Nadia Carridge was deeply in love, but could not live happily ever after. Her lifestyle was one of danger and intrigue, too dangerous to leave and too addictive to want to leave. She entered the life of mystery because of one man, Martin Anders. Martin, loved Nadia with a ferocity that no one else could match, but a dark dangerous secret from her childhood has followed her and threatens to ruin her life and the lives of everyone that she loves. Joined by a group of intelligent misfits, Nadia and Martin are determined to protect everyone, even you.

 

PROLOGUE

A strong breeze came through the picture window, nearly unbalancing the young woman who was poised on its ledge. Her wavy mocha colored hair swirled around her bronze face as she gently unperched herself and entered the room. She straightened the cable that was harnessed to her sleek,, black cat suited frame, so as not to get it tangled with her small backpack. She eased around the desk, avoiding the button of the silent alarm she had been briefed about. She had to get on the other side of the room without tripping any of the installed alarms and now she was doubting her stealth. She crouched down beside the desk and whispered to the others that where waiting on the other end of her earpiece.

“Okay, are you guys working on disabling this crap for me? I see two sensors that probably have invisible beams running along each wall in front of the desk.”

A male voice came back through her ear.

“Stay right there. Don’t move. It won’t be much longer and I’ll have the alarms disabled. But, you will still have to worry about the safe.”

“No problem here. Just hurry it up, all right?” She said.

“Okay, sit tight.”

She waited, looking around the curator’s office. The office was large with two doors on opposite sides of the room leading to other parts of the museum. The only pieces of furniture occupying the space were the desk and chair she was crouching by and another chair in front of the desk. The walls were lined with paintings and overloaded bookshelves, plants and small sculptures lined the tops.

“All right,” The voice spoke up. “I’m about to bypass the alarms by rerouting their signal to another museum that uses the same security set up. Remain still and tell me what, if anything, happens.”

“Will do.” She said.

A sharp beeping came from inside the room along with several flashes of streaming red lights running from wall to wall.

“Anything happen?” The man asked.

“Yes, there was some beeping followed by some flashes of red beams and then it stopped.” She said.

“Good. That means the alarms are disabled. You can move now.”

“Thanks, I was getting a cramp.” She laughed and stood up.

“Well, if you don’t hurry and get out of there you’ll get a lot worse if the guard comes your way.”

“Understood.”

She stepped lightly into the direct path of the sensors. Nothing happened.

Good. It worked. She thought.

Walking to the center of the room, she stopped and pulled a small device, the size of a deck of playing card, out of a zippered pouch on her belt. She pushed a button to turn it on and pointed it to her left back towards the direction of the window in which she had entered. She lead the device around the room while reading the digital numbers that kept changing on the tiny screen. She stopped when she reached an area near the end of the room, along the wall to the right of her.

“This thing is great.” She whispered in awe.

“Yeah, depth finders come in handy now and then.” A female voice spoke into her ear.

“Your a whiz with these gadgets. Now, let’s hope I can open this sucker.”

“We have faith.” The voice answered again.

She slipped the device back into the zippered pouch and walked over to the bookcase on the far right wall. She ran her hands along the assortment of books and started tapping in various places. When she heard a hollow sound, she used both hands to pull a section of books apart. She pulled out a hollow box, disguised like a set of Shakespeare’s works, to expose a wall safe. Setting the box on the ground, she pulled another device from her front pocket. She clamped it onto the dial of the safe and turned in on. The number counter started searching and beeped as it found each number of the encoded combination.

“Primitive.” She smiled and shook her head.

When the small decoder let out a long beep to signify that the job was completed, she read the numbers it had pulled up and she removed the device. She kept it in view as she opened the safe so as not to get the numbers wrong.

Soon she heard the latch click. She pulled on the handle.

She let out a small, joyful squeal as the door opened and looked at the four black jewelry satchels sitting inside.

“I’m in.” She spoke into the headset.

“Good. Now, get out of there.” The deep masculine voice ordered.

Exchanging the small decoder for a diamond tester she kept in another pouch, she removed a bag, opened it and took out a few gleaming diamonds from within. She held up the tester and waited. The colorful light scale on the side started to light up. The neon green light ran up until it hit the yellow lights and they finally reached red. A long beep rang out. Satisfied, she returned the diamonds to the satchel and repeated the process with the remaining three satchels, then set them aside on the floor. When she was done she removed her backpack and took out four identical black pouches. She put three of the identical pouches into the safe and opened the last one, taking out a diamond simulant. She tested it with the diamond tester and was pleased when the tester read it as a diamond. Setting the last simulant bag down on the shelf, she placed the pouches containing the real diamonds and the tester inside the backpack and slipped it back on, securing it to her harness.

“They are just perfect.” She said as she picked up the last bag of simulants, about to put it into the safe.

“That’s great,” A deep voice came from behind her. “That’s just how I like my diamonds. Perfect.”

She turned to see a tall dark figure standing in the office doorway.

“Shit,” She said. “What are you doing here?”

“What’s going on?” They were asking through her headset.

She couldn’t answer or she would put them in danger as well.

“What am I doing here?” The man in the doorway asked. “That’s a good question, one that I should be asking you. Here’s another question for you. What are you doing holding my diamonds?”

The man started towards her.

“The guards will be around soon.” She teased.

He slowly shook his head.

“Uh, uh.” He laughed. “Poor guy is are resting. I assume that he might never wake.”

She didn’t have time to shut the safe or to put its disguise back over it. She looked down to the floor and noticed the heavy, hollowed out box sitting there. She shifted her weight trying to look nervous, while putting her foot into the box. When the man had almost reached her, she kicked her foot up and flung the heavy box at him. He managed to block his face, but his arm caught the full weight of the box.

He let out a curse when the wooden box hit his arm. He tried lunging for her, but she slipped from his grasp.

Still holding the bag of simulants, she raced back to the picture window and perched up on the ledge. She turned and saw that he was almost to the window. Smiling, she held the bag out of the window.

He stopped in his tracks.

“Ah, ah, ah.” She said wagging a finger at him.

“You bitch!” He yelled.

“Take your pick.” She said. “Me or these?”

She dangled the bag again.

“What about both?” A gun appeared from a side holster.

She waved a hand and threw herself backwards as he fired his weapon.

He dropped the gun as he charged for her and tried to grab the black satchel, but it was too late.

He heard her laughing and as she fell she threw the satchel up above the window.

“No!” He growled. “My diamonds!”

He reached out trying to catch the simulants that he thought were real. The black bag hit his hand and busted open sending a shower of shimmering jewels down around her as she fell laughing.

“At least you’re dead and I have the rest of the diamonds.” He muttered.

He sneered, watching as her body and the jewels disappeared into the darkness below.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE
Nadia Carridge stepped off the plane and onto the boarding ramp at The Queenston, Florida National Airport. The other passengers filed past her, some businessmen with leather briefcases running to meet their next planes.
She stood to the side for a while until everyone had passed. She wasn’t sure who would meet her at the end of that ramp. She wasn’t sure anyone had gotten the text message she had sent by mobile phone. It had been sent to three of her closest associates, stating:

Saturday, I will meet the president….
Just me and Congressman Sutton at the Hotel Garden Gate for now….
The three from Florida left Thursday…..
Sutton is number four on the committee’s afternoon roster….

Sincerely,

Mel

The E-mail was coded every fourth word.
Meet…me…at…gate…three…Thursday…four…afternoon.

They changed codes every now and then, just to be safe.
“Well, here goes.” She whispered to herself.
Nadia gathered up her carry on case and handbag and headed down the ramp.
As she neared the ramps end she could see the other passengers with their families. When she was at the end, she didn’t see anyone she knew, so she headed toward the baggage claim. She stood in the claim area searching for her bags. Still keeping an eye out for her ride. She took a chance and walked to the edge of the baggage area, near the exits leading to the cab stand.
All of a sudden everyone in the terminal heard the same thing, the same voice, that same yell.
“Ye haw! How you little filly? “ A strong Texan accent blurted out from behind her and before she could protest, strong arms grasped her around the waist and swung her around in a circle.
“Put me down! Who are you? Let me go this instant!” She shrieked.
The arms let her go and she spun around to see a broad shouldered cowboy. He was dressed in an awful red ho-down shirt, blue jeans, huge snakeskin boots. and he topped it all off with an oversized cowboy hat.
The cowboy scratched at his scruffy beard and mustache then replied in a loud obnoxious voice.
“What’s the matter little lady? Don’t you recognize me?” He drawled.
“No, I do not. You must have me confused with someone else!”
They noticed that everyone in the terminal was looking at them.
“Just come with me little darlin’.”
The cowboy pushed her along through the airport terminal.
This was it. She thought. Devahn has caught up to me sooner than I expected. He has sent this Howdy Doody reject to off me. I’ll end up in some swamp dead with my feet and hands tied together with some sort of lasso. I could scream, but that would call more attention than we had had before and I don’t want any attention focused on me or my carry on case.
“What are you doing? Where are you taking me?!” She whispered quite audibly.
“Just smile, I‘m not here to hurt you!” He whispered sharply in her ear.
“Well, my luggage.” She pointed to the crowded carousels. They were at an easy jog now.
“Taken care of.” He said.
The moment those words came out of his mouth it sent a familiar chill up her spine. His drawl was gone and his run was different.
The tall cowboy grabbed her hand as they ran out through the automatic doors.
A limousine and driver were waiting for them at the curb. Nadia’s luggage was being loaded into the car by a porter.
The Cowboy pushed her into the huge auto and closed the door after them. He grabbed Nadia and kissed her firmly on the mouth. The driver started up the car and pulled away from the curb.
She yanked away and slapped him square on his jaw.
“Nadi, what are you doing?” He bellowed as he grabbed her hand, so she wouldn’t get in another hit. He then started to laugh at the expression on her face. One of disbelief.
He took off his hat and tugged off the beard. Then he took her hand and put it to his face, he dug her nails into his flesh and made her pull. Pieces of theater mask came off in her hand.
“Is this better?” He said in a thick Cuban accent.
“Martin?” She squealed as she threw her arms about his neck “Oh, Martin!”.
Martin Anders was a tall man of six foot five. He was 225 pounds and well chiseled with dark brown hair, olive skin, and light auburn eyes. The most beautiful man she had ever seen.
“I thought you’d never guess,” He said, “And I think you forgot someone.”
“What are you talking about?” Nadia laughed.
“I think he means me.” The driver took off his hat. It wasn’t a man as Nadia had thought, but a woman. She pulled a pin from her hair and shook her head to reveal a rich auburn bob.
‘Brianne! I should have known.”
Brianne Kinney, looked like a barbie doll. A statuesque six foot two with the figure of a playboy centerfold and the chattiness of a debutante. She usually told people what she thought of them rather loudly and that usually put her and others in jeopardy. Although rough around the edges there were few around who could match her ambition.
Nadia’s features were quite the opposite, with her hair falling in ringlets of brown and coppery tones down her back and dark smoldering features. She had a shapely 5’6” frame, with an air of purity that still lingered about her. She would use that to her advantage whenever she could. She had a great trigger finger, but didn’t know how to use the bitterness of life against her enemies as did Brianne.
“I wasn’t sure if you had understood my messages.” Nadia smiled broadly.
“Well, we figured it could only be you.” Said Martin.
“But I don’t understand why you had to dress like this.’ Nadia laughed and put on the cowboy hat.
“Honey,” He said removing the hat, “You knew it would be hard to just come back here after what happened.” He held her hand and continued. “We hear Devahn is back in town. Do you have the diamonds?”
“Right here.” She patted the carry on case sitting on her lap.
“Keep them close. We’ll put them in the safe at home. Did anyone question them?”
Nadia laughed.
“Who would question these?” She opened the carry on case and pulled out an old rag doll. “There are three others in here just like this one.”
Martin took the doll from her and looked at it closely. He didn’t notice anything peculiar about the old doll.
“So, where are they inside?” He turned the doll over and upside down and then lifted up the tiny embroidered dress.
“Give me that!” She playfully grabbed the doll, smiled and ran a finger over one of the large, round, dome shaped buttons.. “I hid them in the buttons, they’re hollow.”
“I see. Very good.” He smiled.

She placed the doll back in her case.

“You said Devahn was back in town?”

“Yes, we got into a fight and nearly killed each other. He accused me of sending you to tamper with those diamonds. It’s going to get worse you know.” He leaned over and produced a small hand gun from under the seat and handed it to her. “Here, take this.”
“Just to be careful, right?” She took the hand gun, checked the safety and put it in her purse.

“You got it.” He said.
“So, he doesn’t know that I’m alive?.” Nadia raised a brow in question.
“We weren’t sure who knew you were still with the living, so we disguised ourselves just in case.” Brianne yelled over her shoulder.

The car rolled to a stop in front of Martin’s oceanside estate.

“You’ll take the room next to mine, of course..” Martin beamed and winked at her, “I’ll get your bags and bring them up to you.”

“All right, come on Brianne, we can catch up on things while he does that.” Nadia took Brianne’s arm and lead them into the house.
It was just as she had remembered, magnificent as always.
Marbled floors and staircases surrounded the foyer. Each of the six bedrooms throughout the house were beautifully decorated with a classic flair.
Nadia and Brianne went upstairs to her room.
“So, how were the islands?” Brianne asked.
Nadia laid across the bed.
“Great as usual.” She answered.
Nadia couldn’t stop thinking about Brianne’s role in picking her up. Martin could have come alone. She had sent three messages, one to each of her friends; Martin, Brianne, and another, Ebony Kane. She thought they would all get together and decide which one would pick her up, they always worked it out that way.
“So Brianne, what is going on in your life?”
“Not much. I’ve been working on some fashion exporting scandal to catch some heroin dealers that have been supplying the younger models. Gary Stevens has hired me for a couple of photo shoots.” Brianne posed comically.
Nadia smiled briefly and gave her a steady stare.

“So, you’re really busy most of the time, is that right?”

“Yeah, between doing jobs for Martin and modeling, I can hardly take a rest.” She smiled sweetly.

“Well, you weren’t too busy to help Martin come and get me, were you?” Nadia watched Brianne and waited for her to give her an explanation.
Brianne and Nadia had been friends for years. As a girl, Brianne was brought up in the hardest of families. Her father was one of the heads of naval security and a raging drunk, her mother was the base tramp that serviced most of the young G.I.’s. Both parents paying attention to their children only at public events. Brianne, her brother, Aaron, and her sister Lilia were usually caught in the middle of severe fights. Nadia tended to overlook some of Brianne’s little stunts, but she let her have an earful when she knew her friend needed it. If you weren’t lucky enough to be her friend, Brianne could be as sweet as sugar to your face and then turn around and stab you in the back with out batting an eyelash.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Brianne asked coyly.

“I’ll just put it this way, Brianne. I don’t want you distracted on the job, by men or anything else. Now, you know how we usually work the airport scene. That goes for all of us. Whoever gets the messages should all meet somewhere and decide who should pick up said person. Brianne, you could have put our operation in serious jeopardy and you know Martin is soft when it comes to a pleading women.”

Nadia was calm as she talked and Brianne listened attentively.

Brianne threw her hands up in a comical gesture.

“Guilty, I did beg Martin to let me come to the airport, but if you think I had any ulterior motives, you can ease your mind. I’m sorry about the limo thing, but the regular driver wasn’t available. I wasn’t thinking and I guess I just wanted to see you too.”

“You knew exactly what you were doing. You wanted Martin to be impressed with you and you wanted to show him that you could handle more responsibility.”
“Maybe I did want that a little.” Brianne sighed.
“You are my friend and I love you very much, Brianne. God knows why sometimes, but so help me if you don’t start sticking to some of the rules you are going to make serious mistakes and you’ll end up paying dearly because of it. You got me?” Nadia raised an eyebrow.
“Sure, I completely understand.” Brianne nodded.
“And that goes for Martin too.” Nadia shook her finger at the bright-eyed red head.

They both erupted in relieved laughter.

“You all settled in, sweetheart?” Martin inquired as he poked his head around the door.

Nadia smiled sweetly at Martin.

“Yes, darling, I’m fine.”

She crossed the room and took some of the luggage from him and set it by the closet.

“Would you excuse us, Brianne?” He sauntered into the room and placed the rest of the bags by the bed.
“Sure, I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.” She turned and walked out of the room.
She sighed and a barely audible, ‘Rules’, was muttered from Brianne.

“If the cook is gone could you double as that also? I’m hungry my friend!” Nadia called after her.

Brianne waved a comical arm as she disappeared around a corner.
Martin took Nadia in his arms. The aroma of her perfume mixed with the salty air of the coast gave off a most alluring scent. He had forgotten what this was like just to hold her close to him, to savor the fact that she was safe once again.
But, for how long? He wondered.
He had brought her into this ‘business’ because he loved her too much to let her go. He always thought that they would marry someday, but it had never been the right time for them.

Thinking back on his days as a child back in Havana, Cuba, he remembered how strong a marriage his father and mother had had and he didn’t want any less for him or for Nadia. Martin and his parents came to America by boat when he was nine years old. His mother wanted him to be an American citizen. If it hadn’t been for his Uncle Paolo, his family would have died in the streets of Havana, gunned down like animals. Martin remembered when his father was jobless and their family was close to starving, the Cuban gorillas offered him a job as a collector, but he refused and the militia took control of his house and threw the family out on the streets. ‘No Police!’, his father had said. The militia controlled most of the force and they would surely be killed if they spoke out. They were lucky that they were thrown out on the street instead of shot in their beds.

Martin had a Cuban accent, but could charm up others whenever he needed. Most people could not guess his nationality and he loved that. He could pass for Italian, Colombian, Hawaiian, and even some European nationalities if he threw the right accent and language the persons way.

Her arms tightened around his neck,
“You’re glad to see me?” She teased.
“Well, let me show you.” Martin lifted her off the ground a bit and kissed her softly on the lips.
“Martin,” She sighed, pulling back from him. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” He smiled. “I thought you might have found some younger, more muscular man.”

Nadia rubbed his massive arms and gave him a light slap on his bicep.
“Now, that is just not possible, my love.” She smiled up at him.
“Instead of Brianne cooking, how does dinner at Fagio’s sound?” He asked.
“Sounds wonderful. Give me a while to shower and change.”
“I wish I could join you.” He grinned.
She giggled.

Just as he was about to lean down and kiss her again a voice came from the doorway.
“Oh, uh, sorry.” Brianne cleared her throat. “Martin, something just came over your fax for you, it looks important.”
“Damn it all!” He yelled, “It had better be!”

He gave Nadia another short kiss and stormed out.

Nadia sighed and collapsed in defeat on the plush bed.
“Sorry, if I interrupted, Nadia.”
“It’s okay, Brianne. I apologize for being a bitch a minute ago. I’ve just been away for so long.”
“Hey, what’s a day without a little bitching.” Brianne gave her a quick smile and sauntered down the hallway.

“I just hope I can keep it together.” Nadia whispered under her breath.
Groggily, she opened her eyes and realized that she had drifted off. Looking at the clock on the bedside table, Nadia found that it was six fifteen. She had been asleep for an hour and felt more energized than she had been earlier. She decided to unpack and then join Martin down in his study.
After she showered she opted for a form fitting dress. The fire engine shade of red was perfect, showing off her bronze glow. As she was pulling back her wavy tresses, Martin came to the doorway in a rush.
He gave her a quick once over and smiled with approval.
“Why did you let me sleep?” She teased.
“You needed it.”
“How do I look?” She asked.
“Marvelous as always. Honey, look, that fax I received earlier was from one of our informants stating that Devahn DeMarco is going to be in disguise tonight at Senator Sheehan’s estate and seeing that the good senator is a family friend of Brianne’s, we have a perfect in without having to disguise ourselves. How do you feel about that?” He asked cautiously.
“How do I feel about confronting Devahn? The same man who wants to kill me for getting to those diamonds first?” She hesitated a moment and then shrugged, “I guess now is as good a time as any to make myself known.” She sighed and shook her head. “I wonder what he is up to?”
“Hopefully, my darling, that is what we are about to find out.” He looked at her with concern.

“Do I need to change my attire? Am I dressed for the occasion?” She gave a slow turn to show off the dress.

“To a tee,” He winked. “See you at the car in thirty minutes, I’ll tell Brianne.” He disappeared from the doorway.

* * *

Throwing a sheer red scarf around her neck, Nadia walked out of the house and stepped up to Martin who was waiting for her by the limo. She noticed that Brianne was standing near the front of the car talking to someone, but she couldn’t tell who it was.
“Whose driving?” She asked. Brianne couldn’t be disguised as a driver since she would be attending the party.
When Brianne noticed that Nadia was ready, she finished her conversation and went around to the opposite side of the car and got in.
“Ian will be driving. He’s a new associate.” Martin motioned towards a tall, handsome man with dark hair and ruddy complexion. He reminded her of a young Gabriel Byrne.
Nadia held out her hand.
“Nice to meet you.” He said in a thick Irish accent while taking her hand to kiss it.
“Likewise.” She smiled
Martin opened the door for her and she slipped in next to Brianne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

The coastal drive soothed Nadia’s nerves and for a few minutes she relaxed and sank into the plushness of the luxury car.

Twenty five minutes later they pulled up to a mansion glowing with lights. Cars filled the large circle drive and were lined up and down the street.

Ian opened the door for the trio and helped them out of the car.

As he helped Brianne out of the car, her evening bag slipped out of her hands and fell open. A micro cassette recorder fell out and slid to Ian’s feet.

He bent down and quickly scooped it up.

“Be more careful, that could have been very hard to explain if someone else had noticed.” Ian whispered as he helped her put her bag back together.

“Brianne, what are you doing?” Martin called out as he and Nadia glanced back.

“I’m coming!,” she called out and then turned back to Ian. “Thank you, Ian.”

She smiled and ran to catch up to the couple. Brianne’s blue chiffon dress flowing as she jaunted up the steps.

Ian stood beside the limo in a stiff military stance. He was prepared.

 

 

As the trio walked into the ballroom, they were greeted by several familiar faces. A couple of congressmen and women, some heads of local charities, and a few foreign diplomats.

“Okay, ladies, work the room.” Whispered Martin.

The trio took off in different directions.

As Brianne moved to her left, towards the verandah, she heard a low, male voice call out her name.

“Brianne, Brianne Kinney? Is that my little muffin cup?”

Brianne turned and smiled as she noticed a tall, older gentleman with a broad build. Senator William Sheehan walked towards her and came to stand by her side. His salt and pepper hair gleaming from the chandelier lights.

“Oh, Uncle William, it’s so nice to see you?” She cooed, “And when will you stop calling me that infernal baby name?”

“When you stop calling me ‘Uncle’. For God’s sake I’m old enough to be your lover.” He whispered into her ear.

“Well,” She smiled. “What would my father say?”

“Why would he respond to something he knows absolutely nothing about?”

He gave her a wink, slid an arm around her waist and led her out towards the verandah.

“After you.” He motioned.

She looked back towards Nadia and Martin. Nadia was in the center of the room talking with night club owner, Santana Sangramano. Martin was heading upstairs to the gallery room.

 

 

“So, Nadia,” Santana smiled. “Where have you been? We all have missed you so.”

Nadia knew that Santana was up on the latest gossip, but she wasn’t about to let her in on too much. Santana came from one of the biggest crime families in North America. The Sangramano’s were one of the most feared, untouchable, and respected of families in the country and were based all over, from New York to Miami, Dallas, and Las Vegas.

“Yes, I suppose you have.” Nadia smiled.

“Away on a business trip were you?” Santana hooked her arm through Nadia’s and leaned in close to her ear.

“You could say that.” Nadia smiled.

“Some say you were on the run from one of the big players in town. I told them you were too much of a good girl to do anything that would get you into too much trouble.”

“Oh, and you know me so well, San.” She gave the brunettes arm a small squeeze. “Tell Poppy I said hello.”

And with that Nadia turned and walked away.

“Nadia, don’t forget that you and Martin always have a table at Fagio’s!” Santana yelled after her.

Nadia smiled to herself. She really loved that family, but she was already in enough trouble without having to involve them. But, if she needed them, she knew that they would be there.

She had seen Brianne head toward the verandah with Sen. Sheehan, but had no idea where Martin was. She hadn’t spotted Devahn DeMarco yet, but she would be ready when she found him. She slid her hand down to her side to make sure her pistol was still in her handbag. It was.

* * *

Martin walked into the gallery room admiring several paintings by new young artists. One painting astounded him. It was a beach scene, a picture of a young woman dressed in a flowing sundress, the color of a mid-evening blue sky. Her hair was tied up in a scarf the same brilliant color as the dress. She had a hand to the side of her face, as if in disbelief as she looked down at her side. At her feet and all around her were children with flowers and beads, holding them up to her as if they were offerings to a goddess. The woman had a soft smile on her face and did not seem to mind the wind and water spray around her from the ocean, nor the sand between her toes. She just marveled at the native children.

He knew at first sight….it was Nadia.

“She just springs out at you, doesn’t she?” A male voice came from behind him.

Martin turned around to see a young man dressed in black, not much taller than himself. His dark eyes were intense and piercing. His hair was short in the back and long on top. He couldn’t place his face, but Martin could have sworn that he had seen him before.

“Sorry, I …you look like someone…” Martin offered after staring at him for a long time.

“It’s all right, Bro. I get that a lot for some reason.” The young man smiled. “I’m Jorma Levitson.”

He extended his hand, Martin accepted.

“Well, getting back to the matter at hand. What do you think of her?“ Jorma walked over to straighten the picture. “I painted her.”

“Oh, yes! It’s exquisite. I’m quite awed by it. You painted her?” Martin cleared his throat.

“Yes, why do you look so surprised?” Jorma chuckled.

“No, it’s uh…. she um….she just looks a lot like my companion that’s all.” Said Martin.

“Well, I would like to see your companion to compare.” Jorma laughed.

“I’ll have to find her for you.” Martin nodded his approval as he strolled along to the other paintings.

Jorma decided to follow Martin, strolling easily behind him.

They stopped in front of a large painting of a man dressed in roman soldier gear. He seemed to be stepping between scenes of his old world and scenes from the modern age.

Martin motioned questioningly to the picture.

“Pontius Pilate, forever doomed to walk the earth.” Jorma answered.

“Pontius Pilate?”

“The man who put Jesus to death.” Jorma answered

“Ah, I see. I like it.” Martin nodded. “Anyway, so…uh…Jorma. What made you decide to paint the picture? The one that looks like my friend.”

“I was on vacation in St.Thomas and actually saw that scene unfold before my eyes.”

Martin turned around, suddenly realizing that the picture was not just a coincidence.

“I think your painting might be of my companion after all.” Martin moved closer to Jorma and looked him in the eyes. “Who sent you Jorma? Why are you here? Is this some sort of a diversion?”

Jorma’s eyes widen in wonder.

“Sent me? What are you talking about, Bro? I came here to drum up new business for my art gallery. I can’t help it if a person I painted resembles a friend of yours.”

Martin softened his stance. “Maybe you should meet my companion.”

“Maybe I should.” He said as he ran a hand through his hair.

 

* * *

Nadia was heading up the steps, when she saw Martin coming down.

“Oh, Martin, there you are.” She smiled.

Then as quick as it had appeared, her smile faded.

“What’s wrong?” She saw the look of distress on his face as she approached him.

“Come with me.” He took her arm and led her up to the gallery room. He stopped her in front of the beach picture. “Look.”

Nadia’s eyes grew large.

“Oh, my!” She gasped. “It does look quite a bit like me. Doesn’t it?”

She turned slowly around and for the first time noticed that someone had been behind Martin.

Jorma had not had a full view of her until now. He spoke first.

“It’s you. I mean, it must be you.” He exclaimed in an unbelievable tone.

“Nadia, do you know this man?” Martin glared at her, showing the unspeakable accusations in his mind.

“No, I don’t think so. Although you do look very familiar.” She turned towards Jorma.

“This is Jorma Levitson, he painted that picture.” Martin gestured to Jorma then to the picture. “Your picture. Jorma, this is my companion, Nadia.”

“You were there in St.Thomas? Were you following me?“ She looked cautiously at Jorma. “Who sent you?”

The artist put a hand to his forehead. “Oh, here we go again. Look sister, no one sent me. I am an artist, I paint things. I happened to be there when I saw you and all those wonderful kids. So, I just painted it. Am…am I on some sort of camera show? It‘s a camera show, right?”

Jorma looked around and smiled warily, searching for hidden cameras.

Nadia looked up at Martin.

Martin groaned. “This may be a big mistake, but I believe him.”

She gave him a small smile.

“So do I.” She slipped her arm through his, then turned back to Jorma. “Hey, no…no, you’re not on some show. This is all just some sort of coincidence and misunderstanding. It was nice to meet you, Jorma, and it really is a very nice picture. Thank you.”

“Yes, Jorma. It is very nice. How much do you want for it?” Martin pulled out his wallet.

“Put that away. I don’t want anything for it.”

“Oh? You’re giving it to us?” Martin smiled in surprise.

“No. It’s not for sale,” Jorma’s face turned into a slight scowl. “I won’t sell it.”

He turned and stormed away from the couple.

“Hey! Wait a minute!” Martin took off after him.

He caught up with Jorma, who was straightening another one of his paintings. Martin grabbed his arm.

“What the hell is wrong with you, man? We ask you a simple question and you shove us off like that? You didn’t even ask her for her permission.”

Jorma yanked away.

“No price for that one. It’s one of my favorites.” He smirked.

“Martin.” Nadia had caught up to them. “It’s okay. It’s his painting and he has a right to say no.”

“Look, I didn’t mean to be rude, but that’s some of my best work. It would take a lot for me to part with it.” He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a business card and handed it to Nadia. “ I can paint a portrait of you if you want. Just let me know, okay?

Martin snatched the card that was in front of her. “Yeah, whatever. We have to get back downstairs. The entertainment is about to start.”

He grabbed Nadia’s arm and lead her back towards the steps.

She looked back at Jorma before she started down the stairs. He had been staring at her the whole time.

* * *

Ebony Kane stepped up to the microphone and started singing a soft, mysterious tune that only three or four people in the entire room would fully understand;

And no one ever goes alone

On every angels wing we lean

The heavens and the earth we see

As we go soaring in between.

Jorma came down from the gallery to listen to the melodic crooning. He swayed and hummed and wondered about the beautiful singer.

Ebony Kane, the petite, harmonic, raven haired beauty, slowly sauntered around the room as she sang. Her eyes fell over the crowd and rested on her boss, Martin.

I hope he gets the message. Ebony thought.

She had been recruited by Martin a few years earlier. He had seen her perform at the Stardust in Las Vegas and an idea came to him. When he met her backstage, he found out that she was not just a beautiful performer, but was highly intelligent. She was wise and street smart and could hold conversation with the best of men. Ebony had dropped out of university in order to care for her younger siblings. She had wanted to be scientist or doctor, but as the years accumulated that dream had slipped away along with her youth. The job Martin gave her would let her be both scientist and doctor in a different form. He knew Devahn would fall for her, so he hired her to be a go between. A very dangerous, but well paid position. She jumped at it. Now, she couldn’t get away from the excitement or danger. She loved and hated it.

Martin and Nadia were whispering close together, analyzing every word she sang as others listened and hummed contentedly.

“Priest?” Nadia said, then looked around.

“No, the only priest I’ve seen in robe was Father McCordel.”

“He could be a nun.” She smiled.

“Oh, now I’d really like to see what that would look like,” He chuckled, “Pilot maybe?”

They looked around and noticed a few airmen uniforms, so they began to check each one at a safe distance. Some were from the Air Force and some were from the Army.

“I don’t see him,” Nadia shook her head. “Or at least I don’t think I see him.”

“Let’s split up. I’ll tell Brianne where we’re going,” He gave Nadia’s arm a squeeze and whispered to her. “Be careful…” Then, Martin, turned and walked away.

She headed toward the stairs and ascended to the gallery. She stopped briefly in front of her picture and smirked. She remembered that day, walking along the beach in St. Thomas. She had been playing with the children all day. That evening as she was heading toward her hotel, the children had each given her some token of thanks, for being so kind. Jorma must have been there. Even though some of the children in the drawing didn’t looked much like any of the children she had played with that day, her face was perfectly vivid. Clearly recognizable.

I must remember to have a chat with this Jorma character, but first I have to find Devahn.

 

* * *

 

Martin had told Brianne what was going down. She insisted on helping, but he told her to stay were she was, so she could keep an eye on the charity recipients. One just might be a cleverly disguised Devahn. Knowing that Nadia had headed upstairs, he decided to start with the bottom corridors and work his way up.

Nadia peeked into one of the bedrooms and found that it was Senator Sheehan’s. After seeing that there was a flicker of light underneath an adjoining room door, she stepped in quietly and closed the door behind her. She noticed that the flicker of light had stopped when she had shut the door. Pulling the derringer from her evening bag, she readied it and approached the connecting door.

A bulb probably burned out. I’d better check it out anyway. She thought.

She opened the door and slid her free hand, up and down the wall to find the switch.

As she switched on the light, she noticed that the room was Senator Sheehan’s adjoining upstairs study. Everything looked in place. His desk, a deep mahogany, was arranged very neatly. Even the stacks of newly opened letters were set aside in neat piles. On a corner of the desk a picture sat away from everything else in a regal position. It was a picture of Neil Sheehan, the senator’s playboy son. His pride and joy and his only offspring. Nadia had met Neil briefly, when he and Brianne ran in the same circles.

She was about to step closer to the desk when she heard a voice from somewhere behind her.

“Now,” A thick, deep voice echoed in her ears. “How ever did you survive that fall?”

“Just lucky, I guess.” She responded quietly.

As she reeled around in the direction of the voice, Devahn DeMarco vaulted from behind the door, knocking the gun from her hand.

He grabbed her by the wrists and threw her to the floor with little effort. His gigantic frame three times the size of hers.

He pinned her with his body and the desk.

Oh, God. I’ve got to get away, she thought,

She had come to terms with the fact that she would be killed someday in her line of work, but she was determined that it would not be by this man and it could not be this day.

“Where are they?!” He screamed.

“What, you mean you didn’t see them? There must be at least three hundred of them downstairs.” She gasped.

“Don’t play cute with me, bitch! I can do anything I want with you right now!”

For the first time she had noticed that he was wearing an Air Force uniform. He reached into a pocket of his jacket and produced a switch blade. He held it up to her throat and gently let it glide down to the center of her chest.

“Maybe I’ll just strip search you before I….well, you know.” He laughed.

He brought the knife up to her cheek and ran the smooth, cold metal, down the side of her face.

“Wh-what do you want Devahn?” She managed to stutter.

“Oh, not much,” He smiled. “I just want my fucking diamonds, whore!”

He grabbed her chin and shoved her head against a leg of the desk.

She grimaced in pain.

“You’ve already ruined tonight for me. It was perfect, I just go up and accept the charity fund check as Colonel Robert Pernefsky of the United States Air Force. I do so love to help those starving Cambodians, don’t you?” He smiled as he slid the blade underneath her shoulder strap.

She felt it give way and yelped as the knife nicked her shoulder.

“Shut up!” He thundered at her and slapped her hard across the face.

Nadia became furious. She wasn’t about to let, Devahn DeMarco, have violent thrills with her. She started fighting like a wildcat, not caring where the blade was.

If I could only get to my gun. She thought. This would all be over with. But, the gun was too far away.

Then she remembered something. The letters! There was a sharp letter opener on the desk beside the stacks of mail.

Still clawing at Devahn, she heard a thud, then a clinking noise. She assumed the switch blade fell to the floor. With all the strength she could muster, Nadia dislodged her left leg out from under him and gave a thrust with everything she had, kicking him square in his manhood.

She felt the pressure of his body ease away from her. As she looked into his face she saw the anger and pain he was feeling. He rose a little, just enough to where Nadia could push him off of her. She jumped to her feet, reached across the desk and found the sleek, silvery opener. He was right behind her now, trying to pin her against the desk.

“It’s over.” He whispered into her ear as he leaned his hands on the desk, one on each side of her.

“Maybe for your good penmanship.” She gasped as she plunged the letter opener into the back of his left hand.

Devahn yelled and reeled away from the desk. Grasping his hand, he pulled the opener out of his flesh. She ran for the door, but his longer strides caught up with her. He grabbed her by her hair and threw her back down. He was atop of her again with his right arm raised, the blade tightly clenched in his fist.

She closed her eyes as he was lowering the weapon, she was readying herself for the impact of cold steel.

But the wait was too long.

It should have been over with by now. She thought.

Nadia opened her eyes and saw a hand wrapped around Devahn’s wrist.

Thank, God! Martin is here.

Devahn slowly turned around, obviously furious. He looked up at his enemy.

“What the….” He scowled and then a look of shock fell across his face.

“Now, now, Bro. Is that anyway to treat a lady?”

Nadia could not believe her eyes, or ears for that matter.

It was Jorma Levitson.

Jorma punched him across the face and knocked him onto the floor. Nadia jumped up and ran over behind her rescuer.

“Thank, God, you’re here.” She panted trying to catch her breath.

Devahn struggled to his feet and stood face to face with the young artist.

“What are you doing?!” He spat out.

“What am I doing? I was about to ask you the same question!” Jorma reached behind him and took hold of Nadia’s hand to make sure she was okay.

She wasn’t sure whether to stay or run.

“Why are you doing this, man?” Jorma shook his head in disgust. “Have you gone crazy?”

Devahn laughed, “Look, I don’t want to hurt you, but I will, if you don’t let that slut go. Step back, Levitson.”

Jorma let go of Nadia. “Get out of here!” He yelled.

Devahn lunged towards Jorma with the blade out. Jorma kicked it out of his hand and jabbed him across the face again. Devahn came back with a punch of his own that sent the lanky artist flying into a wall. Devahn wrapped his hands around Jorma’s neck and began to squeeze, to which Jorma Levitson did in turn, taking hold of Devahn DeMarco’s neck. Which sent them into a frenzied tussle for power.

“Why?” Jorma let out a strangled whisper.

Devahn smiled and slowly answered in a mockingly, careful voice.

“It’s just business.” He gasped.

Their hands clasped tighter.

The artist was about to black out when Devahn suddenly let go of his neck. He opened his eyes and he saw Devahn on the floor.

Nadia was standing over him holding a small sculpture in her hands.

“This has to be the ugliest thing that I have ever seen. You call this art? At least it’s good for something, right?” She waved the small piece of art at him and then let it drop on top of Devahn‘s midsection.

Jorma took off his blazer and wrapped it around her shoulders.

“Are you all right?” He asked.

“Yeah, I think so. But I have got to work out more. I nearly bought it.” She winced at her aching shoulder. Peeking under the blazer, she noticed that she was bleeding from the small cut. “I’m okay, really.”

She put a hand to the side of his face and caressed the spot where Devahn had hit him.

“So, how do you know Devahn?” She asked, a look of concern on her face.

“We go way back.”

“How far back?” She inquired.

He was just about to answer when they heard another voice.

“Nadia, you in here?” Martin’s voice rang out from the bedroom area.

They walked into the bedroom to meet him.

Martin saw the disheveled look of Nadia and then turned to Jorma with furious eyes.

“What the hell is going on here!” He flared at Jorma.

Before he had a chance to go near Jorma, Nadia was in front of him.

“No, no, no, no, Martin. Look at me, calm down. It was Devahn. He caught me off guard and jumped me. He would have killed me if it wasn’t for Jorma here. He saved my life, and fought with him. Devahn was ready to kill him, Martin.” She looked back in Jorma’s direction.

Jorma spoke up, “Look, I don’t know what is going on. I just knew that she was in trouble and it wasn’t right. I’d do the same again. What’s going on? Did you guys disagree on some kind of business deal?””

He rubbed his neck and Martin saw the finger marks that Devahn had left.

Nadia looked up at Martin and whispered. “He couldn’t know what Devahn is involved in. He saved my life, Martin. That couldn’t be faked.”

Martin looked into her eyes and nodded soberly.

“Okay, okay,” He looked up at Jorma still somewhat suspicious of him. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Thank you for your help.”

“Well, I have to thank her also. She knocked him out cold. He’s in the other room there.”

Nadia walked over to the private study. “Yeah, we have to stash him somewhere until he wakes. We can’t leave him here. Senator Sheehan will think the rest of the his guests are in danger .”

She walked slowly into the room with both men behind her.

“Oh, God!” She stared in disbelief.

“He’s gone!” Jorma couldn’t believe his eyes.

“That’s not all that’s gone,” She grabbed hold of Martin’s arm. “Martin, my gun!”

“Shit, I guess they’ll both turn up in time,” Martin scowled. “Let’s clean this place up and return to the party. We don’t want the senator to find blood all over his study.”

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

It had been a week since the gala and no one had seen any sign of trouble from Devahn, but everyone was on their guard. Martin, said it was time to get back to business as usual. The business of making money and occasionally helping the needy.

He was on the phone talking to the police commissioner of Queenston, Roy Houston. It was important to look as clean as possible on paper. Martin would find out who had jumped bail or was wanted by the feds and other agencies, how much he or she was worth. Then if he felt that the reward was worth the risk, they would go on the chase and turn the offender over to the highest bidder.

At times the Central Intelligence Agency would ask for his help on overseas activities. It took a lot of careful planning, so Martin’s underground contacts wouldn’t suspect his involvement with the CIA.

“Yes, Roy. I understand.,” Martin smiled as Nadia and Brianne entered the room. “Sure, give us a week or two, all right? Thanks.” Martin returned the receiver to its cradle.

“Good news?” Nadia took a seat on the davenport next to Martin and leaned against him.

“Just another job. I’m not sure if we all will be going this time. We will require a group for this job though.” He said as he stroked her hair.

“Where’s this one? And why can’t we all go?” Brianne asked.

She couldn’t wait to get out of Florida. Ebony and Nadia generally got all of the interesting work. Brianne was still pretty new to the business.

“Well, just hold on. I’ve got to fill you in on a few things first.”

He stood up, lit a cigar and continued. “Those who go will have separate rooms, except for Ebony and Ian, who will be there as honeymooners. Nadia will be there as a school teacher from Dallas and I will be the lonely, nerdy business man.”

“That’s hard to imagine, honey.” Nadia stood and walked over to the window.

“Hey, I’ve got a wig, glasses, and a suit that Steve Martin wouldn’t touch. Believe me, I’ll fit the part. Okay, here’s the main info, this guy has been spotted in Las Vegas, we will be there for two or three days. Our target is named, Manuel Vega. He’s on the Ten Most Wanted List for bank robbery and murdering a family in the witness protection program. The family was very close to a political figure. There is a one million dollar reward for his capture. In the past he was known for gambling in the back rooms, so we have to draw him out without getting too many casino owners involved. I think that we can pull this all together in less than two weeks.”

Brianne was a little upset. “I want to go, Martin. I am sick and tired of waiting here while everyone else gets to go to exciting places! I work just as hard as anybody and I deserve a chance to prove that I can do something other than get my picture taken!”

Nadia tried to rest Brianne’s temper, “This man is quite dangerous, Brianne. Yes, you do work just as hard as the rest of us, but you have a hot head and that could be trouble. We need someone to be here. We need your backup expertise for this job.”

Brianne looked to Martin again.

“Martin, I can do this. I know I can. “

“Bri!” He gave her a fierce look. “Quiet, I decide who, when, and where. Go and do your hair or something. Maybe you can help on the next job. ”

Martin waved his hand in dismissal to her and watched her stomp away.

When they were alone, Martin walked over to Nadia, who was still staring out the window. He put his arms around her and gave her a tiny squeeze. For such a harsh businessman, it was hard to believe that Martin could be so sweet and compassionate at certain times.

“What’s wrong, Nadi?” He asked as he bent down to kiss her neck.

“Martin, stop.” She shrugged away from his hold.

“Honey, what’s wrong? You’ve been kind of touchy lately?”

She glanced away. “I’ve been thinking, that’s all.”

“About?” He gave her a wary gaze.

“About everything,” She sighed. “Martin, don’t you get tired of this business? I…I’m not sure if like the danger anymore.”

He turned her to face him.

“Hey…you know you love the danger. We have the best contacts and head people in our corner. We take the utmost precautions and are armed to the teeth.”

Nadia just shook her head slowly. “It’s no way to live, Martin.”

“Look, you’ve been away for a while. It’s going to take some getting use to, to get back into the swing of things. And besides, you’re still recovering from Devahn’s attack. You and I both know that he will regret that soon enough.” He hugged her close to him. “I promise.”

She held him for a moment then pulled back.

“It’s not just that, Martin.” She walked over to a sculpture of a child sitting on his mothers lap. “I’ve been thinking about where I’m going and what I’ll do when I get old. Who’ll take care of me, if I even get to be old?”

“Ah, so that’s it. Children, family, marriage and the whole works again. I told you, someday we’ll do that. It’s just not the right time for it, that’s all,” Martin took her hand and led her back to the davenport, they sat. “So, tell me, what brought all this on?”

“I guess you‘re right, It‘s a bit of everything. Devahn’s attack on me, the islands, and being away from you for so long. The children too, I imagine.” Her voice trailed off into a whisper.

“It’s that God damned painting, isn’t it?” His voice filled with disdain for the artist. His first instinct was to not trust, Jorma Levitson, but Nadia seemed to like him. Even though Jorma knew Devahn, Nadia’s instincts were usually on the mark.

“I think the painting reminded me of those things, the things I feel I’m missing out on.”

She let go of Martin’s hand and continued.

“We always seem to be on the run and we have to have alibis for whenever and wherever we are.”

“I know, I know,” Martin threw up his hands in protest at more comments. “But you need excitement, not a carpool and two point five kids. That just isn’t you and you know it.”

The phone rang just then, she reached for it.

“No!” Martin stopped her. “Brianne will get it.”

The phone rang twice more then stopped.

“Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I’m just so tired.” She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

“We’ll talk more after the next job. Maybe you’ll feel a little different then.” Martin pushed a wavy strand of hair from her forehead. He was about to say more when Brianne came flouncing into the room.

“You’ve got a phone call, Nadia. Some guy. I asked who it was, but he just told me that you wanted him to call about the painting? Does that make any sense to you?” Brianne raised her brows in question. “I’m about to take off for a while, if that’s all right? Your caller is on line four.” She started to put on her coat.

“Where are you going?” Martin asked.

“To grab a bite to eat with Ian.” She sighed.

“Tell him to leave his phone on in case I need him.”

She rolled her eyes and waved as she walked out the front door.

“I’ve got to have a talk with her. I think she’s starting to like Ian too much. I don’t want my best marksman shooting off target if we get into a bind.”

Nadia chuckled and gave him a small shove.

“Oh, leave her alone. You’re one to talk. What about us?”

“That’s not the same. We’re used to this stuff.” Martin gave Nadia a long look. “You gave him this number?”

“Who, Ian?” She smirked.

“No, The Painter,” He shook his head. “You’re so friggin’ exasperating at times.”

“I know,” She smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “He could be useful. I’ll see what he wants.”

“I know what he wants and tell him he can’t have it.” He scowled.

She picked up the receiver and pushed line four.

“Hello, Carridge here. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“That’s quite all right. It was worth it.” Jorma’s deep voice answered back. “This is Jorma Levitson. The artist that painted you.”

She gave a short laugh. “You mean the man that saved my life? I still haven’t thanked you properly.”

“Well, you can do that when you get here.”

“Get where?” She asked.

“The Art Look, on Bridle Street. Do you know the place?

“Yes, but….”

“No buts, just be here at 6:30 p.m. sharp, okay? Look, I’ve got to go. Be there.”

And with that he hung up.

She slowly replaced the receiver. What was so important? The picture could be handled by delivery.

“So, what’s going on? That beatnik wouldn’t sell me that picture for anything and now he’s giving it to you?” Martin sneered.

“I guess so. He wants to talk with me tonight.”

“What!” Martin exclaimed a little too loudly. “No, absolutely not. We shouldn’t even be trusting this guy and you want to go meet with him? We have dinner plans anyway.”

“Don’t be jealous, sweetie. I’ll be careful. You can even have one of the guys tail me if you want.” She gave him another soft lingering kiss.

“Oh, you know I will,” He smiled. “Eight o’clock at Fagio’s. Don’t be late.”

Nadia got up and headed for the stairs.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be there.”

She climbed the steps leading up to her room wondering what Jorma could want.

 

The Art Look was in Queenston’s theater district. A maze of antique shops, theaters, outdoor cafe’s, and galleries. Many local artists wanted their work displayed there. It was an old converted warehouse with a second story. The décor was all hardwood floors and cornflower blue beams and columns, with florescent tubes and bulbs attached to various beams along the ceiling, columns and walls. It was inviting and surreal at the same time.

When Nadia walked in she found that the exhibition room was dim.

“Hello, is anyone here?” she called out.

Now, cautious of the situation, Nadia examined the gallery very closely.

She thought about the artist.

No, Jorma isn’t the devious type. It couldn’t be a trap. He did, however, know Devahn and she could never let herself forget that.

“Mr. Levitson, are you in here?” she yelled a little more loudly.

“I’ll be right with you,” A voice called from the back. “Have a look around if you want!”

More relaxed now, she pulled off her long sheer overcoat and tossed it onto a nearby chair. She checked herself in a mirror near the bathroom entrances. With her hair pulled back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck she looked a little older than her twenty-nine years. Her long black dress accentuating

her curves with its plunging neckline daring to show too much of her caramel colored skin.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Ms. Carridge. I had to make a phone call,” Jorma Levitson appeared in a doorway on the opposite side of the gallery. “Please, join me, if you would. There’s coffee in the back if you’d like.”

“I’ll pass on the coffee, thank you, and please call me Nadia.” She looked him over closely. God, she thought, he’s gorgeous.

Jorma carried himself in a similar way as Martin. There was a cunning, assuredness illuminated from his eyes, his walk was like an easy glide, not a sign of awkwardness any where in sight. His form of dress, a white tee shirt and belted black slacks, showed he could have fun one moment and be serious the next.

Nadia met him in the center of the long room.

“Thanks for coming over. This shouldn’t take too long.” He took her arm and lead her to the back room.

He lead her to a small office consisting of a desk, couch, one desk chair, a few folding chairs and a small coffee table in one corner, which held a pot of coffee and two empty tea cups.

“I didn’t know you owned this gallery,” Nadia glanced around the office. “This is nice. It’s really cozy.”

“Oh, no…I, uh, I don’t own this place. I have a very generous benefactor.” He motioned for her to have a seat on the couch. “Please.”

She sat and watched him take a place beside her.

“Oh, so you manage the place for this benefactor?”

“No. Well, I have an agreement with him that says as long as I provide two paintings a month to the gallery I can live upstairs in the loft apartment for free.”

Nadia cocked an eyebrow.

“Almost sounds to good to be true.”

He leaned closer to her.

“To tell you the truth, it’s not that easy to think of different things to paint,” He gave a crooked, boyish grin. “I also do some other work for him on the side.”

“Really, what kind of work?”

“Just simple errands, that’s all,” He quickly changed the subject. “So, what do you do, besides tangle with dangerous businessmen at charity events? And don’t tell me it was all a big misunderstanding. The way you and DeMarco were fighting was so unreal. I’ve never seen him like that. What’s this all about?”

Nadia got up and wandered over to a nearby picture on the wall.

“Misunderstanding,” She shook her head. “I wish it were that simple. No, it wasn’t a misunderstanding. Your friend and I have been at each others throats for years now. That’s why I’m so surprised that we don’t know each other, Jorma. I thought I knew everything about Devahn and his business.”

Jorma stood and walked over to her. “I just can’t understand how you got involved with Devahn DeMarco and his business dealings in the first place.”

“Look, how well do you know DeMarco?” She asked.

“I just know that he’s a big spender and can be very dangerous when things don’t go his way. We cross paths every now and then.”

“Well, you should know that big business and big money are hard to give up. The competition can get dangerous, but the adrenaline rush is so great that you just can‘t give it up. It becomes a way of life.”

“A way of life, how?” He gave her a sly smirk.

“You know a little voice is telling me not to trust you.” She cocked her head to one side and looked up at him.

“But, what is your heart telling you?”

“It‘s telling me to run the hell out of here.” Nadia gave him a serious look.

“Come on….tell me how your interesting life of danger started.” He motioned with his hands like he was showing her a billboard.

”She chucked, shook her head and shrugged.

“It’s not really a secret anyway. So, I’ll trust you for now.” Nadia folded her arms and tried to distract herself from his wandering eyes.

She cleared her throat.

“I had just turned twenty one and graduated from college. My parents were foreign dignitaries, so we traveled a lot. Anyway, my mother and I were traveling around to the private schools where I had interviews for teaching jobs. Well, in the middle of our trip a message came that said my father had been taken hostage on a business trip to Morocco.” She turned away.

“It must have been awful for you.” He said.

“Oh, it was, and it got worse. My mother and I flew over to Rabat, the capitol, to find out how we could free him. No one could, or would, help us.”

“I’m sorry. Really. You don’t have to continue if it too hard to talk about.”

“Oh, I feel so stupid! Look at me. I’m getting frazzled just talking about it.” She gave a faint smile. “No, it’s fine. Anyway, my mother and I went through the streets and back alleyways with a translator until we found a teenage boy that worked for the kidnappers indirectly. Thank goodness he spoke some English. He pulled us aside and confessed that he knew where my father was. He told us that we couldn’t talk to the terrorists, that they don’t listen to reason. The boy said that we would have to break him out and since we were women and didn’t know the area we would need help. We were about to call the embassy, but the boy said no. He said that we needed outside help. We didn’t know anyone there, so he said that he would help us. He felt bad for us and we for him. Most of the young men there were being forced to join the terrorist army. They paid well for runners, people who knew the area well. So, my mother asked him what we should do to get my father out.”

Nadia went over to the desk and started to straighten it up mindlessly.

Why was she telling him this? She asked herself.

Jorma’s hand gently enclosed hers.

“What did you do?” His voice came out low and gentle from behind her.

“Well,” She gently pulled her hand away. “Haji, was the boys name, he told us about foreigners who came in from the sea once a week to sell goods. They might be able to help us, because they were strong and looked like soldiers to him. We would have to meet the leader in a tavern the next day. Haji, would bring him there. So, the next day we met them there and I …”

“Wait.” Jorma said, “Who was this guy? You and your mother were taking a very big risk. You know that, right?”

Nadia nodded, “Oh, yes, we knew all right. Mama wasn’t sure that we should go through with it, but what else could we do?”

“I guess you had no other choice but to try. Please, continue.” He said.

“We met with ‘the leader’ as Haji had called him. His name was Martinez Andoris Reyes – Rocha.” Nadia turned to face him.

“Martinez Andoris?” Jorma whispered, “Kind of sounds like…”

“Martin Anders. You are correct.” Nadia pointed a slim finger up at him.” I think I will have that coffee now.”

“Yeah,” Jorma said, “Me too.”

He poured the coffee as Nadia reclaimed her seat on the couch.

“This sounds so unreal, but fascinating.” His voice was filled with awe as he handed her the cup.

She nodded, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t live through it myself.”

“Please, go on.” He urged her as he sat down.

“Well, Martin didn’t even give it a thought. He said that he would help us, but he had to charge us five hundred thousand dollars after the rescue was completed.”

Jorma let out a slow whistle. “Kind of steep isn’t it?”

“We thought so. I mean how could this man, this stranger, put a price on my father’s head? I was furious.”

“What did your mom say?”

“Momma said, ‘Anything to get, Montero back.’ ” Nadia took a sip of the warm, brown liquid then continued, “The compound, where my father was being held, was on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean just a couple of miles southwest of Rabat. We took jeeps up to a safe point …”

“You went with them?” Jorma gasped, clearly shocked.

“Yes, as did Momma, I told her not to, but she wouldn’t listen,” She chuckled. “I think that’s where I get my stubbornness. Martin was furious and said that it was impossible, but I then reminded him of the money that we were doling out and he grudgingly gave in. Anyway, as I was saying, we took the jeeps up to a safe point and then hiked the rest of the way. Martin’s men were kept on the outside of us for protection. Some of them were ex-cons, but most of them were ex-soldiers and they would go into Rabat to sell weapons and other profitable goods. So, they had all the experience we needed to help my father. We were spread out enough so the lookouts wouldn’t notice an extra rustle or two of bushes. Kenji, our frontman, would take care of the guards as we came up on them…”

“You mean knock them out?” his mouth dropped.

“No… no…Kenji was the type to just shoot. No questions asked. We were terrified, but knew that it was very necessary. The guards would not think twice about killing any of us, so we did what was required. We finally made it to an underground cellar that lead into the basement of the compound,

where my father was being held. Haji went in and told the guards that their leader, Torel, wanted to see them and he was sent down to watch my father. ”

“Didn’t they think that was odd?

“Not in the least. Haji was a servant boy and he was often sent to do stand in jobs. Well, when the guards left, Haji, simply took the keys and let him out. Mom and I were so overjoyed to see him we couldn’t stop hugging him and saying I love you over and over. We all took off, back towards the tunnels

and then to the jeeps. Mom wouldn’t let my father go, not for an instant. It was strange watching my parents run through the woods. Mama dressed in camouflage fatigues and Father in his torn up business suit. It was very traumatic. On our way through the woods a soldier came back from his rounds sooner than we expected and we were spotted. They fired on us and took chase. Haji was shot in the process.”

“Did he die?” Jorma asked wide eyed.

“Miraculously, no. Martin picked the boy up and carried him, running full speed back to the jeeps. Martin, Haji and I were in the first jeep. I wanted to ride with Mama and Father, but Martin said that they were too far behind and would have to ride in one of the other jeeps. As I looked back I saw more soldiers emerging from the woods and then I saw an explosion. Someone had thrown a grenade and had taken out one of the jeeps.”

“Your parents?”

“Yes. I screamed, cried out for them. I almost jumped out of the jeep I was in, but Martin held my wrists down as the jeep came to a halt. He screamed at me to be quiet. He told me that we were safe and that was all that mattered at that point. We couldn’t do anything to save them, but Haji was in the back seat and we had to save him. I was so hysterical that he had to slap me, then he just held me close and let me cry. I calmed down after a while and tended to Haji, putting pressure on his back wound as his men drove us to the closest hospital. I figured that I had to be brave for this boy, he was so scared. Martin said that that impressed him the most about me.”

“You must have been terrified.” Jorma gasped.

“Yes, I was devastated. My parents used to explain to me that we would be in strange countries off and on and things were might get scary from time to time. Some situations would be hard to deal with, but they never mentioned anything like kidnapping. Now…where was I? Oh, yes, we had dropped Haji at the hospital. I hated leaving him there, but we had to get to the ship and leave as soon as possible. The gorillas could have been following us, so we had to be quick.”

“To get you out of the country.” Jorma pointed out.

“Yes. I didn’t want to go, but Martin got through to me.”

“Did you still pay him his money?” He sneered.

“No. I told him on the way to the boat that I would get him his money as soon as I could get to Switzerland, but, he told me since he did not fulfill his duty that I did not need to pay him.”

“God and you had no one else to turn to when you got back stateside. That must have been terrible.” Jorma said.

“Not exactly. You see, when we finally got back to the boat we were met there by Kenji…”

“Wait.” Jorma held up his hands. “ I thought Kenji was killed when your parents jeep was blown up.”

“We thought so too.” She smiled, “The grenade hit a tree close to the jeep and it crashed into some bushes. Kenji told my parents to jump just in time. When they met us back at the boat hey were a little bruised and banged up, but other than that they were fine.”

“Oh, wow! Whew, you really had me going there for a while.” Jorma slumped back against the small sofa with a look of relief.

“Sorry, it’s just more dramatic that way.” She chuckled.

“So, that means Martin got his fee after all.” Jorma sat up and waited for her response. Nadia smiled with a far-off look, then shook her head slowly.

“No, he didn’t. He told my parents that he couldn’t charge them.” She shifted her gaze towards Jorma.

“Why not?”

“He told them that he didn’t feel right taking their money because he had feelings for me.”

“Just like that?

“Yes, just like that,” She nodded, “I also felt something for him the first moment I saw him. Does that sound weird?”

“No, not at all.” He gazed at her, “Did you trust him?”

“Yes, yes I did. I knew I trusted him the moment he put his arms around me. He thought of me rather than his own safety. I knew I had to be with him for the rest of my life.”

“So, you guys are married. I see the ring on your finger.” He lightly ran his finger over the band on her left hand.

She stared down at the platinum band littered with diamonds.

“No, we’re not officially married. It’s kind of an unofficial engagement slash marriage. I wear it almost everyday.”

“Kind of a long engagement. Don’t you think?” His brows rose in question.

Nadia cleared her throat and avoided the inquiry, “Well, anyway, we’ve been together ever since.”

He chuckled at her, “I know that can’t be the whole story.”

“You’re right, but the rest of that story is for another time.” She winked, “And you will keep this to…?”

“To myself.” He added. “You have nothing to worry about. I promise.”

“Somehow, I believe you.”

“Somehow, you should.” He nudged her.

“Well, on to the matter at hand. What am I here for?”

“Oh, Yes. I almost forgot what with your exciting tales of Rabat.” He stood and walked over to the desk and pulled some papers out of the drawer.

He handed her the papers.

“You need to sign these.”

“Why?” She took the papers with a puzzled expression.

“These papers give you half of all the money I make on painting you.” He smiled.

“Jorma, you don’t have to do this. I didn’t mind the painting, it was beautiful.”

“Nadia, that’s not the only one. There are a few more and I’d like permission to paint more.” He sat back down. “Say, yes.”

He placed a hand on her thigh.

She felt a surge run through her. She jumped to her feet nearly dropping the papers.

Jorma jumped to his feet also.

“Look,” She said, “I’m not allowed to sign anything without clearing it with Martin first. So, I’ll have to get back to you on this.”

“Okay, I hope he allows you to do this.” He smirked.

“Thank you for letting me see the gallery.” She smiled.

“Anytime,” He nodded, “Let me show you out.”

He walked her back through the gallery and helped her on with her coat. He tried to give her a kiss on the cheek, but she put a finger to his lips.

“I think a handshake would be sufficient for now, Mr. Levitson.”

His eyes twinkled.

“Of course.” He smiled, “Until next time.”

He shook her hand and watched her walk out the door.

As she walked back to the waiting car and driver she smiled and shook her head as she glanced at the car parked in back of them. It hadn’t been good enough just to send the driver, Martin had sent a few more of the boys to watch out for her.

 

“You’re not signing this shit!” Martin yelled.

Fagio’s dark, chatty, romantic atmosphere grew a bit quieter.

“Martin…lower your voice.”

“It says here that he would be able to paint you in the nude. No, no, there is no damn way. I won’t have it.”

Papa Angelo Sangramano came around to their table.

“What’s going on here with my favorite couple? Is the manicotti all right?”

“The food is fine, Angelo. It’s my woman here who is twisted! Some guy wants to see her naked!” Martin ground his teeth in anger.

“Ah! I see. You need his legs broke.” Angelo laughed.

Martin smiled, “Hey, now that’s an idea…”

“No!” Nadia whispered, “That won’t be necessary, Poppy. He’s just an artist. I’m sure anything he does will be done with the utmost taste.”

“All right, but just you remember, cara. You are like my own. If you both need my family….” He shook a stout finger at them.

“Yes, Poppy. We will let you know.” She smiled.

“Good, so, you two ready for desert?” Poppy asked.

Martin nodded, “Yes, please, Angelo. Surprise us.”

The rest of the night was full of dancing and wine. It was nearly perfect, except for the image of Jorma Levitson running through Martin’s mind.

From where do I know him? He thought.

 

AND TODAY I GOT IT!

I used to always pay attention to my dreams, but I have been very lax about that lately.

I was going through a construction zone at 52mph…! Crap!

And….I’m not disputing it. I had just exited a highway onto a long stretch of road and there was a construction zone right after there. I was trying to slow down, but it was too late.

Now, I haven’t had a ticket since I was like, 20….which I told the cop. Then, I couldn’t find my insurance….which I do have.

So, Officer Coleman, gave me a warning ticket, which means I have to show my proof of insurance in court with a ‘not guilty’ plea.

Yeah……I’ve never been to court before!

But….what kind of MORON am I, not to listen to my dreams?!?!?!

I will from now on!

Namaste!

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