple saliva landed on the floor, a mix of blood and blueberry juice. Had I bit my tongue somehow?
I couldn’t catch my breath. The more the man railed into me, his ring catching on my bleeding lips and brows, the worse it got. My head hurt. Blood oozed out of me like a slushie. The world was fuzzy, and in the half-second between punches, I looked around. Where had the world gone? There was no one there. Not my father. Not my big brother, Derek. Not even my little brother, Wil.
The bell on the door jingled, and the big man stopped. Shep came out, blood on his apron, his hands on his hips. He looked at the big man. Shep wasn’t tall like him, but he was built like a tire swing. The car sagged whenever he picked me up from tutoring. He was only about five feet tall, a lot shorter than my father, but sometimes I wondered if he was as strong. His gray eyes washed over the empty street. He pulled a cigarette from the pocket of his apron, resting it between his lips.
“You proud of yourself?” Shep asked the big man. He ran a hand over his shaved head. “Beating up a child?” He picked me up off of the ground and leaned me against the wall, propping me up like before. But I slumped down; my knees were weak; I could barely stand. I opened my mouth, but Shep lifted a hand, to stop me from talking.
“Why do you care?” the big man asked. “He ain’t your kid.”
Shep scowled, then turned to the corner. “And you two. You didn’t help a child?”
The other men shook their heads.
“This ain’t none of your business, old man,” the big man said. He stood up, looking down at Shep. “I’ve got beef with his dad. This ain’t got nothing to do with you.”
A hint of a smile crossed Shep’s face. Had the big man said something funny?
“Oh, his dad?” Shep asked. “I know his dad.”
Shep immediately pulled out a cleaver from the pocket of his apron, bludgeoning it into the big man’s side. It happened so fast I almost couldn’t tell what was happening. With his other hand, he grabbed the man by his neck, pulling him down to the ground. Then the man didn’t move. Couldn’t move.
“Don’t die on me yet,” Shep said.
The other two men looked at each other. “Fuck!” one of them shouted.
Shep pulled a gun from his back pocket, shooting them both in the eyes. The sound echoed in the empty street. The men fell to the ground. He went to their bodies, pulling them up by the short hairs on the top of their heads, then used the cleaver across their throats. But the knife wasn’t meant for that kind of motion, so he had to saw the blade back and forth until they bled like he wanted.
Each step he took rattled the earth. His shadow loomed behind him, stretching across the sidewalk. Shep looked down at the big man on the ground, whimpering beside me. He pulled him up by the head.
“Good boy,” he said. “You didn’t die on me yet.”
Shep was always covered in shades of red; he owned a butcher shop, and I knew what that meant. But I had never seen him do anything like this. It was like being inside of a dream. Everything was blurry; my left eye was swollen shut and my face was tender and puffy. But Shep hadn’t changed; the cigarette was still pressed between his lips. He motioned to me.
“Come here,” he said. He offered me the handle of the cleaver. “Go on.”
I took the handle, then stared down at the big man. He was more than twice my size, but I couldn’t tell anymore. And with those cuts in his side, he was going to die, no matter what happened to him now. Still, I knew I shouldn’t hurt him.
But something inside of me wanted to. To be powerful like Shep. To show the big man that even a kid like me, a so-called pussy boy, could cut him down to size. Make him smaller than me.
“Finish him off,” Shep ordered.
The big man closed his eyes. Just like I had seen Shep do, I brought the knife down to the man’s neck. The man choked, blood sputtering from his mouth and landing on my cheek. But the knife wasn’t making a dent in his neck like it had done with Shep.
“Harder, Axe,” Shep said.
I wanted to do what Shep told me, to be more like him. With all my strength, I brought it down again; this time it went through, the flesh splitting to the sides. I don’t know why, but I was shaking. My whole body was numb. It looked like the man’s skin would rip apart from the inside.
Shep laughed, a deep, hearty sound, like the warm bowls of soup he heated for me after tutoring. I furrowed my brows, looking up at him. What was so funny?
“It’s time,” he finally said. He patted me on the back, then grabbed the cleaver from me, finishing up by sawing with it until the man went limp, his blood pooling in front of us. Shep stepped out of the way, somehow keeping the blood off of his shoes. I looked down, horrified. Mine were covered in it. I wanted to take them off now.
“Pick up his feet,” Shep said. “Let’s get him inside.”
The door to the shop jingled as we came in. The meat counter was full of the same cuts Shep had taught me: heels, rounds, shanks, rolled flanks, fillets, brisket, sirloins, rumps, and shoulders. Underneath the counter was a hidden freezer full of popsicles for me. I had dropped mine earlier. Thinking about that made me sad, but I didn’t know why. It was just a popsicle.
And those were just men. Men I didn’t know.
Why did I feel bad?
Shep nodded to the swing door. He rarely let me inside of there. We went through.
As I heaved the big man, helping Shep get him on the stainless steel table, I glanced around at the empty sink and the carcasses hanging from the metal hooks. Shep wiped his hands on his apron, adding another streak of red.
Did Shep butcher people too?
“It’s time you learned,” Shep said, locking eyes with me. “I’ll teach you everything.”
I was good at it now. Not as good as Shep, but almost. Shep was the best. Even my father thought so.
“Shep can teach you better than I can,” my father said. “He’s the best enforcer we have.”
I had known since I could remember that my father wanted me to be the lead enforcer one day, but until Shep started teaching me, I didn’t know what that meant. For the following year after he saved me from those punks, Shep kept me in the backroom, showing me how to dismantle bodies for easier disposal. I still couldn’t cut through the bones without help, but the stomachs were easier for me. We’d put them in these industrial-sized vats full of acid, checking on them every once in a while like a beef stew. By the third day, the corpses would be gone. Sometimes, we buried the bodies in the woods with pig and cow bones to throw off the scent.
Once I got the hang of that, Shep took me on my first run. I did as he told me, standing in the corner, not saying a word until Shep said it was time to leave. As he held a man by the back of his neck, the blood gurgling out of his throat, he turned to me.
“You saw how I did that?” he asked.
Use the gun to keep him still and compliant, then the knife as the final weapon. Yeah. I saw that.
“Good,” Shep said. He finished the man off by bludgeoning the knife into the back of his head, and the man slumped to the floor. I went to pick up the corpse, but Shep held up a hand.
“We’re going to leave him. It’s a message,” he said. I looked up at him, waiting for an explanation. “You don’t mess with the Adlers.”
Shep wasn’t an Adler, but he had been working with my father since before he took over for my grandpa. He respected our family, and so we treated him like one of us. He always came to dinners at our house. My father would bring out the best whiskey, to celebrate in Shep’s honor.
We had one more stop; I didn’t catch much of the details. But as we walked up to the house, I recognized it. Our nanny’s house, Fran. I hadn’t been there in a long time. But when I was younger, if I wasn’t with my tutors or with Shep, my brothers and I were with Fran.
What had Fran done to us?
Shep barged into her place. I stood in the corner. Fran’s eyes flicked over to me. Shep spoke quietly to her, and when she raised her hands in defense, Shep put her into a chokehold. She gasped. Those wheezing breaths seemed louder than anything I had ever heard, begging for air. Her face turned purple, the veins in her eyes wide and red. Shep kept an elbow tight around her neck, but she pulled at his hand desperately. It was no use. Shep gestured for me to come forward.
I stayed still. It was Fran. Anyone else, maybe. But Fran?
With his free hand, Shep pulled a knife from his pocket.
“In the heart,” he said, the handle pointed towards me.
I stared at Fran, her eyes so red they looked like apples. Why wasn’t she fainting? She pulled at his arm. Shep gave her enough room for a lung-full of air, then pulled tight around her throat once again.
“Kill her Axe,” he commanded. “She was a traitor to your family. Spilled secrets to our rival.”
Her feet pushed on the floor, trying to maneuver herself out of Shep’s grip, but she kept slipping, the screech of her feet against the hardwood floor piercing me. My vision blurred. Those gasps. It was all too loud. I needed it to end.
“Now, Axe,” Shep said. “Like I taught you.”
I couldn’t think about it. I had to focus on what Shep told me. Fran was a traitor. She put us at risk. Gave our secrets to a rival.
We couldn’t have that.
I brought the knife down on her heart with as much force as I could muster, breaking through her ribs to the heart. Her eyes widened and Shep gave her one last breath. Power surged through me, her body twitching against the blade with fight, then simmering down, dissipating. I brought the knife down again, and then again, the wet sound of the metal plunging into her chest overpowering the rest, until everything stopped.
A wave of heat washed over me. Fran was silent. Finally.
We were quiet on the way back to Shep’s workroom behind the Adler House, where my family lived. Though it was filled with tools for torture and dismantling, it was considered the lead enforcer’s office. One day, when Shep retired, I knew it would be my office. In the woods, we set the body in a hole Shep had dug the day before. It seemed strange; she had betrayed our family, and still, Shep knew how much she had meant to my brothers and me. It was almost as if he wanted to give her a proper burial.
She looked small in that hole, all bunched up. We shoveled enough to put a few inches of dirt over her, then added some pig bones from Shep’s shop. Then we shoveled some more.
“Remember, Axe,” Shep said, breaking the silence. “It doesn’t matter if you care about someone. If they’re not family, they’re no one.” He paused, leaning on his shovel stuck in the ground. Sometimes, I wondered if Shep meant blood relatives, or if he included himself with family. I was closer to him than I was to my own father; my father wasn’t around much. Still, I took Shep’s words seriously. Caring about someone, beyond your family, could be dangerous. Like it was with Fran. I continued on. Another shovel, then another. I wanted to get this over with. He grabbed his shovel again, resuming his part of the burial.
“The only time you spare a person’s life is if they’ve saved yours,” he said, adding more dirt to the hole. “Otherwise, it doesn’t matter.”
By the time we were finished, the fresh patch of dirt was flat, but noticeable. Shep grabbed some ivy vines from the sides of the trees and covered it. It wasn’t visible anymore.
“You never know when you’ll end up like this,” he said, gestured at the plot. “Always make sure your loose ends are tied up. You don’t want to leave someone in the middle of your life and end up like this.”
He said it like his stomach hurt, and I wondered if he knew Fran, if that’s why he made me kill her. What had she done, exactly? What secrets had she spilled? How many more people would die, because of what she had done?
He cleared his throat. “It’s easier to make sure you never have someone to leave behind,” he said. Dirt was smeared on his cheek. He wiped it away. “Trust me, Axe,” he said. “It’s easier this way.”
The wail pierced through the room, damn near capable of shattering a window. I covered my ears until it stopped. My father held the red ball of flesh with glee in his eyes. The tiny little thing looked like she had goo stuck all over her body, crusted over on her hands and feet, peeling away in the crevices. I was jealous of my brothers for getting out of this. While Shep had stayed hidden in the house with this flesh ball’s mother for the last few weeks, he thought that we—my father and I—were worthy of her presence. Worthy. Of a baby’s presence.
This was coming from a man who told me to always have my bag packed, to never have anything I would miss if I left it behind. Because life didn’t wait for you to choose a time to die.
Here he was, with a fucking baby.
Shep beamed at her, a damn smile I had never thought was possible from a mafia enforcer. His cheeks were flushed, his chest pushed out. Flaunting himself. A daughter did that to him? I had a feeling he’d miss her if she was gone.
“She’s beautiful, Shep,” Gerard said, bouncing the baby in his arms. He made googly noises at the little pink ball. Her eyes wandered off, looking at the animals twirling in the mobile next to her crib. “You must be proud.”
“You’re damn right,” Shep said. The baby’s head was tucked into the crook of Gerard’s arm, and gently, with more caution than I thought was possible coming from a mob boss, Gerard turned to me. “You want to hold her, Axe?”
I shook my head.
The two of them talked, marveling over a baby that couldn’t even look straight yet. Crossed-eyed and grunting. Wow. How amazing. I pulled out my knife, flicking my thumb over the edge of the blade, wondering whether it was time to sharpen it yet. What was the point of bringing me here? I had no interest in a baby, even if it was Shep’s child.
“Not in here, Axe,” Gerard said. I held my thumb on the knife’s edge. Did he think I was going to murder it? I knew it was a precious baby. I wasn’t going to go anywhere near it with a knife. Gerard tilted his head. Shep glanced over at me, looking away from his baby for the first time since he had let us into the house.
I put the knife away.
Gerard gave the baby back to Shep, then came to my side, holding my shoulder, pulling me deeper into that nauseatingly pink room.
“Shep’s retiring, son,” he said. He turned toward Shep, and Shep gave that deep nod that I knew well.
“Why?” I asked. I grit my teeth. I knew exactly why, but I wanted to hear him say it. To admit the truth out loud.
“He thinks you’re ready,” Gerard said. That was bullshit. I tilted my head, narrowing my eyes at Shep. “He’s ready to—”
“I don’t want this life for her,” Shep said. He moved his arms, rocking the baby, never letting his eyes off of her. I don’t know what pissed me off more: the fact that he was a contradicting bastard, caring about something that could easily be taken away from him when he taught me to do the opposite, or the fact that he was giving up on a job that he had trained me in, as if he was too good for enforcing now. “But I need your help, Axe, for one more thing.”
What could he possibly want? He came towards me, holding her. These days, I was a foot and a half taller than him, towering over him like a bridge.
“If Demi doesn’t marry a good person by the time I die,” he said slowly, batting his lashes at her until she cooed in amusement. Demi. He beamed. I held back a gag. “I want you to protect her. Marry her.”
“Marry her?” I repeated, looking at Gerard.
Gerard nodded. “We already discussed this.”
“Why can’t Derek marry her?” I asked. “Or Wil? They’re—”
“I would not trust them to protect her like I trust you,” Shep said.
I hated this. Hated that I didn’t have a choice. What was I supposed to say? No, take your baby and your perfect, normal life and go back to your dream suburbia, while I kill all of the traitors that you’re too good to kill now?
“The decision has already been made,” Gerard said. Because in our family, you didn’t get a choice if the boss ordered it. I crossed my arms. I knew I couldn’t fight it, but still, this was bullshit.
“If you say ‘no,’ I will find someone else,” Shep said calmly. That made me straighten. That tone of voice, both a warning and a compromise. He was giving me a choice, but one that had consequences. I stared into his gray eyes, trying to read him.
“So you’re saying to marry her. If you die,” I said slowly. “That could be in a few decades.”
“Or that could be tomorrow,” Shep said, reminding me of his lessons. Always have your ends tied up. Don’t be in the position where you leave anyone behind.
The hypocritical bastard.
“Do you need to retire?” I asked. “You’re not that old. You could stay in the shop, taking care of disposal or something.”
“Think of this as a lesson in letting go,” Shep said. “You can’t get too attached to anyone. Not even to your father or to me.” He shook his head, his gaze gentle. “It weakens you. You never know when a person will be gone.”
Gone. Not dead. He was already going soft around her.
“I’m not marrying a baby tomorrow,” I said.
Shep gave a hearty laugh. Gerard chuckled too, and the baby grunted. “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. Not if I can help it,” Shep said. “Besides, she’ll have plenty of time to marry someone she loves.” He smiled at her, then turned to me. “But if the time comes, promise me you’ll protect her. Keep her alive. Marry her.”
Shep’s words always did something to me. Gerard was hardly ever around. Derek wasn’t even eighteen yet, but he was doing more for the mafia than I had seen our own father do. I respected Derek more than I cared about our father.
But when it came to Shep, I respected him. He had taught me everything, and he had saved my life. I knew that I would have died with blue-stained lips eight years ago if it weren’t for him.
A life for a life. That was the only time you owed someone.
The room reeked of baby powder and piss, all radiating from her. I crossed my arms. I hoped she didn’t smell like that forever.
“Fine,” I said.
“What is his name?” I asked, enunciated each word, making sure he understood me. The man before me was hefty, a few inches taller than me and twice as wide. It had taken help from Ron and Randy to get him strapped to the table, but now that he was completely restrained and spread out, he was helpless. Like the rest.
Sometimes, when it came to situations like this, I liked to inject a serum that would produce paralysis, so that they could feel everything but they couldn’t move. But the serum left them speechless, too. If you wanted answers, you had to act accordingly.
But they were so loud like this.
Two gaping holes were in each cheek, whistling with his breath. His tongue flailed around in the pool of blood in his mouth. He’d probably drown in it if we didn’t move quickly. Shep, though a pillar in his own right, had never been creative like this, which was one of the ways I improved our enforcement.
It was almost a shame not to send him back like this to the Midnight Miles Corporation. If Miles Muro’s men kept disappearing, then he would catch on. But I knew that until then, it was best to keep him in the dark. See how much he was willing to do.
“I didn’t—” he wheezed, his nostrils huffing out, the blood splattering to the side. “I said his name. Please.”
“Cannon?” I asked. “I want a first and last name. Not a nickname.”
“I told you,” the man cried. A tear ran down his cheek, following the path of the last one. “Cannon. His name is Cannon. He goes by Cannon. Please. Don’t kill me.”
“I’m not going to ask again,” I said. “Does your leader, Cannon, have a legal name?”
“I swear to God, man, I don’t know. But I can—”
I brought the ice pick down on his forehead, piercing it through the skull. The pick squished through his tissues, blood gathering at the edges of the instrument. The silence that followed washed through the room. No more whistling noise. No more blubbering pawn. Sometimes, the pain was so intense that they gave up on screaming. Power always surged through me when that happened, making my dick hard. But I couldn’t stand the whining and sniveling; it always seemed like it would never end. That’s when I knew it was time.
I rolled my shoulders, then let my red-painted hands rest on the table.
This workroom, my workroom, had been in the family for generations. My great, great grandfather had built it for his brother to use as a space for enforcing. Made of solid concrete, soundproof, and over the years, decorated on the outside until it was camouflaged by the surrounding woods. There was no noise inside. Only the hum of the electric lights. The rustle of the cloth wiping my pick clean. The soft clicks as I laid my tools down on the table.
My brothers, though they had killed too, liked to brag about my capabilities, as a way to keep people in line. Axe, the killer. Axe, the Adler family’s enforcer. But to me, enforcing, torturing, killing, disposing, were simply parts of my job description. A career in the mafia. The civilians out there, going about their daily lives, didn’t think about what was going on beyond their bubbles. But seventy-five hundred people died in the United States each day. Why shouldn’t a number of them be taken out by my hands?
It was a cycle. Life started, it went, then it came to an end. It would end for me too one day, and I would be ready for it.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I let out a heavy sigh, then answered without a word.
“Any names yet?” Derek asked.
“Cannon,” I said.
“Huh. Still Cannon.” The microphone scratched, the murmur of the traffic in the background. He must have been on the road. “Keep working on it,” he said.
We were at war with the Midnight Miles Corporation, with Miles Muro himself. I never dealt with the politics, but I knew the basics. Through the stupidity of my half-brother, Ethan, we had offended Muro by not delivering a captive we had promised. After that, he pretended to play nice, but insulted us with bad trades, then ended our alliance by sending in undercover soldiers to kill us.
My job, as the lead enforcer, was to figure out Muro’s security situation. Part of that was finding out who Cannon was, and getting rid of him. Once Cannon was replaced, Muro’s army would be at a disadvantage. And that’s when we would strike.
“Turns out Muro’s got major footing in our state, and some in Woodlands.” That was the capital for the next state over. “Small agreements all over the United States, but mostly controls Brackston and Woodlands. Sounds like he wants to control Sage City before he deepens his hold elsewhere.”
And we were standing in his way. “And the rest?” I asked.
“He’s been causing shit everywhere else. Enough to piss people off, and big enough to scare the shit out of them. I sent Ethan to negotiate.” Ethan had been on the run since stealing his woman from what should have been Muro’s captivity. It was unlikely that Ethan would be able to secure assistance, but Derek and I both knew that he could help form better relationships. They stepped aside while we took down Muro, and in return, we would work out favorable arrangements.
Derek sighed. “It might take some digging to find people on our side.”
Which was Derek’s and Wil’s job.
Once the war was over, I could go back to being creative. Killing Muro’s men was never a drawn-out affair. I had to work quickly. Extract information. Dispose. And when Muro was gone, I could go back to being alone. The only time I was ever alone these days was in the workroom, right after a death. And still, there were several guards waiting around the perimeter of the workroom.
“Good luck,” I said. My phone beeped, and I glanced at the screen. Shep blinked back at me. A strange sensation took hold of my stomach. I hadn’t heard from him in years. Over a decade. The random call wasn’t a good sign. “I have to go.”
“Keep working on Cannon,” Derek said. “Let us know what you need.”
I clicked over to Shep’s call.
“Axe,” he said, his voice raspy. He hacked, backing away from the mic, barking up mucus. Once he finished, he continued: “You need to come here.”
“On my way.”
Shep lived on the other side of Sage City, a few miles away from the coast and far enough into the city that you only smelled the ocean on a warm breeze. His house was situated in a quiet neighborhood, one that he had moved to right before retiring from the mafia. A few cars were parked out front, some I recognized from family and friends. A yellow house with white trim, a blue chair on the front porch. On the side table, a tray of cigarette butts, the ash spilling out.
I knocked. An older man in his sixties answered, then motioned me inside.
In the living room, Uncle Ray acknowledged me, then stepped into the kitchen. The other men looked up, then followed him. A nurse was looking at the monitors at Shep’s side. And lying on a hospital bed, was Shep. The man I had outgrown by the time I was fifteen, shriveled in bed, like a sun-dried peach. His spotty white hair growing in patches on his head. His sunken eyes, purple with exhaustion.
“Axe,” Shep said, his voice hoarse. He barely lifted his eyes to mine. I took the folding chair by his side. He inched a finger toward me. “I’m dying.”
That was clear. The strange part was that this one of the most notorious mafia men in Sage City, dying from a disease, rather than a hit. It didn’t seem right. Where was the gash in his side? The bullet in his head? Then again, Shep hadn’t been a hitman in many, many years. Still, it wasn’t easy to watch his body wasting away.
“I want you to watch Demi,” Shep said. “Marry her.”
Marry? I knew that had been a promise made back when Demi was born, but that couldn’t have been a true possibility now. How could we jump straight into being husband and wife?
And how do you tell that to a man on his deathbed?
“I can watch over her,” I said. “But there’s a war, Shep. The Midnight Miles Corporation is fighting against us. It’s not safe to bring your daughter into our family right now.”
“I understand, but you’ve got to—”
A fit of coughs broke through him, making his chest seize up. A dull ache spread across my body, making me numb. How was it that I could watch a man die, holes dug into his cheeks, an ice pick stabbed into his head, but watching a man barely on the edge of suffocation, his lungs giving out before him, somehow made me feel lost?
Eventually, the coughing stopped. His eyes were red and glossy.
“You’ve got to protect her,” he said. He slid his hand onto my arm. “Watch over her. Take care of her for me.”
I looked at his hand, holding me. As close as we might have been at one point in time, we weren’t like that. Physical touch was out of place. But he needed it more than I wanted to refuse it.
I let my eyes wash over the room. On the wall, there was a gold-framed photograph of a toddler, dark brown hair like her mother, gray eyes like her father, holding a chicken, a cockatiel on her shoulder, and two dogs sitting on either side of her. And if I remembered correctly, the last time I had heard from Shep, when Demi was still a toddler, there was a cat too, just not in the picture. She was obsessed with animals, though I saw no evidence of any pets now.
That had been one of the last times Shep had spoken to me. After Demi’s mother died, everything changed. It was solely up to Shep to take care of Demi, which meant that he cut off contact with me.
Not that I cared.
“I don’t have room for animals,” I said.
“I took care of that years ago,” Shep said. A hint of a smile cracked his chapped lips. Took care of it? That meant there was a story there. One he likely had no energy to tell.
“She’s barely eighteen,” I argued. “She deserves a chance to find real love.” Whatever the hell that was. For me, it was an excuse to get out of this mess.
Shep used all of his strength to move his chin back and forth, a dramatic movement that had the nurse straightening up and glaring at me.
“No,” Shep said. “Love doesn’t matter. Keeping her alive does.”
By putting her in jeopardy so that she was living with me? When a war was going on and there were a slew of deaths ahead of us, and mine might be added to the list?
Keeping her alive.
Those words stood out to me. It wasn’t a question of marriage or love, but life or death.
“I will keep her alive,” I said.
“Good,” he said.
A bright blue city car pulled up to the front, visible through the front window. Out of the passenger seat, popped a backpack and a duffel bag, then a person. Then the car drove away.
“Does Demi know about the business?” I asked.
“Of course not,” Shep said with a hint of annoyance.
Another fit of coughs took hold of him. It was better for it to happen now before another visitor walked in.
The lock turned, and it seemed as though everyone in the room held their breath. We all turned to face the entrance. Through the screen, a person close to five feet tall was visible. She opened the screen door. The fluorescent lights flooded over her, illuminating her turquoise and violet hair.
Turquoise and violet hair. Bright. Like a damn mermaid.
“Dad?” she asked.
She ran to his side, glaring at me so that I backed away, giving them space. A sweatshirt was loose over her body, PGU written in athletic letters on the front. So Shep had let her go to college, then. I hadn’t expected that.
The exposed skin of her neck flushed with red. She shook her hair, letting the waves of color fall in front of her face.
“Dad?” she asked again.
I leaned against the wall, taking her in. Here was Demi, all grown up. Swallowed up by a college sweatshirt far too big for her, with dreams of a life beyond Sage City. So far beyond it, that she would rather go to a small college town three hours away than live in a major city with her father. The kind of woman who needed to be free. Who needed choice. Adventure. Experimentation. Exploration.
And here I was, coming to rip that away from her.
“Come on, Dad,” she said. “What’s going on? Why didn’t you call me sooner?”
Shep said nothing. He lifted his eyelids, and once he saw her, a full smile crossed his face. He wouldn’t speak. The rest of us knew that he was trying to avoid having another flare-up, but Demi? She only knew that her dad wasn’t speaking.
“Come on,” she said. “What’s going on?”
She flipped around. The group in the kitchen turned away, pretending to be busy cleaning and eating. The nurse buried her head in Shep’s vitals. Then Demi’s eyes landed on me.
“What the hell are you staring at?” she asked.
It took a lot of nerve to say something like that to me. I’m tall, with broad shoulders, thick arms, and one hell of a core. Anyone can tell I’m a man who likes to eat, but no one can deny that I’m built like steel. More than capable of taking a tiny mermaid girl, wadding her up into a ball, and throwing her back out to sea.
She was so sure of herself. So sure of me.
My scalp prickled. I cleared my throat, running a hand over my facial hair, then narrowed my eyes at her. The pungent smell of sour milk drifted from the bed. Demi shifted away, finally looking back to her father, the only thing that truly mattered to her.
Dangerous Silence: A Dark Mafia Romance coming March 2021!