This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any actual resemblance to persons or historical persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Dukes of Hazzard characters, settings, locales, ect. are owned by other entities who have not endorsed this fic nor have they given express permission for the character's use. Author makes not claims to these characters and is not making any profit from their use.

All original characters are the property of the author(s).

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the author or any legally assigned agents of the author.

© Copyright: 2003. Brian Coltrane

 

BLACK ROSE

 

*** ***
"Character note: My sincere thanks to Daney for the story inspiration, and for the use of one of her characters, Auna. My thanks to MaryAnne as well, for a few scene inspirations and for the cameo appearance."

"Warning to readers under 17. This story contains adult language and adult situations. If "steamy" scenes offend you or will get you in trouble with mom, please contact this webmaster and request an edited version. Tho' if it's any comfort, nothing in here uses locker-room descriptions. I tried approaching the topic with grace, but good taste is in the eye of the beholder."

*** ****

 

Johnny Mancini smiled at his visitor.  It was pleasant to see that Auna retained a healthy fear of him, despite the bullet-proof glass that separated them.  He read the uncertainty in the nervous face of his estranged relative, saw the nervous folding and unfolding of her hands.

 

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Auna said to the former Don of the Atlanta Syndicate.  “I…wasn’t sure how you would feel about a visit.”

 

“Auna,”  Mancini said placatingly, “You and I are family. Nothing more needs to be said about the past.  I’m not the same man today as I was then.”  Mancini’s broad face held a soft expression.  “I regret many things, Auna. Many, many things.”

 

Auna fidgeted in her chair.  Her cousin’s commanding presence could not be reduced by the orange jumpsuit of a Federal prisoner; it was not lessened by the glass, the guards, the concrete.  She felt mistrustful of the letters that had begun to arrive from him on a regular basis.  This, man, the same man who would have killed her for a breach of the Oath, was now claiming that he had found a measure of peace in his confinement, and wanted nothing more than to make amends with her. 

 

“I can see you have your doubts,” Mancini said openly.  His large frame leaned forward, his furrowed eyes seeming to burn with an inner purpose.  “It’s good that you’re here.  You see, Auna…the years I have left in life will be spent behind bars.  I’ve accepted this.”

 

She heard the placid tone in Mancini’s voice.  It contained no bitterness.  This surprised her, and she blurted a question out before she could stop herself.  “Then why did you want me to visit so urgently?”

 

Mancini leaned back with a deep sigh, but his smile remained in place.  “I am thinking of the future, my dear. Your future.  Every leader of the Syndicate knows there’s a day where he may be arrested or replaced.  I denied that the day would ever come, in my case…perhaps that is why I fought so hard to defend my position.”

 

Auna nodded awkwardly.  “In any event,” Mancini continued, “I was not blind to the possibility.  I had contingency plans in place against unfortunate days such as this.  It’s time you knew of them.”

 

“Plans?” She whispered, conscious of the cameras and the guards. 

 

“Yes,” Mancini said, and again his eyes held that intense, focused gaze.  It was the look he gave when dispensing orders, only this time his voice never changed volume and his hands did not clench into fists.  Yet Auna felt the power radiating from him; the authority of a man who’s words could mobilize men to kill…

 

“Auna,” he said sharply, bringing her attention to him.  “You are my heir. The holdings of the Syndicate rightly belong to you.”

 

“Wh-what?”  She stammered.  “Johnny…the Syndicate is…”

 

“I know.”  Mancini held up a broad, meaty palm.  “The Syndicate has fallen into ruin.  Spade abandoned it.  Tyler died before reclaiming it.”

 

Auna held her breath.  “Then you know…”

 

“Yes. Brian Coltrane holds the pieces.  He will fail, Auna.  He has neither the strength, the resources, nor the will to keep the organization together.  He will be overtaken before the year is out.”

 

“You should find comfort in that thought,” Auna said. 

 

“I find comfort in knowing that Brian Coltrane will either die or come here to join me.  I’m truly wishing for the latter.”  At this, Mancini revealed an ounce of his old self, the venom returning to his voice.  “Despite that, I cannot allow the Syndicate’s wealth – my wealth – to be exhausted by fools.” 

 

A moment passed while Mancini’s temper gathered about him like a cloak.  He made a visible effort to shed it, shutting his eyes and inhaling a huge breath.  Letting it out slowly, he regarded his cousin once again.  “You disappointed me once,” he said.  “It no longer matters.  You have more than my forgiveness…you have my blessing.  Take the Syndicate, Auna.  Restore it to the name of our family.  Claim it’s wealth as your own!”

 

Incredulous, Auna gaped at him. “You can’t be serious….”

 

“I am dead serious, my dear.  The greatest comfort I could have is knowing that you are financially secure…and that the name Mancini demands respect in Atlanta once again.”

 

Visions of the Jigsaw’s glory days were sifting through Auna’s mind.  She remembered the way her cousin used to hold court, presiding over businessmen, politicians, criminals, law enforcement…and how his merest wishes sent people scrambling, killing, stealing, dying…it would be horrible and yet exulting at the same time, to rule this underworld…

 

She never imagined having it for herself.  She was always on the fringes, doing odd jobs for her cousin, staying out of the core operations by her own design.  Life and liberty were often short in the inner circles of the Syndicate.  But what had she accomplished on her own?  Nothing, to be honest.  She was doomed to stay broke and grow old… and having nobody and nothing, would eventually to die of a drug overdose or of alcoholism a state-subsidized apartment.

 

Auna was too close to it now.  She choked out one word.  “How?”

 

Mancini smiled contentedly.  “As I said, my dear…I had contingency plans. You are the means of carrying them out.”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

“No, Ace.”  Brian shook his head, arms folded.  The Syndicate Don held his ground against the objection of his captains.  He stared down at the subjects of the dispute, two hooded teenagers who had been caught trying to hold up Bennie’s gas station.  Bennie’s was a Syndicate holding, much to the chagrin of the would-be thieves.  The gas station attendant had brandished a concealed .44 against the novice criminals, proceeding to lock them in the restroom until Ace and Tony came to collect them.  Now, terrified and shaking, the two kids were kneeling on the cement floor of the Jigsaw’s basement, hands bound behind them, with old bank currency sacks tied loosely over their heads. 

 

“Why not?” Ace protested.  He prodded one lanky teen in the back of the head with his gun barrel. “This is about territory! This is about respect for Syndicate turf! Nobody would have dared this in Mancini’s days!”

 

“We didn’t know!” The teenager who had been prodded cried out.  “We didn’t know it was your turf!”

 

“Shut up!”  Ace ordered, adding another prod from the gun.  The youth whimpered but fell silent.  His friend hadn’t spoken, but the short, shallow breathing coming through the currency sack was proof of his fear. 

 

Tony threw in his opinion.  “Don Coltrane, you don’t need to worry about this. It’s small potatoes.  Ace and me can handle it.  If you don’t want ‘em shot, we’ll smother ‘em, throw ‘em in a running car in a closed garage. We’ll make it look like suicide.”

 

Interested, Ace’s expression lit up.  “That could work. Smother them until they’re unconscious, leave them breathing enough to let the carbon settle in the lungs.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Brian let out a snarl.  “Disregard my orders at your own damn peril. I said no.

 

Ace growled like a dog who had been forced back from wounded prey.  “Fine. Maybe we should take them down to the Tastee Freeze for an ice cream?” He said sarcastically.

 

“What’s tonight’s flavors?” Tony asked.  “They still got that praline-caramel thing?”

 

“Oh, screw it.”  Ace shoved his gun back into the shoulder holster within his jacket.  He cast a menacing scowl at Brian.  “Let me know when you have any real work you want me to do.”   The blonde-haired hitman stormed off, hiking up the stairs to return to the Jigsaw’s main floor. 

 

Ace’s insubordination rankled Brian, but he had other concerns at the moment.  “Tony.”

 

“Yeah, boss?”

 

“You’re going to take the adventure boys here to Atlanta Memorial Hospital.”

 

“They’re not hurt…” Tony started to say.  Then he caught the look in Brian’s eye.

 

Grimly, Brian held up his left hand, and indicated a measure of space between his thumb and forefinger.  There was instruction in the gesture as to the degree of punishment to be issued.  Tony read it, nodded, and showed no emotion. 

 

Brian pulled the hoods off from the two teenagers.

 

He snapped his fingers once and turned away.

 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

“Bad night already?”  Rusty asked.  He took note of the empty booze glasses and the cigarette-laden ashtray in front of Brian.

 

“Ace is pushin’ his luck.”  Brian poured another shot.  “If he wasn’t such a deadly son-of-a-bitch, I’d beat the hell outta ‘em.”

 

Rusty laughed.  “You could take him. Your cousin Rosco did.”

 

“Sure, I could take ‘em. I’d get a knife in my back when I turned around though.”

 

The red-haired criminal chuckled again.  “That’s possible.”

 

Brian grunted into his drink. “Hmph.”  After another swallow of fiery liquid, he sat the glass down and looked at Rusty.  “Ya know, Rust…sometimes I think Ace is only loyal to his own ego.  I got along with him in the old days, but now…”

 

“He never expected to see you back here,” Rusty guessed. “None of us did.”

 

“It’s more than that.”  Brian held up his right hand, curling his fingers to study the gold ring.  “He was next in line, Rusty.”

 

“What?”

 

“Spade already had a successor in mind before I showed up. Any guess who?”

 

“No way,” Rusty muttered.  “Not Ace…”

 

“Yeah, Ace.”  Brian took a cigarette from the inner pocket of his suit.  He snapped open a gold-plated lighter, lit up, and gave a long sigh of smoke.  “I had my suspicions for a long time.  I finally confirmed it with Lou today.”

 

“Lou? The guy that runs the delicatessen? How would he know?”

 

“Lou’s been around a long time. He knows more about Syndicate politics than anybody in Atlanta.  If he thinks Ace used to be the next one in line…it’s probably true.”

 

Rusty gave a low whistle.  “You think Ace ever knew this?”

 

“I ain’t sure,” Brian said.  “But at the least, he damn well hoped for this ring someday.”

 

“Didn’t we all?”  Rusty shrugged.  “Ace disagrees with you a lot, Bri…but he fought beside you against Tyler and covered your back.”

 

“Maybe he didn’t expect me to survive that fight, Rust.  Or maybe he didn’t expect me to stay here when it was all over.”

 

“Bri, you’re boxing with shadows.  Ace isn’t acting any different. You’re the one who’s changed, man…”

 

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”  Brian ended his words with another breath of smoke.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

It was late at night when a taxi paused at the Jigsaw’s curb.  Auna paid the driver and got out, one small luggage case clutched nervously in her hand.  She hadn’t been here since the last time she had worked for Johnny Mancini.  It had proven to be her last assignment as a private investigator. 

 

Shaking the memories from her head, she gathered her resolve and walked through the front door.  The place felt different. She sensed it immediately without being able to describe exactly what had changed.  Music played from the jukebox and the sounds of gambling devices were obvious.  Neon colors were glowing from the windows, their brightness softened by the lazy haze of collected cigarette smoke.  Pool tables were busy with the click and rumble of cue balls.  Empty bottles clanged into waste containers behind the bar. 

 

Then it hit her.  It was the people who were different.  Thugs and tough cases mingled throughout the Jigsaw as usual, and working girls decorated the interior of the establishment with perfumed and painted grace.  The customers, however…were anybody and everyone.  There were scores affluent businessmen from the uptown district, and there were blue-collar workers aplenty.  Dating couples and husbands and wives wandered through the Jigsaw, clearly enjoying the novel atmosphere.

 

Auna didn’t know what to think.  The more she looked around, the more the subtle changes were evident.  The furnishings were new; the bar had been refurbished and the gambling equipment looked Vegas-quality.  So many of the faces were unfamiliar, however.  She recognized only a few survivors from the Mancini era, but doubted any of them could recall her face in return.  Her hair was dyed a honey-gold and she had put on the most makeup she’d ever worn in her life.  Hopefully, it would fool anyone it had to fool…

 

“Don Coltrane!”  A voice said off her left shoulder, and Auna nearly jumped.  Toothless Tony, the gambling hustler who spent much of his time at the poker tables, brushed past Auna.  He walked over to a brown-haired man wearing a black, elegant, three-piece suit.

 

Auna wandered over in that direction. Hearing the title of Don Coltrane sent her heart scurrying around in her ribs.  She remembered Brian Coltrane as a wheelman, as an up-and-coming thug in the ranks, known for his clever planning of heists and devious escapes.  Mancini had taken notice of the young man’s potential and had been grooming him for the upper ranks; but seeds of doubt had been planted in the Don’s ears by Brian’s envious rivals. Auna had been subsequently hired to observe and report Brian’s activities.  Disloyalty was paid in death in those days…Auna knew this as well as anyone.

 

Auna’s assignment had turned to disaster, largely because of the whims of her former investigative partner, Daney Duke.  Daney found something intriguing in Brian…while at the same time, Auna had accepted a financial offer from one of his rivals to see him destroyed.  The resulting conflict had been costly to Auna on both personal and professional levels.

 

Mancini, feeling betrayed by Auna’s hidden agendas, made it clear that her death warrant had been signed. And although some unknown intervention had spared her from immediate dispatch that fateful night, her life had already ended in many ways. 

 

Now, the cause of her personal downfall, as well as Mancini’s, was standing before her in conversation with Tony.  She caught every word the two men exchanged.

 

“Tony, what do you mean, five thousand dollars?”  Brian asked.

 

“Table stakes ran high tonight…sir.”

 

“You mean you underestimated somebody and they cleaned you out.  Five thousand bucks, Tony?

 

“Yes sir, Don Coltrane.”  Tony grimaced.

 

Brian took a step closer and lowered his voice.  “Listen man…call me “sir” all you want, but it won’t appease me none when I’m tallyin’ the ledger.  Pay the customer…but if you run the table over the limit again and lose, I’ll treat you to the traditional interest and penalties when I collect it back outta yer hide.  Dig?”

 

Tony nodded, looking deflated.  Losing was bad enough; but losing by such a large amount and having to report it was awful.  He returned to the gaming area in disgrace. 

 

Auna was bringing her courage up when another Syndicate member sought out the Don. “Brian! We’re out of Peppermint Schnapps.”

 

“Jeeze, Rusty…so sell ‘em some beer!  Who the hell comes to a place like this to drink Peppermint Schnapps??”

 

Rusty pointed slowly towards the bar.  Seated at it were two Federal officers, who Brian recognized as Commander Frank Mayson and Special Agent Roger Kelley, Atlanta FBI. 

 

Brian swallowed quickly.  “Rust. Tell me those two are off-duty…”

 

“They are. I asked before I served them.”

 

“Awright.”  Brian dug a fifty out of his wallet and slapped it into Rusty’s hand.  “Take this and run down to Tyrone’s Liquors. Get some of the good stuff and keep the nice agents happy.”

 

“You got it.”  Rusty ran off.  Brian smiled cordially at the two agents, giving a wave.  Knowing better than to talk to them and possibly incriminate himself in the process, he sent two working girls over to keep the men distracted.

 

He turned to retreat back to his private table, but nearly collided with Auna.  “Whups! ‘Scuze me, ma’am. Didn’t see you there.”

 

Auna flushed with feminine discomfiture.  “I’m sorry, I was standing too close…I’m so sorry!”

 

“No damage done.”  Brian smiled at the honey-blonde woman. She was an attractive lady, and he noticed it as an afterthought.   “Tell you what, miss…why don’t you go up to the bar and have a drink on the house.  Tell ‘em it’s courtesy of Don Coltrane.”

 

“Oh…why thank you,” Auna fluttered.  “You’re very kind! But I’m not here to drink or to gamble…”

 

“Lemme guess. You’re a pool shark?”

 

“No,” Auna said shyly.  “Um…I can’t really say it here in front of everyone…”

 

“I understand.”  Inwardly, Brian sighed.  So many desperate women with no other means to support themselves seemed to find their way to the Jigsaw’s door.  “Let’s talk back here, where there’s privacy.”  He placed a gentle hand on the small of her back and guided her to his private table. 

 

The woman, to her credit, did not flinch from his touch.  She had a halfway decent chance of working out, then.  So many girls proclaimed that they were ready to do anything to make a living…and then couldn’t handle the common intimacies that were part of everyday human contact.  A handshake, a palm on the back, a kiss or hug…these acts were beyond them.  Yet they came to the Syndicate claiming talents in areas unmentionable.

 

Brian indicated for Auna sit across from him.  He seated himself only after she had been seated.  The gentlemanly conduct surprised Auna.  She was coming here under the guise of seeking a prostitute’s opportunity; but Brian was treating her with great courtesy, as if she were a lady of importance.  The thought made her chuckle with irony.  If Brian knew her true purpose, he would not be so welcoming.

 

“So,” Brian said conversationally, “You were in the neighborhood and thought you’d drop by…”

 

“I’m in so much trouble,” Auna made herself whimper.  “I have no one else to turn to and nowhere to go!  I need work…any kind of work…”

 

“Can you type?”  Brian asked, deadpan.

 

“Why…yes,” Auna answered, but the question threw her thoughts into disarray.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t think this kind of thing called for a resume’…”

 

“What kind of thing are we talking about?”  Brian’s dark eyes were suddenly keen and intense.  Auna quickly understood the reason for his roundabout style of drawing information.  He was suspicious of her being an undercover cop!  Therefore, he would not be the one to suggest certain duties in exchange for cash payment.

 

Auna did something a female cop would be unlikely to do.  She burst into tears, hiding her face with her hands.  “Do I have to spell it? I should have never come here! I don’t even have cab fare to get home…” Auna gave a hitching sob.

 

“Aw, now…take it easy.”  Brian reached out and lifted up Auna’s chin with his fingertips, bidding her to look at him.  She did so, without flinching away. This accomplished, he lightly caressed his open palm along her jawline, sliding it down her neck to rest casually on her shoulder.  She didn’t move or deny him. 

 

Brian nodded to her.  “I can’t make you any promises,” he said.  “And anything that happens tonight is just between us.”  His eyes focused on her with a mix of compassion and question…and silent command. 

 

Auna trembled and couldn’t prevent the shudder that ran through her.  So this was the test.  No talk of money, no promise of a job of any kind.  Apparently the “interview” which would soon take place would be the measurement of her willingness to work for the Syndicate…and of her qualifications.  She had to admit that Brian was being clever. It was doubtful that any undercover officer would go any further in the line of duty. Auna herself wasn’t sure if she could go through with it.

 

Silently, Brian stood up from the table and offered Auna his hand.  It was her choice. Take his hand and follow him upstairs, or ignore her purpose and flee the Jigsaw.

 

She looked up into those dark eyes and felt them drawing her in, asking for consent…

 

Auna rose from the table and took his hand. Brian clutched her hand reassuringly, holding her palm loosely in his own. She could drop the grasp and turn away.  Her choice.

 

She walked with him up the stairs, up the long, winding staircase of the old Atlanta hotel.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Sunlight glimmered through the window.  Auna woke up and felt a momentary panic; she wasn’t certain where she was while in the twilight of sleep.  Then she remembered where she was, and why…and who she was in bed with.

 

Auna shifted her body and turned to her side, pulling the black satin sheets over her chest.  She was bare and she felt chilled.  The warmth of the human body next to her was enticing, but she shunned it.  She could not afford to feel anything with this man; especially comfort.

 

If only she could have reminded herself of that last night.  Unexpectedly and in surprise to herself, Auna had cooperated with Brian in ways that went beyond her clinical purpose.  His touch should have repelled her; it didn’t.  His taking of her was not the demanding, selfish use that Auna had grown used to in her life.  Rather, it was the unhurried questing to know her being in it’s entirety; until finally, at her own whispered urging, he claimed her…all of her.  And she gave herself, willingly and with an abandon that petrified her in the cold reality of the dawn.

 

Daylight was brightening the austere suite that served as the Don’s private quarters.  Auna could see the slow rise and fall of Brian’s chest with his relaxed breathing.  He was asleep on his back, bare as she was, the satin sheet covering most of his body. 

 

What it did not cover were the wounds that marred his upper torso.  A healed shoulder injury was obvious in the layers of pale scars. Another wound near the center of his chest had left deep scar tissue that spoke of a very close call.  Auna found herself reaching out with her fingertips to touch the healed wound, as if to feel the heartbeat beneath…

 

No, she thought to herself, moving her hand away.  Her motion caused Brian to stir, and he gave a long, deep sigh and started to stretch, a great, gaping yawn announcing his return to the living.   He abruptly recalled that he was not alone, and his brown eyes snapped open.  He pulled the sheet quickly over his chest, then turned his head slightly to look at Auna.

 

“Mornin’,” he said quietly, giving a small smile. 

 

“Good morning,” she answered, blushing and feeling a little foolish.  She wasn’t sure what she had expected, but for some reason, conversation was more difficult than anything else she could imagine at this point. 

 

Brian simply gazed at her for a moment, etching a face into memory.  Auna froze. Did he recognize her?

 

No. He made no sign of it.  Nor did he add words at the moment.  Instead, he reached for her hand and brought it to his lips, kissing the delicate fingers she curled around his palm.  He let her go and rose from the bed.  He obtained a black robe from over the back of a nearby chair; he slid it on and tied the sash, then located another for Auna from within the closet.  He brought it to her, and when she declined to sit up to put it on, he left it for her on the bed. 

 

“Take your time,” he said.  “You can leave when you’re ready.  You’ll find cab fare on the bar downstairs…or if you’d prefer, you can take the key that will be sitting there, and settle into a room.  The rent here is reasonable, and I’m sure you’ll have no problems covering it.”

 

“Thanks,” Auna murmured inadequately.  She had the job.

 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

 

“Well-hell-hell! Good morning, Rome-e-o!”  Rusty chirped.  “How was the interview?”

 

“What interview?”  Brian said, yawning.  Barefoot and wearing nothing but a pair of slacks and a black robe, Brian was staggering around the main floor of the Jigsaw with a cup of coffee. 

 

“Come on,” Rusty grinned.  “You think me and the girls would be up so early if we didn’t know there’d be a chance to catch you looking like this?”

 

Brian looked quickly to the second floor balcony.  “You didn’t….”

 

Squeals and giggles erupted from the second floor, and fifteen women rushed up to the railing to wave enthusiastically at their boss.  “Briiiiaaaaaan!”  They sang out.  “Good morniiiiing!!!”

 

“What happened to “Don Coltrane?” he grumbled, squinting up at them. “What the hell are y’all doin’ up so early…weren’t any of you workin’ last night?”

 

“We were working, but not as hard as you!”  Bawdy laugher rained down from the girls.  

 

“Cripes, am I going to make the newspaper or something today?”  Brian groused, but he was holding back a chuckle. 

 

“According to the new girl, you should!”  More laugher rang out, and Brian saw Auna’s face peeking over the railing, smiling.  The rest of the girls were making her feel welcome, and it pleased Brian to see it.

 

“Get that poor girl some coffee,” Brian called up. 

 

“Coffee? After a night with you, she needs an antidote,” Rusty quipped. 

 

“Go to hell, Rusty.”

 

“I’ll see you there, Bri.”

 

It was too early for comebacks.  Brian gave Rusty a friendly punch to the gut, handed him the empty coffee cup, and staggered up the stairs. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Lou heard the ring of the door chime as another customer walked in.  The deli was doing a good business these days, and he had no sooner finished bagging one order when another was placed.  It could have been the new seven-grain breads he started offering; but more than likely, the business increase was a by-product of improving neighborhood prosperity.  How long it would last, no one knew.  Lou always banked his windfall profits against leaner times, so he remained as neutral as ever in his civic opinions.

 

“Be right with you,” he told the waiting customer as he quickly shaved off a pound of roast beef in the slicer.  He wrapped and bagged the previous order, handed it off, then gave his full attention to the expensive-suited customer who waited patiently at the counter.  At the sight if the Syndicate Don standing there, Lou gave a respectful nod.  “The usual, Mr. Coltrane?”

 

“Yeah.”  Brian noticed the stack of fresh-sliced beef.  “Looks like you were expectin’ me.”

 

“It’s lunchtime,” Lou said.  “I’m expecting everybody.”  His jovial, round face was filled with a smile.  He prepared Brian’s lunch with efficient care, slicing a fresh loaf of wheat bread for the occasion.  He slathered it with mayo-horseradish spread, stacked it with lettuce and tomato, piled on a heap of roast beef and a slice of cheese, then cut the sandwich in a diagonal.  Toothpicks with olives crowned the top of each half, and the whole thing was set on a paper plate with a pickle spear in the center.

 

“Fit for a king,” Lou declared, bringing the plate to Brian. 

 

“Olives on the toothpicks? What the hell, is it my birthday? You’re getting extravagant, Lou.” 

 

“I’m still cheap on the napkins,” Lou pointed out, pulling out a couple from behind the counter and parting with them grudgingly. 

 

Brian grinned.  “That’s true.”  He took a few bites of the sandwich, while Lou served up a dish of coleslaw and brought over a cold soda.   It didn’t take Brian long to tear through his lunch, which he consumed while standing up at the counter.  He kept a steady lookout on the door and windows, which was noticed by Lou.

 

“I don’t think there’s much going on today,” Lou said noncommittally.

 

“I don’t want to be the last to find out if there is,” Brian remarked.  He brushed the last crumbs away with a napkin and turned to Lou.  “I was wonderin’.  Did you hear anything about two teenagers holdin’ up a gas station last night?”

 

“Sure did. Word is, they got roughed up for it.”

 

“Are they okay?”

 

“They’re fine. Treated and released for some cuts and bruises. Nothing serious.”

 

“That’s good.”  Brian took out his wallet and threw twenty bucks down on the counter.  “Thanks, Lou.  Keep the change.”

 

“You’re a sport.”  Lou smiled broadly.  “Thank you, Mr. Coltrane.”

 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

In her small hotel room at the Jigsaw, Auna was unpacking the scant belongings she had brought with her.  The room was clean and tidy, and like the main floor, it had evidence of being recently spruced up.  All in all, the place was in better shape than she remembered.

 

For some reason, it bothered her to find the Jigsaw improved.  She didn’t know why.  She had never cared to set foot in the place, if she could help it.   It could have burned to the ground without any tears from her. 

 

Today, she felt differently. It could have been her cousin’s words ringing through her ears that gave her a new outlook. You are my heir. The holdings of the Syndicate rightly belong to you…

 

She wanted something to show for her life.  The Syndicate had cost her everything; more accurately, Brian Coltrane had cost her everything.  Auna would see to it that the Syndicate would pay her back…while Brian would pay dearly for his part.  Damn his charm. It wouldn’t save him.  She was weak last night, nervous, unprepared, and vulnerable. Now that she had won her way into the Syndicate, she felt confidence returning, and with it, her dedication to carrying out Mancini’s plans.

 

Her thoughts boiled and simmered along these lines as she finished unpacking.  Her clothes were put away, her makeup kit sorted out, and the room was soon organized to her liking.  The accommodations were humble, but temporary.  She had the means and method to occupy the Don’s suite…it was simply a matter of time.  First, she had to win Brian’s complete confidence and take over his heart. 

 

Then she could take his life.

 

Auna opened a side compartment in her luggage case and removed what appeared to be a lipstick container.  This was mere packaging.  She removed the cap and carefully slid out the single cigarette that has been carried within.  She turned it in her fingertips, taking care not to damage it with her long red nails.  No one could guess that there was cyanide packed into the cigarette.  Once the victim lit it and inhaled the toxic smoke into his lungs, nothing on earth would save him.  There would be choking and convulsions, and it would be a fitful, uncomfortable end.

 

Auna put the cigarette back into the lipstick tube, replaced the top, and put it in her purse. 

 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The following night, Brian kept himself busy with the Syndicate ledger.  He recorded the hire date, along with the name, of the new girl –  Andrea Macy.   It was the name the honey-blonde woman had given him, and Brian didn’t question it.  The use of an alias or a nickname was a common enough practice in the criminal underworld. 

 

Brian listed the new girl’s room number, and categorized her as a cocktail waitress.  Whether she chose to report her tips to the IRS or not was up to her.  In the meantime, she would receive a small paycheck from the Jigsaw each week, ostensibly for waitress wages…and if customers chose to tip her generously in return for personal favors to be delivered within the Jigsaw’s private rooms, well…that was nobody’s business, was it?

 

Except for Brian’s, who noted that the working girls were having a good week.  The new girl’s hire had renewed the competitive instincts of the working girls, and this was leading to an increase in very satisfied customers.

 

In other items, it was a shame Tony lost five thousand dollars in a poker game, but the money would be recouped in short order.  News of a big winning traveled fast through downtown, and every two-bit card shuffler in Atlanta would be showing up to try his luck.  Tony would fleece them most of them readily.  If he kept the control of the table stakes, any incidental losses from a few sharp players wouldn’t be a problem.  Tony had pride, though, and he’d rather hold a losing hand than admit to having to fold. 

 

And then there was Ace.  The blonde enforcer took care of internal disruptions, cultivated revenue, and settled territorial matters with brash efficiency.  Ace was daring and hot-headed, impatient and bold…a combination of attitudes that brought him to the Syndicate’s top ranks without granting him the crown.  Ace believed in action over planning, caring more for the result than the method.  That was fine with Brian, to a degree.  In some ways, he shared Ace’s impulsive drives and emulated them.  In others, they were as different in philosophies as night and day, and Brian knew that Ace’s shortsightedness was an invitation to disaster. 

 

Ace had been an enforcer long enough to feel immortal.  Long enough to believe that anything he did was the best possible move at the time.  Maybe it would take a good brush with death to make the blonde hitman think things through.  Then again, perhaps he was already more of a liability than an asset, and needed to be dealt with directly…

 

Brian set down his pen, startled by his own thoughts.  The cold-blooded logic went with the territory, and it had begun to affect him.  And if he was having such callous thoughts about Ace, what the hell was the enforcer thinking about him?

 

What would Ace do, if he suspected Brian was plotting against him?

 

Brian shut the ledger with a slap of his hand.  He was reading into things too much.  He was tired, that was all, tired and on edge.  He reached inside his suit for a cigarette and the gold lighter.  He lit up and exhaled a long stream of smoke, forcing calm to return to his troubled mind.  There was so much that needed to be done…but the Syndicate hadn’t been built in a day, and it’s rebuilding would take some time.  Lord knew if it would be worth anything in the end.

 

Feeling melancholy and alone, Brian got up from the table and tucked the ledger under his arm, the cigarette planted in his teeth.  Rusty was minding the bar, and there were enough thugs and criminals around to either keep the Jigsaw running or to tear it down brick by brick.  At the moment, Brian didn’t care which way it went.  He signaled to Rusty that he was retiring for the evening, and headed for the staircase.

 

A shapely woman with honey-gold hair drifted up to his arm.  Auna was wearing a close-fitting, red silk dress that went well with her painted nails and crimson lipstick.  Her perfume announced her before her voice did, and at her soft-spoken hello, Brian turned to her with a smile.  He took the cigarette from his mouth. “Somethin’ I can help you with?” he asked socially.

 

“I…I just want to thank you,” Auna said hesitantly.  “For giving me a chance.” 

 

“Aw, you’re welcome.  Are things going okay for you?”

 

She blushed.  “I’m almost booked for the week, and I’ve just started.” 

 

“Khee! Can’t say I’m surprised.”  Brian’s eyes traveled over her briefly in male appreciation. “I’m sure you’ll do quite well for yourself.” 

 

“I hope so.  It’s all been very overwhelming…I never expected to end up here.  Though I’m grateful for the job,” she added quickly.  “I just feel so out of place and alone. I don’t know anyone in this part of town.”

 

“Even if you did, it’s smarter not to admit it.”  Brian chuckled at his own joke, and lifted the cigarette back to his mouth.  Auna smiled politely.  She watched him take a short drag from the cigarette, transfixed by the wisp of smoke that escaped with his breath.

 

Misreading her interest, Brian offered the remains of the cigarette to her.  “Need a smoke?”

 

Auna snapped out of it, flustered.  “Oh, no, no.  I’m sorry, I’m standing here wasting your time and I’m sure you’ve got other things to do…”

 

“I have some time,” he smiled, feeling sympathy for the woman. “Listen, if you want to talk…I was about to head up to my suite.  Care to join me?”

 

Auna paused deliberately before answering, not wanting to seem too eager.  She looked at him demurely. “It would be an honor, Don Coltrane.”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

It was nearly closing time at Lou’s Deli.  The foods were covered and the display cases were wiped down; all that was left was the restocking of carryout supplies for tomorrow’s trade.  Lou was stacking cups and soft drink lids when two late-night customers opened the door.

 

Lou knew who it was without looking.  He took two Styrofoam cups from the dispenser and poured two servings of brutally strong coffee.  No cream or sugar was called for.  It was high-octane Fed fuel that he was supplying, and taste was not a factor in the quality.

 

“Evening, gentlemen,” Lou said with the coffees in hand.  “I left this sludge simmering for the last five or six hours in the hopes that you’d come here.”

 

“We appreciate it, Lou.”  The head of the Atlanta Bureau, Commander Frank Mayson, accepted the coffee and sipped at it without grimacing.  His partner, Roger Kelley, gulped down the staunch brew without letting it touch his tongue, thereby burning his throat but sparing himself the flavor. 

 

Lou puttered around with closing up shop as the agents sipped at the coffee.  “I had a big customer in today,” he volunteered.  “Asking questions about those kids in the robbery attempt.”

 

Mayson looked up.  “What did he want to know?”

 

“Wanted to know if they were alright.”

 

“He ask about anything else? Offer any information?”

 

“No.”  Lou walked to the front of the store and turned the sign to Closed.  “He was acting nervous, though.”

 

“Nothing new there,” Kelley snorted.  “He’s got reasons to be nervous.”

 

Mayson returned his attention to the coffee cup, swirling the dark liquid around with his thoughts.  He studied the coffee as if reading a fortune in it.  Finally, arriving at an internal decision, he slugged down the remains and sat down the empty cup.  “Lou, next time you see that big customer…tell him the free parking is over and the meter is running.”

 

If the cryptic message was unsettling to Lou, he gave no outward sign.  “You want him to know the return address?”

 

“He’ll figure it out,” Mayson said, crushing the Styrofoam cup in his hand and pitching it into the garbage. 

 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Ace stormed into the Jigsaw and cut past the huddles of customers, making direct line for the bar.  “Rusty!” he called to the red-headed thug.  “I need to talk to Brian.  Where’s he at?”

 

“Upstairs,” Rusty called from over the noise of a drink blender.  “Why? What’s the deal?”

 

“It’s business,” Ace said, leveling his gaze.  He gave his long blonde hair an angry toss, shaking it from his face.  “Get ‘em down here.”

 

Annoyed, Rusty picked up the old rotary-dial phone that sat at the bar and carried it over, plunking it down in front of Ace with a jarring ding.  “Do I look like Dial-a-Don? You call him. I’m tending bar.”  Rusty turned his back and resumed pouring drinks.

 

Ace snatched up the handset and dialed the suite number.  It rang several times without an answer.   Frustrated, Ace slammed the phone down and pushed it back.  He debated on a course of action for a minute, then stepped away from the bar and motioned to an associate.  “Yo! Lance!” 

 

Lance, a wheelman from Frankie Tyler’s gang who had changed sides with the change of underworld fortunes, strode up to Ace.  Behind his sunglasses and beneath his motorcycle cap, Lance was the kind of plain, nondescript criminal that could cause extensive damage before anyone knew he was there.  He was proficient and obedient, but his loyalties were no deeper than the amount of cash lining his wallet, no matter what the latest tattoo claimed.  He acknowledged Ace with a sidelong glance.  “Got a job?”

 

“Yeah. I need a driver. You on?”

 

“I’m game.”  Lance snagged a set car keys from his jacket pocket.

 

Ace nodded at him, then placed a pair of sunglasses over his own eyes. As the two men made for the door, Ace took a thin pair of leather gloves from his pocket and pulled them on. 

 

At the bar, Rusty turned around just in time to see the enforcer and the wheelman leave.  He almost questioned it, but then noticed that the phone had been shoved back.  Whatever Ace was up to, it must have been endorsed.  Rusty gave it no further thought.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The roof of the Jigsaw was something new to Auna.  She had never been up here; and when Brian had brought her up the short, private stairwell that led from his suite to the rooftop, she hadn’t known what to think.  Now, standing on the roof with the lights of Atlanta glowing around her, she felt awed by the view.  It wasn’t that the old downtown held much glamour; but the rows of streetlights, the dancing wink of neon, and the imposing tiers of high-rise buildings to the north lent a feeling of urban majesty.

 

She had never looked at the world quite like this; looked at it considering the collected lives and activity moving around her.  Rather than feeling small, she felt regal, omnipotent, like a queen surveying her domain. 

 

The old hotel felt like the center of the world to her, holding the secrets of power within it’s historic bricks.  The Jigsaw was once again the cornerstone of the underworld, and the Syndicate was slowly growing in strength.  Auna saw the evidence of those facts in the teeming traffic, the faint noise of music drifting up from the street, and in the signs of life coming back into the surrounding buildings.  It was an empire in renewal…and it was hers for the taking.  The thought gave her a reminder of her purpose, and reluctantly, she turned her gaze away from the city lights and looked at Brian.

 

The crimelord of the Syndicate was just standing there, looking at the pale stars in the night sky.  It was an unguarded moment; Brian’s expression was open and thoughtful. There was a sadness behind his dark eyes, however, that Auna could detect.  She could sense his mood. It was a cross between idle melancholy and distant hope, and Brian studied the stars intently as if he could read his destiny within them.

 

Auna took a step closer to him and hooked an arm around his waist, clinging to him wordlessly.  It was a sense of timing, and not compassion, that prompted her move.  Even so, it had the desired effect.  Brian lowered his eyes to look into hers, and within her mild grey eyes, was captured.

 

“Sorry,” he said with a self-conscious grin, reaching an arm around her in return.  “I’m not bein’ much company.”

 

“You’re very good company,” she murmured.  “And the view is breathtaking.”

 

Brian looked down at her for a long moment. “Yes…it is.” 

 

Auna blushed and it wasn’t contrived.  Damn him.  He had a way of getting to her. She wanted him to find her attractive, and it had nothing to do with her ulterior motives. She shivered against him, unable to stop the reaction.

 

Thinking she was cold, Brian removed himself from her side, taking off his suit jacket.  He shrugged out of it and draped it over Auna’s shoulders.  She accepted it, feeling the warmth of his body in the lining.  It enveloped her, along with the masculine scents that belonged to him.  She pulled it tight around her body. “Thank you…”

 

“You’re welcome.”  Brian rested his hands on her shoulders, standing close to her back. Auna’s perfume was pleasant to him, and when he leaned down to nuzzle the back of her neck with a soft kiss, she didn’t protest.  He moved his hands down her sides, a gesture suggesting warmth and intimacy.  He stopped at her waist, then leaned over her, resting his chin lightly on one of her shoulders as he wrapped his arms around her middle, embracing her gently.  It felt right, to hold her like this…

 

Auna sighed and leaned back into him, lifting her head slightly.  “You’re nice and warm,” she commented softly.

 

He nuzzled her neck again, burrowing his way under her hair.  His kiss lingered this time, his lips tracing a line down her neck, seeking permission, making promises….

 

Auna shut her eyes and shuddered from the warm breath on her skin.  She tilted her head back and offered her throat to the next kiss, sinking into the passion that was only half-feigned.  She was wanted, desired…perhaps not loved, not yet….

 

But it was close enough.  Brian’s teeth lightly grazed the base of her throat and his hands slid down to caress her thighs, his body pressing against her.  He skimmed his palms over her hips, his breathing becoming deeper, his conscious mind aware of the fact that he had a beautiful, willing female in his arms.  He was losing himself, almost losing his control, wanting nothing more than to answer the instinctive urge that pulled at him.

 

Yet he held back, hesitant to demand too much too quickly. Auna sensed this and faced herself to him, running her slender hands over the cool material of his black shirt.  She slowly undid a button, and then another, her fingers parting the black material to feel the warmth of his bare chest beneath.  Now it was she who planted the kisses, meeting her mouth to Brian’s, then moving her lips down his throat, his chest, her hands traveling the lean, muscular body that was suddenly tense beneath her touch…

 

She found the scar on Brian’s chest and delicately kissed the healed wound.  It was his turn to shudder, and she gave him no quarter, her roaming touch and her soft kiss taking him to the brink, putting him into a state that had only one answer.

 

There, on the roof, she gave it to him.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

“PUNCH IT! LET’S GO!”  Ace yelled.  Lance threw the black BMW into gear and the foreign car squealed off, bolting from the curb.  Ace hung onto the dash and braced himself as the BMW zipped around a sharp corner; but the small, solid car navigated the move cleanly, accelerating down the next street before Ace had time to put his gun away.

 

Ace checked the side mirror. No pursuit.  He put the gun away into his shoulder-holster, and swept back the long strands of blonde hair from his face.  He exhaled a nervous breath and began to take gloves off his hands.

 

“How’d it go?”  Lance asked.

 

Ace scowled.  “Not good.”

 

“We all have our off days,” Lance offered blandly. 

 

Ace didn’t reply, turning his petulant gaze to the mirrors again.  Nothing there. Only the average traffic that was to be expected; no sirens, no lights, no pursuit.

 

Which is exactly what Commander Frank Mayson wanted the Syndicate boys to think.  The Federal-issue sedan paced the BMW two car lengths back, hiding behind a taxi that separated the two cars.  Mayson picked up his CB and radioed the taxi.  “Pull back, Kelley. You’re too close.”

 

Roger Kelley, the undercover agent driving the taxi, did as he was told, grudgingly allowing more space behind the black BMW.  The fish was on the hook, and he was impatient to reel in the catch. 

 

Mayson gripped the wheel of the unmarked sedan and watched the taxi mirror the BMW move for move.  They were heading back for the Jigsaw, though it was an indirect route. Mayson wasn’t fooled by the course.  He would wait until the BMW reached the halfway point and it’s driver assumed it was clear sailing home; and then he and Roger Kelley would make the move to intercept and arrest.

 

Lance noted the taxi was driving with more precision than any cab he’d observed in Atlanta.  It seemed to be pacing their moves.  There was another car behind the taxi, following at a measured distance.  “We’ve picked up interest,” Lance said tonelessly.

 

“Shit.”  Ace knew better than to turn around and look. His eyes went to the side mirror.  “The cab?”

 

“The driving is too clean for a cabbie. More than that, check out the car behind it.”  With this, Lance gave the BMW a short swerve, as if moving around an obstacle in the street.  It allowed Ace to get a good look at Mayson’s sedan in the mirrors.

 

“It’s a Crown Vic,” Ace identified from the headlights and grill.  “We’ve been made.”

 

Lance frowned.  “If you want me to save your blonde ass, it’s gonna cost you a hell of a lot of money.”

 

Ace reached for his wallet.

 

The BMW signaled for a right turn, then turned opposite of the directional, cutting off a bus and launching into flight.  Cars braked and skidded in alarm.

 

“Goddammit!”  Mayson yelled, seeing the pursuit break loose.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Brian returned to the Jigsaw’s bar with Andrea at his side, returning her to her scheduled duties.  For some reason, he was beginning to feel dislike at the idea of her being with anyone else.  Which was ridiculous, given the nature of her employment.  He didn’t own her and never wanted to.  Why, then, the heat in his blood while she courted a prospective customer?

 

Maybe it was because within the same hour, she had been performing professional courtesies upon him, and he’d like to think it meant something.  He took a cigarette from the inside of his suit jacket and lit it up, calming himself as he watched Andrea laugh and smile at some corporate slob.  Her negotiations with the customer were swiftly arranged, and she took the puffy, weak-looking arm of the middle-aged client and led him towards the stairs. 

 

Auna knew Brian was watching her, and she managed to flash a secret smile to him.

 

It made him feel better.  He watched her strut away, noticing the motion of her shape within the tight dress. Perhaps when her shift was over tonight, they could spend some more time together.  Yeah. Definitely. Kheehaaa…

 

“Yo! Bri…uh, Don Coltrane!”  Rusty called from the bar.  When Brian frowned back at Rusty with mild irritation, the red-haired thug waved urgently.  It’s important, he hand-signaled, and Brian immediately felt his pulse spike up.  He quickly met Rusty at the end of the bar. 

 

Knowing that they were in view of customers and assorted thugs alike, Rusty kept his voice quiet, and poured Brian a shot as if he’d flagged the Don over for nothing more than a drink.  “The heat’s on Ace,” Rusty murmured.  “I picked it up on the police scanner.  Pursuit in progress on the boulevard…black BMW. Lance’s wheels.”

 

Brian heard the words, but couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on.  “What?!”

 

Rusty was surprised by the reaction.  “You were the one who sent them on the job. Don’t you remember talking to Ace on the phone? He called you just before he left.”

 

The flat, unsettled look in Brian’s dark eyes said it all.  Whatever Ace had been up to, it was without official sanction.  “Where they at?”

 

“Uptown. Not far from Lance’s old territory with the Big Man.” 

 

Brian retrieved his car keys from his pants pocket.  “You’re in charge ‘till I’m back,” he ordered Rusty.  Grimly, Brian left the bar and ran through the front door.

 

Diablo was parked not far from the Jigsaw’s front entrance - rank having it’s privileges – and Brian fired up the black Chevy Impala in a hurry.  It peeled from the curb, taking to the street with a lunge and a roar.  Diablo carved through the back streets and hit the boulevard, the mild traffic of the late night hour offering no difficulty.

 

Diablo’s CB monitored the Fed’s pursuit of Lance’s car.  The city police were providing back-up, the collected hounds of the law running down the prey.  Brian listened to the broadcast with calm focus, thinking with the logic of a Syndicate wheelman.  Lance was about to be boxed in; his best hope would be in doubling back towards the boulevard and in making a desperate run down it’s straightaway. 

 

Brian pressed on until he was closer to uptown and certain of Lance’s gamut.  Then he guided Diablo into an illegal u-turn, crossing the boulevard to face back towards the direction of the Jigsaw.  He pulled the car over to the side of the road and turned off the lights, keeping the Chevy running.  From a distance, the car would appear to be some broken-down vehicle that was awaiting a tow truck. 

 

It only took a couple of minutes for the sirens to wail into hearing range.  Ace and Lance had the attention of the entire damn city, from the sounds of it.  Brian held one foot down hard on the brake and kept the other on the gas, keeping Diablo’s idle high, the engine torque straining against the brakes, small shudders running through the chassis at being held back.

 

There. In the mirrors.  Brian could see the clusters of red and blue lights growing closer, a small sea of cars rushing forward in a surge, heading his way like floodwater from a broken dam.  Lance would have it at the limit; traffic was light and he’d fly this stretch like a rocket to try and put distance between the BMW and the pursuit. 

 

Diablo remained dark and motionless, the low growl from the Chevy’s held-back motor buried by the noise of sirens.  Brian was hoping Lance had gained a few car lengths in front of the cops.  There would be a split second to try and figure it out, and all of it from the mirrors. 

 

A set of small round headlights was leading the pack.  The rabbit was in front of the hounds, but not by much.  The pursuit was just far enough back to serve Brian’s plan.  It was risky, dangerous, and could very well get him killed.  No Syndicate Don would ever take this kind of chance for the sake of two replaceable thugs… but if Ace was captured or killed by the law, Brian would never know what the hell the blonde enforcer had done to start the whole mess…and never know what there was to clean up or cover up in the name of the Syndicate.

 

“Damn you, Ace,” Brian gritted, as the black BMW shot up the boulevard and grew large in Diablo’s mirrors.  At the second the BMW had passed by the idling Chevy, Brian let Diablo loose, hammering the gas and taking his foot off the brake, rear wheels spinning with a shriek as the car jumped into the boulevard and turned broadside, it’s long, steel flank now a roadblock.  Sirens engulfed the air and Brian hung on the steering wheel with a deathgrip, not knowing if the pursuing law had enough time to stop. 

 

“KELLEY! LOOK OUT! LOOK –“    Mayson screamed into the CB, seeing the long black car suddenly leap into the boulevard to block their path.  The taxi Kelley drove braked hard and went into a wicked spin, skidding sideways as the wheels locked up.  It’s passenger side banged harshly into the rear quarter of the long black car, both cars rocking like a demo derby combatants.  Mayson cranked the steering wheel of his own car hard to the right, shooting past the two-car tangle by driving off the boulevard, where he was forced to brake abruptly himself in order to avoid putting the Crown Vic into the window display of the local Radio Shack.  There was a hard WHAM as the tail of his vehicle was struck by a city patrol car, and the noise of screeching tires and wailing sirens surrounded everything in chaos.

 

It was all over in seconds.  Before anyone was out of their cars, Diablo jolted into motion, the battered black Chevy turning away from the scene and creeping forward, lining itself up slowly within the lanes of the boulevard, as if innocently edging away to untangle itself…until suddenly, the engine roared and the tires screamed and Diablo bolted away, no headlights and no taillights, soaring down the boulevard dark and furious like a bat heading towards hell at best possible speed.

 

Mayson could only gape.  He got out slowly from his car, testing his bones – and all present and accounted for, searched for his top agent.  Roger Kelley staggered from the half-smashed taxi. Bewildered, shaken, but unharmed, Kelley stared down the boulevard after the wake of the demonic car that had invoked itself into a brick wall, and then disappeared again, within moments.

 

“You alright, Kelley?”  Mayson asked, turning the bell-struck agent to look at him. Kelley registered the face of his Commander and nodded with a dry swallow. “Just shook up.  I didn’t see it…”

 

“You didn’t see it because it wasn’t there until the BMW had gone by.”  Mayson’s voice was tinged with anger.  He took in the scene around them. Bottlenecked police cruisers choked the boulevard; and confused officers milled around their damaged vehicles.  No one seemed hurt, but this wasn’t going to be easy for the Atlanta Bureau or the city police to live down.  The reporters were bound to show up soon, and there would be a front-page article in the Atlanta Journal tomorrow about tax dollars wasted on a fruitless high-speed chase. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Lance’s BMW darted into the back alley and sped along it like a mouse seeking cover.  It crossed a few blocks before reaching the sanctuary of Syndicate turf.  Once safely parked in the alley behind the Jigsaw, Lance turned off the car and gave a glare to his passenger. “Ace, this wasn’t an official job, was it.”

 

“It was as official as it could get,” Ace snapped.  “I’ll handle Brian. You just keep your mouth shut.”

 

“You just keep your wallet open.”  Lance held out his hand.  Ace growled and smacked two hundred dollars into it, and got out of the car. 

 

Lance exited the BMW and shut the car door with a slam.  The two men were about to walk into the Jigsaw’s back entrance when an engine roared into the alley, the deep tone of the pipes echoing off the bricks.  The four beams of Diablo’s headlights shone white-hot on the BMW, and the Chevy shot up to park behind it, tires chirping with the sudden stop.

 

Brian shut off Diablo and got out of the car.  He said not a word, his anger putting him beyond speech.  Ace and Lance stood by the Jigsaw’s back entrance and waited for the Don’s wrath to descend. 

 

Brian walked up to Ace, grabbed him by the scruff of the jacket, and hauled him over to Diablo’s hood, where he promptly threw the enforcer half-down over it.  There was a click as Brian’s gun was drawn from his suit coat and nudged against the back of Ace’s head.  Ace began to stammer an explanation, but Brian cut him off.  “Not from you,” Brian snarled.  “I don’t trust you for a damn.  Lance, tell me what the hell you and Ace were doing that involved every goddamn cop in Atlanta!” 

 

Lance was unruffled. Having worked for Fearless Frankie before joining the Syndicate, he didn’t spook easily.  “Ace asked if I’d wheel a job. I told him I was game. I drove where he told me to drive, and when the heat came on, I did what I had to do.”

 

“WHAT job!?” Brian demanded.

 

“Dunno,” Lance shrugged.  “You’ll have to ask pretty boy, there. All I did was drive...”  At Brian’s sudden, furious glare, Lance added a respectful, “Sir.”

 

“All you did was stir up hornets,” Brian said.  “And the repairs for Diablo are coming outta your weekly cut!”

 

Lance accepted this.  “I’ll take care of your car, Don Coltrane.  I’ll get the boys in the shop on it tonight.”

 

“See to it,” Brian ordered, dismissing Lance.  The wheelman walked into the Jigsaw’s back entrance, leaving Ace to his fate.

 

Ace hadn’t moved.  He doubted if Brian would shoot him out of temper under normal circumstances, but since Diablo had taken damage, there was no telling.  The blonde enforcer knew he was going to be interrogated, and already had his story ready. Whether or not Brian would dispatch him afterwards, was difficult to predict.

 

Unexpectedly, Ace was reminded of the time Brian had returned from a failed assignment in a backwater locale called Hazzard County…and how Deuce and Dirk, along with himself and a few others, had put Brian through a Syndicate inquisition at Don Mancini’s orders.  Spade, the captain of the enforcers during those days, had been there to supervise the brutal interrogation.  Ace remembered how dearly Brian had paid for failing to follow orders…

 

Was Brian holding any grudges? 

 

Ace knew he’d find out soon enough. The gun barrel pressed uncomfortably against the back of his skull. 

 

Talk,” Brian ordered sharply, “And leave out the bullshit.”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Later that evening, Lance shared his observations.  “You handled the Don alright,” he said to Ace.  “You’re still alive.”

 

Ace sat at the bar with a drink and grunted.  He was determined to drink until he was passed out, so he could blame his trembling hands on the booze.  “The bastard doesn’t have the guts to kill me,” he boasted, but kept his voice down.

 

“Time will tell.”  Lance walked away.  Privately, he was glad that Ace was still around.  It meant his own chances for surviving any interrogations by the Don were excellent.

 

Lance slipped into the gaming area, deciding to squander the money Ace had paid him on a few good hands of poker.  He passed by a very shapely, honey-blonde woman who quickly turned her face away; which was a shame, because there was nothing unbecoming about her.  It was unusual for Syndicate women to be shy, and Lance asked Tony about it as he sat down to a poker table.  “Tony, who’s that new one?” he asked with a glance in Auna’s direction.

 

Tony started passing out cards.  “Forget her. She’s the Don’s.”

 

“Oh.”  Lance shrugged and started to take out his money.  “No wonder she didn’t want to look at me.”

 

“It’s got nothing to do with that,” Tony said dryly.  “It’s just because you’re ugly.”

 

“Shut up and deal.”  Lance slapped his money onto the table.  As he picked up the hand he was dealt, he looked over the cards and saw the woman drifting over to Brian.  He felt a moment of male jealousy that the best women always belonged to the top dog. “So the Don finally got himself a personal whore. I wonder how much he pays her.”

 

“Depends on the job,” Tony quipped. Lance let out a dirty chuckle. 

 

Out of earshot from this and unaware of the interest she had created, Auna walked hesitantly up to Brian.  The Don was holding a low, quiet conversation with Rusty at his private table, and their serious expressions kept her at bay.  She watched as Brian opened the ledger, made an entry, then turned the book to explain something to Rusty.  Finally, the red-headed thug nodded, and the meeting concluded.  As Rusty left the Don’s presence, Auna took a deep breath of courage and came closer.

 

Brian saw her and shut the ledger.  “Yes?”  he snipped.  His demeanor was all business, and the chip on his shoulder was obvious.

 

“I…thought we had plans,” Auna said meekly.  “My shift is over…I’ve been waiting for you.”

 

“We did have plans. Stuff came up in the meantime.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Auna sighed.  “I’ll leave you alone.”  She started to turn away.

 

“Wait,” Brian said, standing up.  “I didn’t mean we had scrap the night.” 

 

Auna’s heart pounded.  The Don’s tone sounded apologetic, and his touch on her arm was gentle.  She looked at him, and saw those dark eyes drinking her in.  “I need to take my mind off business for awhile,” he stated.  “I’m sure you’d like to do the same…”

 

She blushed automatically, and Brian chuckled at the color in her checks.  “I was thinking more along the lines of a dance,” he explained.  He took her hand, guiding her to the jukebox.  The jukebox sat in an open corner on the far wall, and there was ample room to dance, though it was in enough proximity to the pool tables to make things a bit crowded on the busy nights.  Right now, however, there was plenty of room. 

 

Anxiety filled Auna and tightened her breath.  She had been hoping to get Brian alone tonight…alone and talking.  She needed information before she completed her mission…and dancing wasn’t part of her plan.  Neither was being in obvious view of so many people. Thus far, she had mingled through the Jigsaw for a few nights without being recognized – but it was one thing to weave through a crowd, and another to have it’s complete attention.  Maybe she could make Brian think twice about dancing in plain sight with a working girl…but does a Syndicate crime boss worry about decorum?

 

She tried planting the concern of public image. “People are watching,” she whispered.

 

“Maybe we’ll show ‘em somethin’.”  Brian flashed a grin at her from over his shoulder, and dug out a few quarters from his pocket. He deposited them into the jukebox and punched a few buttons.  As the first few notes of the music started, he turned, took her in his arms and brought her close, and started an easy, swaying move that matched the rhythm of the song.   Auna followed his steps, nervous and unsure, self-conscious of the eyes upon them…until Brian commanded her attention by singing along with the lyrics, his voice resonant, his dark eyes holding her as effectively as his arm around her waist…

 

“Now I told you, so you ought to know…it takes some time for a feelin’ to grow…

You’re so close now, I can’t let you go…

And I can’t let go…

 

With you I’m not shy..to show the way I feel

With you I might try…my secrets to reveal…

For you are a magnet, and I am steel…

 

I can’t hope that I’ll hold you for long…

You’re a woman, who’s lost to your song

But the love that I feel, is so strong…

And it can’t…be…wrong…

 

With you I might try…to show the way I feel

With you I might try…my secrets to reveal

For you are a magnet, and I am steel…”

 

Auna felt something in her flutter.  Brian was singing at her, smiling, moving with her body in a dance for all to see…the entire Jigsaw was watching them, seeing the Syndicate Don courting a working girl.  There was a carefree, wild look in Brian’s expression, a youthful grin, a joy for living that illustrated the Brian Coltrane she had never known.  Unintentionally, she found herself joining his voice softly, singing the first half of the chorus as Brian took the next line…

 

“With you I might try…

To show the way I feel…

 

With you I might try…

My secrets to reveal…

 

For you are a magnet…and I am steel…

For you are a magnet…and I am steel…

For you are a magnet…and I am steeeeeeeel…”

 

At the end of the last verse, Brian leaned in, shut his eyes, and breathed the final note to Auna with a touch of his lips to hers.  She closed her eyes and responded to the kiss, returning it, barely noticing that the song had changed on the jukebox.  Brian’s moves shifted slightly to match the new song’s tempo, and they remained joined in motion, rocking together slowly.  Their kiss broke only when the need to take a deep breath was felt by both of them. 

 

With the sigh that followed it, Auna rest herself against Brian’s shoulder.  He embraced her and placed a kiss to her honey-gold hair. 

 

From the bar, there were a few stupefied looks and one or two expressions of outright alarm.

 

Rusty put it into words.  “Holy shit.”  Next to him, Ace, Tony and Lance were staring at the dancing couple, watching in disbelief. 

 

“Glad I’m already drunk,” Ace commented.

 

“Brian’s got the fever,” Tony said.

 

“He’s not the first Don to fall for a hired dame,” Lance shrugged.  “At least she’s making it look good.”

 

Rusty walked over to talk to Lance, getting around Ace and Tony to glare at the ex-Tyler wheelman.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”  Interested, Ace and Tony turned to Lance to hear the answer as well.

 

“She’s a professional,” Lance spat.  “She’s giving Don Coltrane the $300 treatment, but you can’t call it love.”

 

“It looks like love from here,” Tony observed.  “Brian’s slow-dancing.  That’s serious.”

 

“That’s sickening,” Ace muttered.  “We’ve got an underworld to run and he’s spending his time dallying with store-bought blondes.”

 

“He is the Don,” Rusty reminded.  “He gets to dally anybody he wants.”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The next three weeks passed quickly for Auna.  She was fairly certain that Brian held feelings for her, and with this confidence, she conducted herself apart from the mundane duties of the average working girl.  She had very few clients of her own nowadays, taking only the well-heeled customers, working infrequently. 

 

This suited Brian fine.  He wrestled with the idea of taking the woman he knew as Andrea off the books altogether. But the price of anyone staying at the old Atlanta hotel was working for the Syndicate.  The other option would be to formalize her status as his private consort, something he had been hesitant to do.

 

From the second floor balcony, Brian looked down upon the Jigsaw’s main floor and watched her speak with a portly, heavyset man.  Conducting negotiations, no doubt, for a single night at a premium price.  Ever since Brian’s dance with the honey-blonde woman, every man in Atlanta seemed to want her…or at least it seemed that way, to the Don’s jealous ego.

 

Despite every effort to keep himself objective, Brian found himself becoming more possessive of her.  Why, he didn’t know.  It wasn’t true love; no cupid’s arrow had scored his heart.  Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was a beautiful woman who cared for him, and he felt something in return. 

 

She was an escape from his own head, he realized.  When he was with her, he forgot about the weight of his Syndicate responsibilities.  He forgot about his own guilt, his own regrets, his own losses.  He forgot, at least for a few short moments, the green fields of Hazzard County and the life he once had there.

 

He wanted to go home.  He wanted to hear the roar of the General Lee, the sound of the squalling siren of Rosco’s patrol car, and the thrumming engines of Diablo and Maverick dueling against each other on the back roads.  He wanted to hear Flash and Bandit bark at him when he came through the screen door; he wanted to hear a friendly khee again from MaryAnne.  He wanted to stroll into the booking room and surprise his cousins with the news I’m back…he wanted to walk into the Coltrane homestead and smell fried chicken cooking up…

 

It was seldom he allowed himself to think along these lines.  It weakened him and drained his resolve.  Lord, to pack up Diablo and just leave was a daily temptation. To shoot down the highway towards Hazzard, flip on the CB, and call out, Blackbird to Songbird, put out another plate, ‘cause I’m back for good…”

 

Brian swallowed and it caught in his throat.  He had no idea how MaryAnne and Rosco were doing.  He hadn’t risked communication very often since assuming control of the Syndicate.  It wouldn’t look good, for the Hazzard County Sheriff’s Department to get routine messages from him, given the current state of affairs.  Hell, maybe that was one of the reasons MaryAnne hadn’t taken her badge back. 

 

Brian couldn’t help but wonder if MaryAnne was waiting for him to quit wearing the symbol of Syndicate power - the heavy gold ring that weighed down his hand and his heart - before she’d take back her badge. To be each other’s opposite number again, in matters of law, would inevitably lead to a full-circle confrontation that neither wanted to see.

 

The thought of it alone made Brian’s chest tighten up.  He’d done enough to hurt his kin. Years ago – it felt like yesterday – he had made the fateful journey to Hazzard. There, he had interrupted Rosco and MaryAnne’s lives, bringing them violence, danger, and sorrow….

 

The bubbling treble of Andrea’s laughter drifted up to Brian’s ears.  She was pretending to be amused at something her client had said.  A sudden burning coursed through Brian’s veins.  He had given up everything to see to the Syndicate’s future, at the likely cost of his own.  Why shouldn’t he have Andrea?  Why not keep something…or someone…for himself?  She was beautiful, elegant, and mild…

 

He noticed the way she walked now, gliding through the Jigsaw easily as people gave way before her. She carried herself with an air that hadn’t been present before. She was regal and stately, looking like a queen among thieves.  She truly was, Brian thought to himself.  His queen. 

 

But to give her the knowledge of the Keys and the Ledger…to show her the secrets of the Syndicate that would go part and parcel with formalizing her Dona status…this was nothing to be done lightly.  He didn’t really know her that well.  Yet she felt familiar, and he always felt as if he’d known her from somewhere. Was this subconscious recognition a by-product of love, and he just refused to call it that?  Would it be so bad to share this world with her – completely – since he was unlikely to ever leave it?

 

And what if he was taken by the law, or usurped by a rival?  As Dona, and heiress to the Syndicate, Andrea would be regarded with a certain amount of respect, and would be protected by the Syndicate’s loyal enforcers.  She would also be equipped to protect herself with all the knowledge of the Don…his knowledge, and that of his predecessors, as recorded in the diary of blood…

 

The ledger.  How long the pages would bear the mark of his handwriting, Brian didn’t know.  How long he would hold power was a daily question.  In the meantime, formally recognizing Andrea as his own would give her security that was second-to-none in the Syndicate. 

 

He remembered her coming to the Syndicate as a desperate, shivering woman who had nowhere to go and no one to turn to…would it be fair to enjoy her attentions, expect her to be devoted to him, and then leave her to be cast back into the street – or worse – if something befell him?

 

No, he decided. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Lou had that feeling.  It had been awhile since his big customer had stopped in; something told him today was the day.  It had been just over three weeks since the shooting had occurred and the Feds had chased a Syndicate car though half of Atlanta.  No arrests had been made, save for that of the shooting victim himself – being a criminal from North Carolina who had outstanding warrants. It was dubious fortune that the man had survived the bullet wound in order to face jail.

 

Shaking his head at the foolishness of it all, Lou put a side of roast beef into the meat slicer.  Crime didn’t pay.  Making sandwiches wasn’t glamorous, but it had given Lou a decent living and he had a modest nest egg saved for his old age.   What’s more, if he continued to be careful, he would probably live to enjoy retirement.

 

So many of the bright young people he’d seen in this neighborhood never would have that chance.  Most of them grew old from fighting their own demons, their lives wasted to alcohol, drugs, violence… eventually to claimed by the law, or by their own excesses, or by a rival’s bullet. 

 

This neighborhood was the eye of the storm, and had been for decades.  And in each face of every child that had ever been in his deli, Lou saw new hope for Atlanta’s future. Inevitably, he watched the same faces age harshly, until disappointed youth turned into short, bitter adulthood…

 

The ding of the door chime broke Lou from his musings.  Good thing, too; he had sliced enough beef to cater a wedding.  He turned to find Don Coltrane standing at his counter, resplendent in the black suit that seemed far too formal for daylight.  He greeted the Syndicate crimelord with the same beaming smile he gave all his customers.  “The usual, Mr. Coltrane?”

 

Brian turned down the corner of his mouth. “Eh…I dunno, I ain’t that hungry today. Half a sandwich outta do it.” 

 

“You’re the boss.”  Lou puttered with assembling Brian’s lunch, stacking on enough beef to more than make up for the skipped half of the sandwich. 

 

“I saw that, Lou,” Brian said.  “What part of ‘not that hungry ’ don’t you dig?”

 

“I’m charging you the same price as usual,” Lou retorted.  “You might as well eat it.”  He slapped a tray down in front of Brian.  “I made fresh coleslaw, too, so there’s no sense in denying yourself.”   

 

“Hmph.”  Brian grudgingly poked a plastic fork into the cup of coleslaw that Lou had plunked down.  “Don’t get me spoiled.” 

 

Lou chuckled and watched Brian attack the lunch.  As usual, Brian ate standing up, his back half-turned to the counter, always watching the glass door and windows. “If I see anything with your name on it, I’ll let you know,” Lou told him jokingly.

 

Brian grunted a bland obscenity, turned around long enough to finish the last few bites of his meal, then polished off the soda Lou brought for him.  “Thanks.”  As the Don flipped a twenty onto the counter, Lou knew he had to bring up the last message Commander Mayson had left.

 

“By the way,” Lou said as he rang up the register, “One of your old friends was here awhile back.”

 

Old friend usually meant the exact opposite, and Brian tensed.  “Yeah?”

 

“He said to tell you…the free parking is over and the meter is running.”

 

The Syndicate Don straightened his spine and squared his shoulders back, reminding Lou of a puffing cobra.  The dark eyes dilated with a cross of fear and anger, and Brian’s voice was low as he gave the return message.  “You tell that Suit to withdraw the threat.  Or I’ll make damn sure he regrets it!”

 

Only by years of keeping a neutral face, did Lou manage not to flinch. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Mayson received the message with a scowl.  “That’s all?”  he questioned Lou.  “He’ll make damn sure I regret it?”

 

“You heard me the first time,” Lou answered.  “It’s not what he said, it’s how he said it.  I think you’ve pissed him off.”

 

“Good.”  Mayson said the word into his Styrofoam cup of coffee.  “He’s been pissing me off for years.  I’m happy to return the favor.”

 

Roger Kelley didn’t chime in with any comment.  He was examining a floating speck in his cup of coffee.  He was oddly grateful for it, as the speck’s presence gave him a valid excuse not to drink the bitter sludge.  With scientific curiosity, he tried to gather the speck up on his fingertip for further analysis. 

 

Lou wasn’t letting the Federal agent off that easily. He got another Styrofoam cup and poured a new coffee for Kelley.  Try as he might, Kelley couldn’t find anything wrong with this cup, other than the taste.   “Thanks Lou,” he said insincerely. 

 

“Anytime.”  Lou gave the Fed a pudgy grin, then returned his attention to Mayson.  “Do you have any other messages to forward?”  he asked the Commander.

 

“No.  My lack of response is response enough.” 

 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Auna knew something was wrong when Brian’s body refused to relax that night.  After getting the word from Lou that Mayson had received his message - and chose not to reply -  Brian paced the Jigsaw like a caged panther.  His face was taut and drawn, and his dark eyes smoldered like the cigarette in his hand. 

 

Everyone gave the Don room to stew in his own juices.  Ace included.  Rusty attempted to assess the cause of the chip on Brian’s shoulder, but after watching Brian snap a pool stick in half by busting it over the bar, Rusty decided the timing wasn’t right.

 

The timing definitely wasn’t right for Auna.  Brian had allowed her to accompany him to his suite, and had allowed her to rub his back and shoulders…but there was no sigh from him, no slow melt, no float into comfort.  He was tense and he was going to stay that way. 

 

There was one other sure-fire way Auna knew of to relieve a man’s tension, and she offered it wordlessly, taking Brian’s body into her caress, adding her kiss, and eventually consuming him…but he responded mechanically, as if he’d known she was only trying to placate him.  Irritated, Auna ceased her attentions and gathered a robe around herself, turning her back on him to sit at the edge of the bed.

 

Brian let her sit there for all of two minutes, before he hooked one arm around her and pulled her down to next to him.  Still annoyed, Auna shoved him lightly, scooting away from him.

 

She was abruptly beneath him, and he held her wrists, his dark eyes pinning her with their gaze.  “Did you start a game you can’t finish?”  . 

 

Speechless, Auna could only stare at him.  She shook her head and stammered an apology.  In a gesture of acquiescence, she opened herself to him, reminding him that she was his, though her heart wanted to flee in panic.  To be taken in anger was a terrifying prospect.  Brian’s body shifted as he moved to claim her, and she shut her eyes, a mewl of fear coming from her.  

 

“Look at me,” Brian said then, and his voice was firm without being unkind.  Auna opened her eyes.  He was poised, ready…and yet he waited to see that she was willing. With a slight lifting of her hips, Auna gave her answer. 

 

He moved deep within her, a tempo of aggression in his act, but there was no harshness, no harm…and finally, the world retreated from him.  She felt it in his body, the way his motion became less than that of an instrument, and more like that of an orchestra.  He lowered his torso to rest upon her, wrapping his arms around her, locking his mouth to hers as he drove them both to the peak. 

 

Afterwards, as Brian rested peacefully beside her, Auna smiled to herself.  She had him.  She knew him now, knew the responses of not only his body, but of his heart and mind. 

 

And with this knowledge, she had the power to end his life, to silence the heartbeat that pulsed so strongly in the male body against her.  Soon…it had to be soon….

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The decision was made.  In a the late night of the next evening, Brian gathered his captains around his private table, and with Auna seated next to him, announced that he had chosen her as his Dona.  As such, she was to be shown the same respect as he was shown, and be protected as he was protected.

 

To show acceptance of the Dona, each ranking Syndicate member would be required to give his Oath in word and blood.  As the ritual demanded, Brian withdrew a long knife,  gripping the handle in his right hand.  Solemnly, he presented the blade upright, inviting the highest ranks to swear their loyalty. 

 

Ace was the first to wrap his palm around the edges of the knife blade, squeezing it as he pledged his fealty, until a streak of crimson ran down to the hilt.  Brian nodded to Ace, accepting the Oath, and the blonde enforcer released the blade.

 

Brian offered the knife to Rusty, who gripped the blood-slicked blade and added his own blood to it, letting the sharp edges cut his palm open, speaking the Oath clearly.

 

A streak of crimson trickled over the hilt of the upturned knife and trailed down Brian’s knuckles.  As Tony and Lance swore their Oaths, each in turn with a palm wrapped around the blade, the blood ran anew, spilling over. 

 

Auna watched, entranced, as the blood ritual sanctified her new status within the Syndicate.  The ceremony was not yet complete. 

 

Now, it was her turn. Her Oath required her heart, body, and life to be exclusively loyal to Brian…while also preserving the Syndicate as he would preserve it, to guard the Keys and Ledger, to hold the secrets of the underworld…and ensure the Syndicate’s dominion within it. 

 

Auna’s voice quivered as she spoke the Oath, and she swallowed her revulsion as her delicate palm grasped the crimson blade.  She tightened her fist until she felt the sharpness cut the tender flesh inside of her hand. She fought the urge to faint as the pain increased with her grip, her blood freeing itself through the broken skin.

 

She exhaled in relief as Brian nodded and accepted her Oath.  He passed the bloodstained knife to his left hand, the handle slick with crimson.  As Don, he did not need to add any Oath of his own…but tradition required he seal the Oaths into one.  He did this, curling his own right palm around the blade and gripping it tightly, his blood running down to coat the hilt. 

 

Just as Auna was thinking Brian would let himself bleed to death, he released the blade.  Only then did smiles appear on the faces of his captains. Congratulations were offered as the cuts were wrapped and bandaged, the mood lightening now that the formalities were over.  Rusty called for a bottle of champagne, and a toast was proposed to the Dona, and then to the Syndicate’s continued prosperity. 

 

Yes, Auna thought elatedly as she clinked her glass.  To the Mancini Syndicate…once again!

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The seriousness in which Brian applied himself to the Syndicate was soon evident to Auna.  The Ledger, which she had never before been privileged to examine, was now open to her.  Brian was currently logging the week’s activities, tallying the economic score of the Jigsaw and all other Syndicate holdings. He also documented his most recent edicts. 

 

Auna listened raptly as Brian explained the order he had issued concerning the matter of Commander Mayson.  The Bureau Commander had given Brian a warning or a threat, depending on the point of view.  If the Syndicate did not push back, the Feds would assume the Don lacked the sufficient power - or courage - to defy them.

 

“This could lead to a raid, or to them showin’ up at the front door with a fistful of warrants.”  Brian paused in his lecture to light a cigarette.  Talk of the law tended to get on his nerves, and the breath of nicotine made him feel better.  “Anyhow, a few weeks ago, Ace took that lousy shot at a dude from the Charleston organization. Afterwards, he and Lance got tailed by a taxi that was runnin’ a duck blind for an unmarked Fed.”

 

“This is why you ordered the Syndicate to take out the cab company?”  Auna asked.

 

“Not just any cab company,” Brian chuckled.  “Ya see, I want Mayson to understand the repercussions of his own actions.  The Atlanta Cab Company has a contract with the City, and it gets all the juicy municipal gigs.  Lance tells me that the cab who chased ‘em that night had the same markings as the Atlanta Cab Company.  Definitely one of their cars.  It only makes sense that this outfit got a nice fat rental fee, plus mileage, for the Fed’s use of one of their vehicles.  Lettin’ that use be against the Syndicate is a mistake they have to pay for.”

 

“You ordered hits on the cab drivers?”  Auna said expectantly.

 

“Aw, hell no! What I did do is send every man we got, along with all the freelancers I could buy, to harass every fare the Atlanta Cab Company tries to serve.  Their taxi’s won’t be able to make a move in this town without having the Syndicate in their mirrors.” 

 

A smile grew on Auna’s face.  “And then?”

 

Brian inhaled another breath of smoke. “Their customers are going to be too nervous to ride with ‘em. The Dixie Cab Company will pick up the business, with our blessing.  In fact, to make sure they can handle the increased demand, we gave ‘em a few more cars, and encouraged some of the former drivers from the Atlanta Cab Company to switch employers.”

 

“Very clever,” Auna nodded.

 

“That’s not the best part,” Brian grinned.  “Ya see, the Dixie Cab Company appreciates our help in expandin’ their business…so we’ll get a cut of their fares.  On paper, they’ll be making legitimate car payments that they can write off as an expense.”

 

A question flashed across Auna’s mind.  “Didn’t it cost us…I mean, the Syndicate, a lot of money to give Dixie Cab those taxis?”

 

“Nah! Lance and Tony had themselves a spree the other night, and they picked up a half a dozen cabs right out of the city parkin’ garages…cabs that were abandoned by the same drivers from the Atlanta Cab Company who saw the wisdom in jumpin’ ship. We altered the vehicle ID’s, did a little body work, painted the cars…”

 

Auna couldn’t believe it.  “You stole taxis from the Atlanta Cab Company, after scaring their drivers into quitting and going to work for Dixie Cab…and then you give the stolen taxis to Dixie Cab, while they write off Syndicate kickbacks as car payments?!”

 

“Damn right.  The Atlanta Cab Company is short on both drivers and cars right now.  In another week, there won’t be a customer willing to ride with them, either…which will mean more drivers will quit.  Such a shame, I think that City contract will end up going to Dixie Cab by default…pure coincidence of course…”

 

“Meaning the kickbacks….” Auna gasped.

 

“…Will only get fatter, courtesy of the City of Atlanta…and when Mayson figures this out, he’ll choke.  Damn, he’s gonna wish he took back that threat. ‘The free parking is over and the meter is running?’  Kheehaaa, you sonofa….”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

“That son of a bitch!”  Kelley slapped the reports on Mayson’s desk.  “Why can’t we just shoot this guy?”

 

“We have no proof the Syndicate is behind anything,” Mayson said with a patient growl.  “None of the drivers for the Atlanta Cab Company will give a statement.  The taxi thefts happened after some of their drivers walked off the job.”

 

“Can’t we arrest any of them on possible involvement?”

 

“No. They had the brains to call the cab dispatch and report that the cars were left in City parking garages, allegedly locked…the keys to each cab were mailed back…”

 

Kelley was at a full boil. “That means nothing!  The drivers could have made duplicate sets of keys, gave a copies to the Syndicate, and mailed the originals back!”

 

Mayson rubbed his temples wearily.  “You know that. I know that. I only wish we could prove it in a court of law.”

 

“That damn Coltrane made us look like fools,”  Kelley gritted.  “And now that the Syndicate punished the Atlanta Cab Company for letting us use a taxi…there’s not going to be a business in this entire city that will give us the time of day!”

 

“Not to mention, the decline in cab services has caused City of Atlanta employees to complain…which means Dixie Cab is getting the municipal contract next month.”

 

“Son-of-a-bitch!”  Kelley repeated.  “Well, what’s our next move?”

 

“We’re going downtown to Lou’s Deli,” Mayson answered. The Bureau Commander sighed deeply and stood up from his desk. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Brian had the same idea, though for a different purpose.  He simply wanted Lou to meet Andrea.  He was curious what the neighborhood old-timer would think of her; and boyishly, Brian hoped that Lou would approve of his choice in companion.

 

“You like horseradish, don’t ya?”  Brian asked as he held the delicatessen’s door open for her.

 

“I don’t think so,” Auna said politely, inwardly shuddering.  She had wanted to avoid this place at all costs.  She used to come here once in awhile during Johnny Mancini’s day, picking up lunch for him, and occasionally giving a few words of some small-talk message that her cousin Johnny insisted that she pass along.  She wasn’t sure what Lou’s memory was like, but this was a risk she hadn’t banked on. 

 

The ding of the door chime had Lou looking up from the counter.  Automatically, he burst into a broad smile when he saw the Atlanta crimelord…but at the sight of the pretty, honey-blonde woman clinging to Brian’s arm, he positively glowed.  “Hellooooo! Who have we here?” he asked cheerfully.

 

Auna blushed and lowered her eyes demurely, all smiles.  Brian cleared his throat, and grinning like a nervous teenager, said,  “Lou, I’d like you to meet Andrea.  She’s my…uh…”

 

“Really?”  Lou’s eyes widened.  He couldn’t help himself.  He leaned over the counter to peer at Auna more closely, who burst into a girlish giggle and hid her face.  “She’s too pretty to have anything to do with you, Mr. Coltrane…”

 

“Lou, she’s the Dona,” Brian said to get the point across.

 

“Well now….that is news!”  Lou bowed to Auna.  “I’m pleased to meet you, dear lady.”

 

“Thank you,” Auna smiled.  Her grey eyes fluttered at the deli owner.  She’d never felt comfortable around Lou; the man had a way of looking inside of people…would he remember her?  Maybe not; it had been so long, and Lou had probably seen hundreds of faces since then…

 

Brian’s words interrupted her thoughts.  “Lou’s been around a long time,” he explained to Auna.  “He keeps me informed on the stuff goin’ on around town.”

 

“I’m the town gossip,” Lou agreed heartily.  “If you didn’t hear it from me, then it didn’t happen.” 

 

Auna laughed along with Brian, but she was disconcerted by Lou’s steady gaze.  To get away from the scrutiny, she drew Brian aside and made a suggestion. “Darling, why don’t I get us a table, and we’ll have a quick lunch?”

 

“Awright,” Brian nodded.  “Whatcha havin’?”

 

Auna didn’t even pause to think.  “Turkey on rye, no cheese, easy on the mayo.” 

 

“You got it.”  Brian turned back to the counter.  “Lou, I’ll have the usual, and the lady would like a turkey on rye without cheese, and go easy on the mayo.”

 

“Right,” Lou said, holding back his reaction.  “Andrea’s” face was somewhere among the profiles in his mind, and he’d been trying to figure out who she was since he’d gotten a look at her grey eyes.  He remembered eyes like that before, though the woman they belonged to hadn’t been quite this slim, or this glamorous looking.  Still, Lou rarely forgot a face, and he never forgot the lunch order that went with it. 

 

A feeling was worming around in Lou’s gut that he didn’t like.  He had to give himself time to think.  He prepared Brian’s sandwich with the usual care, setting it on the tray, pickle spear in the center and double-olives on the toothpicks.  It was a special occasion, after all.  She’s the Dona…

 

Lou started the next sandwich.  Rye bread, one thin smear of horseradish-mayo on each slice…turkey, no cheese…

 

As he added lettuce and tomato and set the sandwich on a plate, he stopped suddenly and felt his heart constrict with the resurging memory.

 

This was what Auna Mancini used to order!  He also recalled that she didn’t like pickles. 

 

Making every effort to keep his voice chipper, he asked Brian,  “Would the lady care for a pickle spear with that?”

 

Brian turned his head and relayed the question.  “No thank you,” Auna answered.

 

“Glad I asked,” Lou muttered routinely.  “Hate to see food wasted.”  Dear God…Auna Mancini was the Dona!  Lou had the terrible feeling that Brian didn’t know who exactly he was in bed with. 

 

With the coleslaw and beverages set on the tray, Lou rang up the order, and refused to take Brian’s money.  “It’s on the house,” Lou insisted.  “My gift to the happy couple.” 

 

“You’re a helluva man, Lou.”  Brian grinned and took the tray to the corner table.  Uncharacteristically, he sat down to eat, and Lou noticed that Brian’s dark eyes were on the woman more than on the door or the plate glass windows.  Another bad sign.

 

Especially with the two suits who’d just pulled up at the curb.  Lou started to sweat.  He had a vision of his poor delicatessen being shot up like a saloon in a western.  “Mr. Coltrane,” he warned through his permanent, cheerful face,  “Your old friends are here.”

 

Brian was out of his chair instantly.  “Don’t turn around,” he whispered hastily to Auna. “Anything happens, get clear and get back to the Jigsaw!”  With that, Brian strode up boldly as Commander Frank Mayson and his lieutenant Roger Kelley walked in.

 

Mayson saw Brian take a stance.  The exit was blocked…and here was the Syndicate Don, surprised at lunchtime…and there wasn’t a damn thing on him at the moment, at least nothing that could be proven. 

 

This being the case, Mayson simply said,  “Hello, Brian.”  

 

“Howdy,” Brian said shortly, his dark eyes narrowed. Mayson recognized the Full Alert in Brian’s stance.  The fool would draw on them if he thought they were here to arrest him. 

 

Mayson put that fear to rest.  “We’re only here for lunch,” he assured.  “But I’m glad to see you.”

 

Brian snorted.  “Riiiiight.” 

 

Both Feds chuckled.  “I’ll rephrase that,” Mayson offered.  “I’m glad to see you because I’ve been meaning to send a message to you.  I may as well tell you in person now.”

 

A squaring of the shoulders preceded Brian’s dry answer.  “I’m all ears.”

 

Mayson faced the Syndicate Don and looked him in the eye.  “You’ve made your point with the game of musical taxi this city has been forced to play.  The Atlanta Cab Company is facing bankruptcy, and Dixie Cab is getting the city contract next month.”  

 

“Imagine that.”  Brian didn’t smile. 

 

“I’ve done more than imagine it.  You’ve won this round; I’m asking you to back off.”

 

“I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

 

“Cut the crap,” Kelley interjected, glaring at Brian.  “If we had anything on you, you’d already be riding in the back of our car.”

 

Mayson put a restraining palm up as Brian tensed for battle.  “Kelley is right, Brian. Let’s put our cards on the table.  I’ll make sure the Atlanta Police don’t patrol too close to your downtown territory, if your boys quit harassing the Atlanta Cab Company. Innocent people are going to lose jobs, and transportation, if that company goes under.”

 

Brian folded his arms. “Say, ‘please’.” 

 

Kelley gave his Commander a distressed look.  “Don’t give him the satisfaction, Frank…”

 

Mayson took a deep breath and forced the words out.  Please, Don Coltrane.”

 

“Awright.”  Brian gave a nod.  He stepped back a few paces to collect Auna, who kept her face averted as they walked out the door.

 

When they were gone, Mayson turned immediately to Lou.  “Who’s the woman?”

 

Lou sighed and leaned on the counter, feeling old.  “You’ll never believe it…”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Mayson and Kelley sped back to the Bureau headquarters.  Roger Kelley drove, which might have been unwise as he was talking with his hands, waving them around with his opinions.  “Auna Mancini! Is Coltrane suicidal, or just stupid?”

 

“It didn’t look like the Auna Mancini I remember.  I can see how he’s been fooled.  Besides, I’m sure Johnny Mancini kept her from getting too familiar with his boys.”

 

“She’s making up for it now,”  Kelley sputtered.  “She’s the…the…”

 

Dona,” Mayson reminded.  “If Brian admitted it to Lou, then it’s official.”

 

“What’s her game?”  Kelley wondered.  “You think she could honestly love him, when Brian Coltrane is the one who sent her rich, fat, influential cousin up the river, choking off any chance she had of inheriting Syndicate money?”

 

“Not for a minute,” Mayson admitted.  “Kelley…this is a problem for us.”

 

“I’d say it’s a bigger problem for Don Coltrane. And good riddance.”

 

Mayson smiled slightly.  “You’ve never forgiven Brian for beating you up in the hospital parking lot that time, have you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Like it or not, he’s still the lesser of available evils…for the time being.  If Brian has no idea what he’s gotten himself into, and Auna is looking for a big score…she’s got it all in her hands right now.  Should anything happen to Brian, she can funnel a lot of money to herself with perfect Syndicate authority…and the Syndicate may even accept her leadership, if she proves herself strong enough.”

 

Kelley grunted acknowledgement of the logic.  “Who knows what kind of pointers she’ll have picked up from Johnny Mancini over the years.”

 

Mayson suddenly sat bolt upright in the passenger seat.  “Wait a minute…Kelley! Goddammit, you’re right!”

 

“What?!”

 

“Auna may still be getting pointers from Johnny Mancini! Get us back to the office, quick.  I think Mancini found a way to get the revenge he’s always wanted.”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

A few days later, the Jigsaw was filled with celebration.  True to his word to Commander Mayson, Brian had recalled the Syndicate from haunting the cab routes.  And as Mayson had promised, the Atlanta P.D. made no patrols to inner Syndicate turf, except to respond to legitimate calls for help. 

 

It was the first time since the fall of Tyler, that the Syndicate had flexed it’s muscle and had bent Atlanta to it’s will.  It was also a bloodless victory, which perhaps made the most convincing statement about the Syndicate’s return to power.

 

All the enemies of the Syndicate – political, criminal, and economic – wondered just what Don Coltrane was capable of if he wanted to spill blood to make a point.  No one wanted to find out.  No one felt like giving the Syndicate any poke with a stick.

 

The Jigsaw was packed with people and music.  The Dixie Cab company dropped off and retrieved customers at the front door on a regular basis.  At the Don’s orders, there was no fare charged to anyone taking a cab home from the Jigsaw.  This reduced drunk driving, increased the Jigsaw’s business, and kept the influx of money and customers rolling in to the old downtown. 

 

Business was good, on both sides of the ledger.  Brian smoked a cigarette as his black pen scratched away at the figures.  Next to him, Auna watched with interest, appreciating the sums that were being added.

 

It’s time…she thought to herself. The Syndicate was just strong enough to withstand a change…and then it would grow to full glory in the name of Mancini.  Then, the city of Atlanta would not only bargain with the Syndicate; it would bow to it.  The Syndicate would decide who won in city elections, and which stores opened and which closed, and which construction company won bids on city projects.  If there were any doubts…well, that’s what enforcers were for.  Johnny Mancini had believed in weeding out any obstacles to success in the most direct fashion possible. 

 

Auna’s pulse quickened as she considered the one obstacle that she had yet to remove.  She darted her eyes to Brian, listening to him ramble on about expanding the gaming area and putting candlelit cocktail tables in the second floor balcony.  Small potatoes, she thought. 

 

She realized with a touch of sadness that she almost liked Brian.  He was not as ruthless as her cousin Johnny; nor did he have the obsessive, maniac drive of Frankie Tyler; and he lacked the unemotional, calculating efficiency that Spade was famed for. No, Brian wasn’t from the same cut of black cloth as these leaders; and consequently, an ambitious and remorseless rival would eventually take him down. 

 

That was argument enough for Auna to go through with her plans, if she didn’t have enough reason already.  And there were plenty of reasons.

 

Tonight? She thought to herself.

 

Yes.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Auna left Brian’s side long enough to get her small red cosmetics purse from her old room.  She checked the lipstick container, made sure the cyanide-laced cigarette was intact, and deposited it within the purse. She had a few other makeup items in it and a couple of tissues.  In the odd chance Brian was to snoop into the purse, he’d find nothing worth suspicion.

 

Next, she changed clothes.  Black nylons, she decided, would be appropriate tonight.  She pulled them up her legs, fastening them to the lacy, impractical garter belts that men found mindlessly appealing. 

 

She selected a dress from the closet that she’d saved for this occasion.  It was red silk, her favorite, though it was shorter than the other dresses, the hemline slit and dangerously high.  It was a dress meant to tease and distract the male observer.  The low-cut neckline tapered into a v-shape that invited one to enjoy the cleavage within. 

 

The red stiletto heels were a bit tacky, but she’d never met a man who didn’t like them. She slid her nyloned feet into them, then checked her full appearance in the mirror. She felt appropriately dressed to kill.

 

Auna grabbed the purse and headed out of the room.  The narrow high-heels of her shoes tapped across the floor and down the stairs; but she didn’t have far to go.  Brian was walking up them at the same time, thinking that Auna had retired to the suite for the evening.  When he noticed her on the stairs, dressed like the most expensive working girl this side of the Mississippi, his mouth went dry.  He grinned at her wolfishly. 

 

“You like it?”  Auna said, giving a small twirl, making the skirt of the dress flare out and reveal the black lace garters.

 

“I…love it…” Brian exhaled, his body’s reaction cutting off the supply of blood to his brain. 

 

“I wanted to surprise you,” Auna smiled.  “But you caught me and spoiled it.”

 

“Have I?”  Brian advanced up the stairs. There was a predator’s gleam in his dark eyes, a hunger born of passion. 

 

Auna giggled and turned away, bolting up a few steps, giving a squeal as Brian caught up to her and tagged her with a slap on her rear.  “You beast!”

 

“You’re right.”  He wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, looming over her shoulder to kiss her face.  “You’ll be lucky if we both make it to the tenth floor. What’s the occasion, anyhow?”

 

She smiled and looked up at him.  “You.  You’re the occasion. As Dona, do I need a special reason to make love to you?”

 

“Nope.”  Brian picked her up into a bridegroom’s carry.  Her slim body felt light in his arms, and he planted his black boot on the next step and carried her to the suite. 

 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Auna kept her arms locked around Brian’s shoulders as he carried her into the suite. The plush carpeting cushioned his bootsteps, and the opulence of the suite lent to the mood. Gently, he laid her down on the satin-covered bed, resting her head back on a pillow.  He took the small purse from her hands and sat it on the nightstand, not giving it a thought. 

 

Then, he stood there and drank in the sight of her, this beautiful woman who reclined so regally on the black satin sheets, her red dress a bright, sensual contrast. 

 

“You’re…gorgeous,” he murmured, letting himself admit it.  Hell, he didn’t even mind if the red high heels tore up the sheets.

 

“I’m yours,” Auna smiled, drawing up one shapely leg.  “You only have to come and get me.”

 

“I intend to,” he said huskily.  He slowly removed his black suit coat, draping it carefully over the back of a chair.  For the moment, he left the rest of his clothes on, boots included.  There was no rush, except for the blood-fire surging through his veins, hardening his body…

 

Auna saw the way he looked at her.  She appraised him in return. Brian was handsome in the formal black dress shirt and slacks, his dark brown hair neatly feathered back, save for the lock of bangs that drifted over his right temple. He had an attractive face and a strong jaw, but it was his eyes….those dark, restless eyes…that were captivating. 

 

Those eyes caught her in their gaze, and held her…you’re mine, he seemed to be saying silently, as his chest rose and fell with deep, even breathing...the black dress shirt fitting taut over his muscles…

 

To her surprise, he abruptly turned away. But then she saw the reason, as he retrieved his lighter from the suit jacket.  In moments, he turned out the lights and lit several candles in the suite, until the golden, dancing flames bathed them in their glow. 

 

As returned to her, Auna saw the reflection of candle flame within Brian’s brown eyes, a signal to his passion…his breath was hot upon her throat as he came to the side of the bed and kissed her…why the throat, she wondered…

 

…and then she understood, remembered that he always made sure of her willingness, her consent.  Quaint notion, for a Syndicate Don…but she would show him her eagerness.  Auna tilted her head back and offered her throat, and soon felt his nuzzling kiss turn into teeth that lightly nipped their way to…

 

She gave as small cry as his mouth quested to her cleavage, and he had her squirming and writhing as he licked and suckled at her breasts…through her dress yet, the animal! The red silk was damp upon her body…

 

He moved lower, and she knew what he intended… but he kept going, kissing down the full length of her nylon-covered leg, until he was standing at the end of the bed…but he was not alone for long. Brian leaned forward, scooped his hands beneath her hips and slid her down the edge of the bed, until her legs were dangling over the end…

 

…and now he knelt, bending one of his knees to the floor, pulling her hips closer to the edge…and he took her left ankle in his hand and kissed it, guiding her high-heeled foot over his shoulder…and then did the same to her other ankle, moving her leg, allowing her knees to rest over his shoulders…

 

…then he moved his palms to caress the inside of her legs, and Auna shuddered, feeling the material of her dress being pushed up…his hands roamed briefly over her silk-covered womanhood, and she dug her fingernails into the bedsheets…and his mouth found her, his hot breath and tongue adoring her, devouring her through the thin material…it made her crazy, and she heard herself moaning…

 

…mercifully, came the removal of the interfering clothing….her panties were stripped off, skimmed down past her nylons and garters…and Brian brought his mouth upon her once more…licking and kissing selectively at first, as if consuming a delicacy…and then, in answer to their shared hunger, he drove his tongue into her, again and again and again…his hands sliding beneath her to raise her pelvis to him…her legs hanging over his shoulders…

 

She cried out as the sweet, shuddering blackness took her once…twice…and then his fingers found her, gently exploring her…the slow stroking of his hand filling her…she was moaning, gasping, desperate for the full hardness of his body…never had she been so worked up, so ready…

 

She felt Brian’s hands leave the caress of her body, and she heard the zipper as he freed himself from confinement…a temporary loss of his hands and mouth as he shed his clothing…

 

The sight of him in the candlelight…darkness and fire…the evidence of his need was standing rigid, thick and long...his deep breathing spoke of his desire, and his voice was an octave lower as he spoke to her softly, asking her to come closer…he helped her slide off the bed…he stood before her as she now knelt on the floor…her back against the end of the bed…she ran her hands up his legs, feeling the form of his muscles, feeling the tension of the stallion….

 

He presented her with his hardness, and she accepted it with her mouth…her throat opened to him…his hands wound into her hair as she swallowed his body…it was his turn to moan, his passion a volcano ready to explode…

 

With a staggered breath, he forced himself to restraint, and she looked at him as he moved away…

 

Then he helped her to stand, and removed the dress...removed everything except the garters, the nylons, and the red stiletto heels…he sat her on the edge of the bed, then gently pushed her onto her back…he leaned over her, and she reached her arms up around his neck…she opened her legs wide…and at the smooth, slow stretching of her body, she let out a sigh of pleasure, anxious for the thrusts to follow…

 

… he filled her, and she wrapped her long legs around the small of his back, crossing her ankles…and at this, Brian’s restraint was no more, and he drove himself in to the hilt, answering the demand of their passion…he thrust into her with long, deep strokes, feeling her moist, soft body clench and writhe around him…their rhythm was building in the molten heat…she was moaning, nearly screaming…for more…

 

He gave her a last thrust and leaned over her, holding her body tightly in his arms…and at her questioning look, he only smiled…then shifted his weight to the left, rolling until he was the one on his back, and she was positioned above him, the two of them still joined…

 

She took his hands into hers, and with the security of the grip, she leaned back until their arms were fully extended…and then she rode him, her eyes shut and head thrown back, her breasts free…Brian could only hang on to her hands, lest she lose her balance…he could not touch her with anything, other than with the manhood inside of her…so he gave it to her with all of his strength, his body sweating…hearing her cries with each thrust, she was going, going, gone…

 

She clamped her legs to him tightly, and the wave hit her, carrying her to the peak and setting her free…and she sank to rest upon him, collapsing forward to lay on his chest, gasping…

 

He murmured in her ear, holding her close…they rolled again, and Auna was returned to her back…Brian renewed his thrusts, driving deep into the yielding softness of her body…she squeezed her legs around him….her long, red-painted nails raked his shoulders, carving his skin…

 

He clamped his mouth to hers, kissing hungrily…then threw back his head and arched his body…he thrust into her hard, knowing nothing other than the surrender of her sweet flesh, her tenderness, taking him in, enclosing him…his chest heaved with his ragged, urgent breathing…his eyes shut, and his body jolted as he gave his last surge of energy…the sound of his masculine cry announced his release, pulsing hot….

 

Spent, he could do no more than remain motionless and heave in oxygen for several moments, his heart slamming as if he’d run a marathon…then his dark eyes opened, and he looked at his lover with affection…he leaned down and kissed her softly…

 

Auna smiled, reaching up a hand to Brian’s damp brow, brushing back the lock of hair that hung over his temple…she pulled him down to her and held him in an embrace, kissing him as their heartbeats calmed…she murmured to him, running her palms over his sweating back…soothing him into rest…

 

He withdrew from her, and lay next to her, shutting his eyes again…he was content, relaxed…

 

Auna lay still and shut her eyes, allowing him to cradle her body…she waited, perhaps for twenty minutes, until Brian drifted off to sleep.  When his breathing signaled his exit from consciousness, she rose from the bed, carefully, quietly…

 

She opened her cosmetics purse, taking out the lipstick case…she uncapped it, removing the cyanide cigarette. She carried it to the chair that held Brian’s black suit coat.  Rummaging through his inside pocket, she found the package of cigarettes she knew would be in there. 

 

Auna removed exactly one cigarette from the package, and substituted the cyanide cigarette in it’s place.

 

She slid the cigarette package back into the jacket pocket.  There were only five cigarettes in the pack, she had noticed - which meant Brian’s last breath could come with his very next smoke, or his fifth…but it would be soon. 

 

The plain cigarette that she’d taken from him was put into the lipstick case, which was returned to her purse.  She felt herself trembling, now that the last bridge had been crossed. 

 

She climbed back into bed with him, and rolled to her side, touching the scar upon his chest, resting her palm over it.  The heartbeat beneath was strong, solid…

 

“If only,” she whispered, “You were someone else…I might have loved you,” she said softly. “But you were condemned long ago…and your destiny must be met, for me to live mine…I am Auna Mancini…and I have done no more than what my name required of me.”

 

She cupped her palms to the sides of Brian’s sleeping face, and gave a last kiss to his lips.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The next morning, Auna left a note on the pillow, and then left the Jigsaw before Brian was awake.  She took a taxi and headed to the outskirts of the city.  The dreary visage of Atlanta Federal Penitentiary never failed to put a shudder through her, but it was necessary for her to report her progress.

 

Auna convinced the taxi driver to wait for her as she paid a visit to Johnny Mancini.  When she greeted her cousin in the visitor’s area, the former Don of the Atlanta Syndicate looked at her in amazement.

 

He studied her glamorous, well-dressed appearance through the bullet-proof glass, noticing the high lift of her chin and the direct gaze of her grey eyes.  This was not the broken, futureless woman that was his cousin; there was no trace of the disgraced P.I. to be seen.  The change in her was partially due to the clothing, the hair color and the layers of cosmetics…and the rest was due to something that had risen from within her own soul.  She was a Mancini in power, coldly beautiful, about to take her place on the throne of the Atlanta underworld.  Johnny Mancini sensed all this, but he needed to know one thing.

 

“Everything is set,” Auna said in answer to the unspoken question.  “I expect today, or tomorrow at the latest, you’ll have your wish.”

 

“Excellent!”  Mancini was happy for the first time since his incarceration.  “You know the location of the Keys and the Ledger? You can find them in a hurry?”

 

“I am the Dona,” she answered proudly.  “I know where they are at all times.”

 

Johnny Mancini’s large frame sat back in the chair, looking pleased.  The plan had worked better than he’d hoped.  “I’m impressed,” he said with a nod. 

 

Auna felt another swell of pride.  Johnny had never been impressed with her before.  His praise added to her confidence.  It made up for everything.  She was somebody in the eyes of her formerly-powerful cousin, who had tore the Syndicate from Frankie Tyler, curled Atlanta around his fist, and fortified an empire that would have remained indestructible…had it not been for the betrayal of one enforcer and the aid of his kin.

 

That betrayal remained fresh in Mancini’s mind.  “The minute he coughs up his ghost, I want to be informed,” he said. 

 

“You’ll be among the first to know,” Auna promised.  “I have to get back soon. It could happen at anytime.”

 

Excited, Mancini leaned close to the glass, dispensing his advice. “When it does, move quickly!  Take possession of the Keys and Ledger and start giving orders. Don’t worry about the rank and file.  Keep the top guns in line and the rest will follow them.  If anybody makes waves, put the strongest player up to some housecleaning.  It only takes a few examples for the rest to get the picture.”

 

“I’ll remember.” Auna stood up.  “The next time you see me…we’ll have a lot to talk about.”

 

“Yes,” Johnny Mancini agreed.  “I’m looking forward to it more than you can imagine.”

 

******                                    ******                                    *****

 

A dented Ford Crown Victoria was parked in one of the stalls for Authorized Vehicles Only.  Unnoticed, the two agents in the car watched the attractive woman exit the visitor’s wing of the prison.  She ducked into a waiting taxi and it pulled away from the curb.

 

Roger Kelley was nervous for a reason he couldn’t explain.  “Are you going inside to confirm the I.D. she gave them?” he asked his Commander.

 

“I don’t need to,” Mayson said heavily.  “We followed that cab here all the way from the Jigsaw.  I have no doubt that’s Auna Mancini, and I have no doubt she just visited her favorite, former-crime-boss relative.”

 

“I’m sure of it too. Okay, we know there’s enough motive. We can get proof of her visits here from the visitor records.  But how to we prove an intent to commit murder?”

 

Mayson stared out the windshield.  “Officially, we can’t do anything.  We would have to wait until Brian Coltrane stopped showing up at Lou’s, have him declared a missing person, and then bring Auna Mancini in for questioning.”

 

“After it’s too late,” Kelley muttered.  “This is crazy. I know we’re not talking about any great loss to humanity, but I can’t stand letting this happen.”

 

“We didn’t let Brian expire at Mancini’s hands before,” Mayson said.  “We’re not going to look the other way now.”

 

Kelley remembered the mad chases in Hazzard County.  “I think your exact words were, ‘Not on my watch.’” 

 

“Good memory.”

 

“Thanks.  Now, just how do we tip off a Syndicate Don about a possible murder plot against him, involving his lady friend who’s related to his former Contract-happy boss, and have him not shoot the messenger…namely us?”

 

 “We send in a messenger he can’t refuse,” Mayson decided.  “I’m going to make a call to Hazzard County.”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The hot water of the shower was helping Brian wake up.  He had staggered out of bed, found the Dona’s note that she had gone shopping, and figured the best thing to do was to put himself together before the rest of the Syndicate woke up.

 

His mood was mellow as he lathered soap over his shoulders.  His body was pleasantly tired in the right ways, and he felt completely drained and like a million bucks at the same time.  He took his time in the shower, singing with a lazy drawl, remembering the dance of a few weeks ago…

 

“With you ah might try…to show the way ah feel…with you ah might try…mah secrets to reee-veal…fer yooooou are a magnet, n’ ah am steeee-heeeeel….”

 

Shutting off the water, he stepped out to confront his face in the bathroom mirror.  He took a blade to his face, shaving, humming to the song in his head.  After rinsing his face and slapping on a small amount of aftershave, he finished drying off with a black, fluffy towel, ratting up his hair with it as the finishing touch. 

 

It was always fun to consider leaving his hair like that the rest of the day. “Khee!”  But instead, he combed it out, brushing the sides back and making a genuine effort to get his bangs to behave, but they fell over the right temple as usual.  Well, no big deal.  He brushed his teeth and felt ready to face the world.  Whether he was dressed or not.

 

Nude, he strolled out to the bedroom area of the suite, and rifled through his dresser.  He started to get dressed, whistling as he did so, feeling no sense of particular hurry. He wandered to the closet, and dug out a fresh black suit, pulling on the slacks and tucking in a black dress shirt.  His boots came next, then his belt.  Lastly, he put on a fresh suit jacket, adjusting it over his shoulders.

 

Shutting the closet door, he saw his old leather jacket hanging at the end of the rack, unworn these many weeks. 

 

He reached out to touch the jacket sleeve. It too, was part of the life he’d left behind.  A Syndicate Don had to dress for the role.  Irrationally, he wondered if the Dona would have still found him attractive if he hadn’t been the crimelord of Atlanta.  Would she have loved him, had he just been a wheelman or an enforcer when they met?  Or if he’d been living in a hick town in the middle of nowhere?

 

He’d probably never know, and the train of thought troubled him.  He brushed the concern aside and went to collect his cigarettes, finding them in the pocket of the suit he’d worn yesterday.  He gave the pack of cigarettes a small shake to tap one out.  He put a cigarette in his teeth, transferred the pack to the inside pocket of the suit he was wearing, then found his lighter.

 

The gold lighter flicked into flame.  Brian held it to the cigarette, drawing in a breath as he lit it.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The phone rang insistently.   Rosco grumbled to himself, having to cross the length of the booking room to get it.  “Hazzard County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Roscoooo P. Coltrane speakin’…”

 

The unexpected voice on the other end of the line bit into Rosco’s ear.  “Sheriff, this is Commander Frank Mayson of the Atlanta Bureau.  I need to talk to MaryAnne, please.”

 

“JIT!”  Rosco couldn’t help his reaction.  “Awright, listen here, your Federal Commanderness…MaryAnne ain’t on duty for nobody right now.  So if you want any legal n’ law business handled, yer gonna halfta settle for me.”

 

“I see.”  Mayson’s voice fell quiet for a moment.  “I’m sorry to hear she hasn’t taken her badge back. She’s one of the finest officers I’ve ever known.”

 

“I’m sorry too.”  And it’s your fault, Rosco wanted to say. 

 

Mayson sensed the unspoken blame. He sighed audibly.  “Sheriff, I’m not calling in any official capacity, but it’s extremely important that I speak to MaryAnne.  Do you know where I can reach her?”

 

Cold silence came from Rosco.  Finally, he answered the question.  “I can get a message to her. Whether or not she wants to call back and talk to you, is gunna be up to her.”

 

“Tell her it’s about…kin.”

 

Rosco caught the drift and became alarmed.  “What happened? Is somethin’ wrong? Is he…”

 

“Have MaryAnne call me,” was all Mayson said before he hung up.

 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The home of Eli Coltrane had seen better days.  MaryAnne had always meant to fix the place up again, to bring it back to the charming farmstead that she’d remembered as a child, but there was never time nor money.  At least now, she had one of the two…and while she had time, there were a few things she could take care of.

 

She took a nail, set it to the corner of the board, and hammered it into place.  The back porch had been in a sad state of disrepair, and it felt good to get it back into shape, one board at a time.  It was hard labor to saw the boards by hand, fit them, and hammer them in, but there was something purging about the work.  It felt good.  With every driven nail, she reclaimed a tiny part of herself, the part that knew who she was…and liked herself.

 

Maverick’s CB crackled to life, startling her. It was Rosco’s voice, not coming in quite clear.  MaryAnne put down the hammer, stood up, and jogged over to the TransAm. 

 

“Songbird to Bear, I read you,” she called back.

 

“You need to call Mayson,” Rosco radioed, his voice strained. 

 

“Like hell I do,” MaryAnne grated.  “I’m busy.”

 

“…it….he said…”  

 

“I didn’t copy that,” MaryAnne called back. 

 

Rosco’s voice came out through the static.  “He said it’s important….I think it’s about Blackbird.”  

 

MaryAnne shut her eyes for a long second.  Was this the call she’d expected to get someday?   “Bear…did he say what happened?”

 

“Negatory…I don’t know if it’s good news or bad, sweetheart….he wouldn’t tell me.”

 

“Goddammit…”  MaryAnne hadn’t meant for that to go on the air, but it did.  “Has Mayson ever called with good news?!” 

 

“Not that I can recollect….”

 

MaryAnne sighed.  “I have a feeling this time isn’t any different.  I’m on my way home and I’ll call him from there.”

 

“Ten-four, I’ll meet ya there. I’m gone.”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The view through the suite’s tenth-floor window occupied Brian’s attention for several minutes.  Staring through the glass, he nursed the cigarette and let his mind drift with the smoke.   Consequently, the knock on the door to his suite startled him, snapping him back to the immediate. 

 

“Don Coltrane!”  Lance’s voice called out through the door.  “You got company downstairs.”

 

Brian walked over to the door and opened it. The curly-haired thug with the motorcycle cap handed over an envelope.  “Courier brought this. Ace says the dude’s a Fed.  Clean, though, no wire and he’s not armed. He’s waiting downstairs for your answer.”

 

“@#%&,” Brian muttered softly.  Putting the cigarette in his teeth, he took out a knife from his suit pocket and snapped it open, cutting open the envelope.

 

Lance waited silently as Brian read the contents, and then, as the Don folded the letter back up and tucked it into the envelope, took some guesses.  “Subpoena? Warrant? Overdue library book?”

 

“None of the above.  That damn Mayson is tryin’ to sucker me into meetin’ ‘em alone. Says he’s got urgent information.”

 

“A trap,” Lance agreed.  “That cab deal he cut might have been a front to ease you up.”

 

“I know.”   Inwardly, Brian felt unsure.  Mayson was a Fed, and a tenacious one, and as such he was capable of hardball tactics.  But a simple set-up like this wasn’t his style. Buying time while he thought it over, Brian took a deep breath off the cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke.

 

“Want Ace to dust the courier?”  Lance asked.

 

“No! Cripes, man. This ain’t Tyler’s house, how many times I gotta tell ya?”

 

“Sorry. Old habits.”

 

Brian gave the thug a warning glance.  “Sometimes I forget you were Ketterhagen’s wheelman. Then sometimes I remember, and I wonder what the hell I was thinkin’.”

 

“Neither of us can afford grudges over past politics. You told me that when you hired me.”

 

“Just don’t make me regret it.”

 

“I won’t.”  Lance shrugged one shoulder.  “What do you want me to tell the courier?”

 

Brian looked at the envelope.  He then tore it in half and handed it back to Lance.  “Give ‘em this, and then give him the rest in sign language…dig?”

 

“My pleasure.”  Lance grinned at the idea.  “Then, can we rough ‘em up before we throw him into the street?”

 

“No! Dammit, man!  The Atlanta Syndicate ain’t a bunch of striking union dockworkers! Have some @#$%*& class!!”

 

“Yes sir.”  Lance turned away and went to deliver the message.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

“What did he say?”  Mayson asked his lieutenant.

 

Roger Kelley tossed the torn envelope on Mayson’s desk.  “The formal answer was rather crude. I didn’t even get the courtesy of being flipped off by him in person.”

 

“I suspected as much.”  Mayson took the torn envelope and set it aside.  “At least we can tell MaryAnne that we made an effort.”

 

“Has she called back yet?”

 

“No.  She will, though.”

 

Kelley questioned the odds.  “How can you be so sure?”

 

“The same way I was sure she would take that undercover assignment.  MaryAnne Coltrane can’t ignore a crisis.”

 

“She must be tempted to ignore this one.”

 

“Don’t underestimate her family, or what it means to her,” Mayson said.  “Mancini did, once…so did Tyler.”

 

“But…one cousin is a Sheriff and the other is a Syndicate Don…”

 

“It has to make for a tense dinner conversation at family gatherings,” Mayson agreed.  “I don’t envy her.”

 

The sudden rrrrring of the phone on Mayson’s desk surprised them both. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

MaryAnne heard the phone pick up on the second ring.  Upon hearing Mayson’s greeting, she launched right in.  “This is MaryAnne. I got your message,” she said bluntly.  “Go ahead and tell me the bad news.” 

 

“It’s not the worst news…yet. There may still be time.”

 

MaryAnne let out a suppressed breath, casting a nod at Rosco.  “I’m listening…”

 

Briefly, Mayson described the latest events in Atlanta.  “The Syndicate’s leadership has been smitten by a romantic interest.  The love object, however, is none other than Auna Mancini, who we believe infiltrated the Syndicate under an alias, in order to woo the Don and eventually dispose of him.  Given her visits to Atlanta Federal, the plan may have been masterminded by Johnny Mancini himself…”

 

"Hmmm...terrific. He's hosting a Syndicate dating game, and Brian's about to choke with bachelorette number one?"

 

Mayson gave a pause before responding to that. "Yes, well...that may be more than a figure of speech. It took several weeks for Auna to win his confidence and affections. Once she did so, she did so completely. Now that she has been recognition as the Dona, and has access to internal Syndicate secrets...it may be a matter of time."

 

MaryAnne sighed and then spoke seriously. "A matter of time before they kill off my cousin and Mancini assumes power of the Syndicate again, through Auna. That's what yer sayin', right?"

 

"That is the presumed motive. We have proof enough of her identity and of her recent visits to Atlanta Federal. Can we prove any murderous intent? No. By the time we can, it may be an academic point."

 

"It's not a crime to think about murder, Commander, only to commit or attempt to commit..." MaryAnne paused. She made face, finding the cop within obviously still alive and well. "Anyway...so you know she's in there and ya got a good idea of what she's intending to do. Has anyone attempted to caution Brian about it?"

 

"As a matter of fact, yes. I sent Agent Kelley to the Jigsaw today, along with a note requesting a meeting on neutral territory. Kelley returned with the note ripped in half and was reportedly issued the bird."

 

"Hmm...I see..." MaryAnne snorted. "This is why you're calling me ain't it? Other than just givin' me an FYI about all this, you're lookin' to see if I'll try to talk to Brian?"

 

“It was my responsibility to share the facts and the possibilities with you. What you do with the information is your choice." Mayson took a long breath, awaiting her answer.

 

MaryAnne silently chuckled to herself. "Well...I might be compelled to go to Atlanta, Commander, seeing as it's my cousin's posterior on the line. And I'd really hate to see anything happen to him..."

 

"I thought you might feel that way," Mayson said, relieved.  There was no smugness in his voice. Instead, there was a note of worry. "Use caution," he advised. "You'll have one chance to get the message through to him. If Auna Mancini realizes who you are, she'll suspect your purpose and seek your destruction."

 

“Yeah, well I'm used to it!" MaryAnne said. "I'll make goddamn sure she realizes who I am!"

 

At the end of the call, MaryAnne hung up the phone with more force than necessary.  Rosco observed the expression on her face, and having overheard enough, knew better than to ask if she was going to Atlanta.  It was obvious she was.

 

“Be careful, sweetheart,” was all he said.

 

*****                          *****                                      *****

 

Auna left the taxi with two shopping bags.  She rued the extra time of the uptown stop, but she had to keep the excuse of her absences consistent.  She had visited one department store, hurriedly bought an armful of clothes she’d only glanced at, and then rushed back to the Jigsaw.

 

She wondered if Brian was already dead…if luck had given him the first cigarette of the day as the fatal one – or if he’d merely smoked one or two closer to the final draw.  She prepared herself for whatever she would find, and marched inside with the shopping bags clutched in each hand.

 

Immediately, she noticed that things were too calm within the Jigsaw for anything to have happened yet.  It was early afternoon, and the residents of the old Atlanta Hotel were milling around, relaxing before the evening’s business got underway.

 

Auna looked around and spied Brian playing pool with Rusty, a couple of beers sitting on the end of the pool table, and two cigarettes smoldering in an ashtray.  She put on a smile and strolled over, sitting the shopping bags down to wrap herself around the Don in hello. 

 

“There ya are,” Brian smiled, turning his head to kiss her.  “Did you have fun shoppin’?”

 

“Yes, I did. I’ll show you what I bought later,” she said with a sly wink.

 

“Hot damn,” he chuckled.  “Hey, me n’ Rusty just started the game here, if you’d like to join us….”

 

“No, you boys go ahead.  I’m going to put these things away, and finish clearing out my old room.”

 

“Good idea,” Brian said. “No sense stayin’ in a hole in the wall when you can stay in the Don’s suite, is there?”

 

“None at all,” she said, and despite her smile, her grey eyes were cold.  Brian didn’t notice this, being distracted with the hand she ran up his body as she planted a kiss on his cheek.

 

As the honey-blonde woman sauntered away with her shopping bags, Rusty gave a low whistle.  “Brian, you’re a lucky man.”

 

“Damn, I know it,” he grinned broadly.  “A very lucky man.”

 

“You still suck at pool, though.”   Rusty leaned over the table and cracked the cue ball against the 9, sinking it cleanly. 

 

“Yeah? Fifty bucks says you can’t make the next shot.”

 

“You’re on.”  Rusty lined it up.  Just as he was about to hit the cue ball, Brian jerked his own pool stick up and whacked it into Rusty’s, and the shot went wild and the white cue ball popped into the air to land rolling away across the floor. Applause broke out, along with calls of nice shot.

 

“You owe me fifty bucks,” Brian said, straight-faced.  At Rusty’s I’ve-been-had expression, the Don laughed.  “That’s why I’m the freakin’ boss. Don’t forget it, eh?”

 

“You’re a freakin’….”

 

“Don’t say it.” Brian chuckled and reached into his suit pocket for another cigarette. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

An hour later, Brian had to face business.  He sat at the private table in the back of the Jigsaw and worked on the ledger.  Things were going well, and his black pen scratched away at a few numbers.  The early crowd was starting to trickle in, giving more activity to the pool tables and the gaming area.  Rusty worked behind the bar, the jukebox was playing, and it looked like another busy night was shaping up. 

 

Brian took a swig from his second beer, studied the ledger, and looked up once in awhile to watch the crowd.  All seemed relatively peaceful.  Even Ace and Lance were in decent moods, throwing knives at the dartboard, then icepicks from the bar, then finally resorting to actual darts when every other sharp object they could find was already sticking in the wall. 

 

Perhaps it was time to send them on a chaos run to Charlotte and let them have some fun terrorizing the enforcers of that organization.  Nothing serious, just enough to make a point that if any Charlotte boys were going to monitor the Atlanta Syndicate, then the Atlanta Syndicate would be obliged to bring the show to their doorstep.  Besides, things seemed secure enough in Atlanta for the moment…maybe it was time the Syndicate sent calling cards to a few neighboring cities, to exchange professional courtesies.  It was time to let them all know the Syndicate was growing strong again, and would make deals, friends, or enemies as the occasion called for.

 

Giving a nod to himself with the idea, Brian made the plans.  Busy with outlining the assignments in the ledger, he was not aware of Auna coming down the steps to sit at the bar next to Ace and Lance.  He didn’t see Rusty pouring her a cocktail, and if he heard her laughter, he was too absorbed in the Syndicate’s future to look up at that moment. 

 

It wasn’t until he’d finished drafting a few assignments, that he looked up to see the Dona surrounded by Ace, Lance, and Tony, with Rusty leaning over the end of the bar.  She was telling a story, he realized, as all the Syndicate captains were smiling broadly, hanging onto every word.  Queen among thieves…

 

His queen. That odd streak of jealously hit him out of nowhere.  He trusted them, but he couldn’t stop the selfish male reaction.  He reached inside of his suit pocket for a cigarette.

 

There were only two remaining in the pack.  Brian tilted the pack and took one out.  He held the cigarette between two fingers of his left hand, as he put the pack away inside of his pocket and drew out his lighter.

 

He suddenly noticed the Dona staring at him intently.  She didn’t smile, she only stared. Then she rejoined her conversation, though her grey eyes landed on him every few moments.

 

Something was making Brian’s skin crawl and he didn’t know what it was.  He suddenly felt very, very, alone and isolated.  Something was wrong…he had the urge to snap his fingers and bring the enforcers to his side.  Though he didn’t know how on earth anything could be posing a threat to him here.

 

He saw that the highest-ranked of the Syndicate remained clustered around the Dona; best to leave them there for her protection, just in case. 

 

Paranoid, he told himself, putting the cigarette to his mouth.  I’ve been in the game too long, I’m starting to lose it…

 

The gold lighter was in his right hand.  He brought it up near his face, his dark eyes looking over it at the Dona, who was transfixed with his every move, now…

 

Brian’s thumb pulled back on the lighter switch, the flame jumping to life.  It winked out unexpectedly, and he had to flick at the lighter again…

 

Auna held her breath and her body set into stone.  She could feel Brian’s heartbeat from across the room…she remembered the feel of his pulse, strong and steady, drumming beneath her fingertips as she traced the scar on his chest.  His life was hers, intimately and forever, the bond between killer and prey singing through her…she would know the moment he died, even if she wasn’t watching…but she had to watch. 

 

The door to the Jigsaw banged open wide.  The lighter flicked into flame but Brian didn’t move.

 

A German Shepard was in the Jigsaw, straining at the end of a short chain leash.  The shoulders of the dog were low and bunched, the sharp ears perked forward, and a whistling-whine came through the dog’s nose as it pulled against the restraint. 

 

Nobody moved and nobody spoke.  A police dog was in the Jigsaw.  And it wasn’t alone.

 

A woman held the dog’s leash with a firm grip.  She walked straight and tall, her long brown hair falling back to curl over her shoulders. Her eyes were a bright fire-blue as she studied the patrons of the Jigsaw.  She held the dog back as she read every face, and every face stared back at her, some with shocked recognition.

 

There was a set to her jaw, however, that forbade any friendly hello.  She looked severe in her appearance, clad in black jeans and boots, wearing a black denim jacket over a blue shirt.  It wasn’t a uniform, there was no badge…

 

But Brian stared open-mouthed at the sudden visitation as if he’d seen a ghost.  And MaryAnne knew damn well where the Don usually sat in the Jigsaw, and she slowly turned to him.  Everyone else knew she was here; now she could have a word with her cousin.

 

Brian slowly lowered the unlit cigarette and rested both hands on the table.  He had no idea what the hell she was here for, but the idea of making any sudden moves or reaching into his suit pocket was not anything he cared to test at the moment. 

 

The German Shepard, Bandit, brought MaryAnne to the back table where Brian sat.  The dog whined and issued a few short barks, growling low.

 

Brian raised his dark eyes from the dog, to MaryAnne.  If he was being busted, it was about time for his rights to be read…

 

MaryAnne met his dark gaze and stared at him, her expression revealing that this visit, obviously, was not social. She tugged on Bandit's leash signaling for the dog to sit. He did so, glancing up at MaryAnne and then resuming his own intense stare at the Don.

 

MaryAnne sat down across from her cousin. "Hello, Brian," she said. "Long time, no see..."

 

His mouth twitched into a half-smile. "I sincerely hope you ain't here lookin' for work."

 

This broke MaryAnne's stern look temporarily. "Hell, no. But there is a serious matter that you and I need to discuss."

 

"Ah." Brian looked uncomfortable. "I can imagine there's a helluva list to pick from."

 

"There is. But this is right at the top." MaryAnne paused and glanced around the Jigsaw, seeing a honey-blonde woman looking at her and Brian.  She studied the face, then looked back at her cousin. "I think yer bein' compromised, cousin. Somebody's lookin' to take you out."

 

There was a brief widening of the dark eyes. Bravado quickly took over, and Brian gave a light chuckle. "Aw, hell...that's the price of admission, with this gig." He flashed the ring with a turn of his right hand.

 

"Just how high of a price are you willing to pay?"

 

MaryAnne's serious tone made Brian lean forward, and he lowered his voice as he spoke. "This on the level? Or is this part of some 'get-the-hell-outta-town' motivation plan?"

 

"It's on the level, as much as I would like to get you outta this town. I'll save that for a day when I know you still have a posterior worth trying to motivate."

 

The dark eyes flickered. Brian was keenly aware of MaryAnne's unyielding gaze, and the stare coming from the German Shepard...along with the stares coming from most of the Jigsaw, which watched without daring to interfere. After an awkward minute, he gave a curt nod. "Maybe we'd better talk outside."

 

MaryAnne nodded. "Good idea."

 

Brian stood up from the table, still clenching the unlit cigarette in his fingers. The enforcers stood too, as did Auna, but Brian cast a forbidding glance in the bar's direction, waving them back. He led MaryAnne and Bandit out the back of the Jigsaw, to the narrow alley behind the old hotel. Once outside, he turned to face his cousin.

 

The nickname Deputy was on his lips, but remembering she wore no badge these days, he swallowed it back. "Awright...tell me."

 

"First...why don't you tell me about your new girlfriend?"

 

Color flushed up from Brian's neck, to slightly redden his face. "How the hell would you know anything about that?!"

 

Ignoring the question, MaryAnne crossed her arms and continued to look at Brian seriously. "Tell me about her."

 

Suspicion flashed in the dark eyes. "She came here as a....workin' girl. We became friends."

 

"What's her name?"

 

"Is this a formal investigation?"

 

"It will be after they unzip your body bag! What's her name?"

 

Brian held his tongue for another moment, keeping his temper in check. Then he decided there was no harm in letting MaryAnne prove herself wrong. "Andrea Macy. Tho' if you think I run credit reports and background checks on any of my hires, you’re nuts."

 

MaryAnne snorted. "What, and take the fun out of everything? I'd expect no such thing. But you really should be more cautious of the company you keep. Andrea Macy huh? Hmm...clever. Besides being...your "friend" what else does she do?"

 

"If ya must know, we're a bit more than friends at this point." Irritated, Brian decided to throw the news in MaryAnne's face. "She's formally known as the Dona. Which is to say, we ain't exactly married, but it's the formal title she gets as a result of my status." Brian paused, heaving in a breath. "MaryAnne, she swore a blood oath to me....if you're here to discredit her, you're gonna have a helluva time at it!"

 

MaryAnne was unswayed by Brian's news. "Well then, you better check that blood oath, Brian, because it's tainted. Your Dona, Andrea Macy, is really Auna Mancini, Johnny Mancini's cousin! And when she's not with you, she's been spending a lot of time at Atlanta Federal visitin' him!" She suddenly narrowed her eyes. "And he wants his old empire back so bad that he'd stoop to the level of sending in his own flesh and blood as a black widow spider...."

 

"What!?" Brian was stricken. The world seemed to be on a slant, and he felt as if he'd fall off the edge. He turned away. "That's a lie," he said automatically. "It's gotta be..."

 

MaryAnne shook her head. "I'm sorry, Brian... I wouldn't be here if it wasn't true."

 

He refused to face the implications. "I thought...she seemed kinda familiar...but...I know she couldn't be against me..." a heavy breath followed, and then the question. "You've got...proof?"

 

"I've got proof of her identity and her visits to Johnny Mancini. I may not be able to prove her intentions at this point, but why else would she be here under false pretenses?"

 

Brian didn't have a good answer. His shoulders slumped as he felt the weight of the problem settle upon his soul. He turned to lean his back against the brick wall of the Jigsaw, his dark eyes vacant. Absently, he put the unlit cigarette between his teeth, and reached in his jacket for the lighter. He said nothing. He had to think...and somehow, he had to think around the pain that was constricting his heart.

 

He removed the lighter from his inside suit pocket. He couldn't look at MaryAnne. At the core of his being, he knew she told the truth. He wished he had never heard it.

 

MaryAnne watched him as he reacted to it all. His empty eyes told her of the devastation her words had caused. Obviously Auna...or Andrea, as he’d though of her, had achieved quite a hold on Brian's heart. MaryAnne felt bad seeing him hurt this way, but it was worth it if it meant saving his life.

 

She watched him settle the cigarette between his lips and was about to apologize for being the bearer of bad news when the cigarette itself caught her eye. She stared at it, intently enough that she grew alarmed with something she saw, and she gently pushed his hand away before he could light it.

 

Brian lowered the lighter, and looked at MaryAnne with a cross of irritation and puzzlement. He spoke through the cigarette clenched in his teeth. "What...after news like this, I'm supposed to quit smokin'?"

 

"Give me the cigarette..." She clamped her middle and index finger on the cigarette and gave a tug.

 

He released it from his teeth, surprised. "Buy your own," he said in mild complaint, but something told him not to object too strongly. In fact, he was picking up on her suspicions, and he watched her with a cold fear in his gut.

 

"You might wanna consider quitin'...." she mumbled, looking at the cigarette. It looked like a regular cigarette, but the coloring looked wrong. This brand of cigarettes had a thinner paper, showing through a little of the darkness of the tobacco. What triggered MaryAnne's curiosity was that it looked like half the tobacco was missing up to the filter. The paper itself had not been unrolled, but it wouldn't have taken much to empty the tobacco out and put something else in. Hell, she'd seen it with the Syndicate's smuggled dope under Spade's rule.

 

Bandit was looking at the cigarette too, standing on all fours with his nose pointed as far up and out as possible. MaryAnne reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out her car keys with the small Swiss army knife key chain. She laid the cigarette in her left hand, scrunching her hand to hold the cigarette and she flicked the small blade open on the knife. Carefully she cut a slit down the length of the cigarette. She then used the blade to open the cigarette and where the tobacco ended, a fine white powder took it's place. She looked up at Brian.

 

The evidence drained all color from his face. Although he had not smoked the lethal cigarette, part of him died anyway. Shakily, he reached into his suit jacket for the pack he had drawn it from. He took the last cigarette out, and with his own knife, skimmed it open.

 

It was perfectly normal. Slowly, he crushed it in his right hand. "One...bad one...mixed in the pack," he realized aloud. He was trying to think rationally, but he was caught halfway between feeling dead and wanting to kill. He put the knife away and stared at the proof of the Dona’s betrayal in MaryAnne's hand.

 

MaryAnne looked at Brian in genuine concern. "I don't know when this was slipped in the pack, but the odds are you probably shoulda been dead before now..."

 

"No one...nobody around me that could have done it, except...her, " he rasped. "Last night...it had to have been last night....when she...." Brian couldn't put the thoughts together easily. "Goddammit, she waited until I'd shown her the ledger," he whispered in a hiss. "I thought she loved me...."

 

MaryAnne looked down at the cigarette and then back at her cousin. She shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry, cousin..."

 

"So am I," he said quietly. He shut his eyes for a moment and drew in a breath. He had to have control. He couldn't break down...he couldn't give in to it. But God, he wished he'd just smoked the damn thing and never found out…

 

"Take it," he said suddenly, his voice rising from a wounded whisper to a growl. "Give it to Mayson. Run it through a lab. Flush it.  I don't care." He turned to look at the back door of the Jigsaw. "I've got to deal with this."

 

"Brian..." MaryAnne started to caution but stopped. She looked at cousin and simply nodded. She had accomplished what she came for.

 

He hesitated for a moment, facing her again. For a second, there was no Syndicate Don looking at MaryAnne...only a young man who missed his family, and his home. Perhaps it was that, more than the heartbreak of the Dona's false love, that caused the dark eyes to shine with an unshed tear. Silently, Brian reached out a hand to clasp MaryAnne's shoulder. He had no words.

 

MaryAnne put her hand over his, gripping it tightly for a moment. There was a family that missed the young man. Even Bandit, sensing this, reached a paw up to Brian's knee. There were no words spoken. Perhaps, there was none that needed to be said.

 

Brian gave a somber nod to MaryAnne, and with a sigh, he released her shoulder. He reached down to ruffle the fur on the German Shepard, giving himself another few seconds of the life he left behind. Then he straightened, raised his head, and forced the necessary distance in his expression, though his voice couldn't quite manage it. "Go," he said quietly.

 

MaryAnne drew in a long sigh and nodded. She closed her hand around the cigarette and turned, tugging on Bandit's leash. The Shepard gave one last look at Brian before walking with MaryAnne down the alley.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Inside the Jigsaw, Auna sat at the bar with growing anxiety.  “Who is that woman?” she had asked after MaryAnne and Brian had walked out to the back alley.

 

“That’s MaryAnne Coltrane,” Rusty said in a hushed voice.  “She’s cousin to the Don.”

 

“That’s not the half of it,” Ace broke in.  “She was Frankie Tyler’s executioner.”

 

“I try not to think about that side of her,” Rusty said. 

 

Auna sipped at her drink, hiding her nervousness.  Damn the woman’s timing!  She put the glass down and asked another question.  “What could she want with Brian all of a sudden?”

 

“His hide,” Ace guessed.  “She didn’t look happy coming in here.”

 

Auna turned a frown on in his direction.  “Shouldn’t you be protecting him, then?” 

 

“I know better than to get in the middle of their family squabbles.” 

 

“It’s probably the fastest way to get shot that I know of,” Rusty agreed.  “By either of them. Maybe by both.”

 

Lance had listened to all this with comment, until now.  “Ketterhagen went after MaryAnne.  He failed. That says something to me, right there.”

 

Tony, the big gambler, was taking a break from the poker tables, and he handed his thoughts to the group.  “I’ve never seen a woman who could play cards, fight, shoot and steal like she can.”

 

“Yeah….” Rusty sighed, a dreamy look on his face.  “She nearly stole my heart…if only she hadn’t been an undercover Fed…”

 

Auna spilled her drink.  Rusty dabbed it up with a bar rag, and the Dona huffed as her nerves grew progressively thinner.  “I don’t care who this MaryAnne is, if the Don isn’t back in five minutes, you men are going to go out there and bring him in!”

 

“Won’t have to,” Ace said.  “There he is.”  The blonde enforcer pointed to the back of the Jigsaw.  Brian was returning from his conference in the alley. 

 

There was something in the Don’s posture that made Ace put down his beer stand up from the bar stool. 

 

“What is it?”  Rusty questioned, turning around in that direction.  Lance, Tony and Auna looked over to see.

 

They all froze as Brian faced them and raised his right hand, the gold ring glittering upon his finger.  His face was grim.

 

He snapped his fingers.  Ace, Rusty, Lance and Tony had guns in their hands immediately. 

 

As Brian lowered his right hand pointed to Auna, she began to shake.  She struggled as Ace and Lance each took an arm and guided her towards the Don. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

As MaryAnne walked down the alley, her sense of justice debated against her reasons for walking away. She knew what Auna's fate would be. Her betrayal to the Don meant death. Knowing this bothered MaryAnne, but she didn't know what else could be done. Brian would snap his fingers and---

 

MaryAnne stopped. Bandit stopped too and looked up at MaryAnne, cocking his head to one side. She looked down at the dog and then turned to look behind her. Brian was gone.

 

Brian would snap his fingers...and he would order her death.

 

MaryAnne shook her head. "No....no way..." The implications were staggering. The power of deciding whether one lived or died and merely snapping his fingers once the decision was made, sent a cold shiver through MaryAnne's spine. She couldn't let him go through with it. He'd probably kill her otherwise, but she couldn't let him do it. It was a line she couldn't let him cross. There would be no turning back if she did.

 

"C'mon, Bandit!" She tugged on the leash and ran back around to the front side of the Jigsaw. She pushed the door open and came to a stop with Bandit directly beside her.

 

By the terrible hush over the Jigsaw, she knew she hadn’t been wrong. There was a small group standing near the Don's back table. MaryAnne had a clear view, and she could see everything was happening.

 

Brian held Auna's face between his palms, as tears streamed from her grey eyes. "No," she pleaded weakly. His dark eyes looked back at her. There was cold resolve as well as pain in his face, a sign of the judgment that rested heavy in his heart.

 

He leaned towards the honey-blonde woman, shutting his eyes as he held her face motionless...and he kissed her once upon the lips. Releasing her, gave a short nod to Ace, speaking the necessary words and nearly choking on them. "Take her away."

 

MaryAnne yelled across the Jigsaw. "No! Brian, I can't let you do it!"

 

Startled, Brian looked at the doorway, as did the captains of the Syndicate.

 

"Stay here and guard her," Brian ordered them with a snarl, taking a few long strides to meet up with MaryAnne. Once face to face with her, he dropped his voice. "What the hell are you doin'?"

 

"I'm not lettin' you cross that line, Brian. There's no way in hell! I don't care how pissed you're gonna be at me because of this, but I'm not lettin' you order somebody's death!"

 

"This is outside of your jurisdiction, cousin," he warned. "This is somethin' I've got to handle the way it has to be handled! Syndicate law has it's own brand of justice...and I've gotta carry it out. That's why I told you to go!”

 

"This is not outside of any jurisdiction! I'll be damned if Syndicate justice is gonna turn you into a monster! How far will it go, Brian?? Who's gonna die next?? Maybe me? Maybe Rusty over there, because he pissed ya off for giving drinks on the house. NO WAY!!"

 

"Jeezus, MaryAnne, the woman damn near pulled off my murder! You’re holding the goddamn proof in your hand! She swore a blood oath to me, and I've shown her things about the Syndicate that can't be traded to cops for some damn plea bargain!" Brian stopped, taking ahold of MaryAnne's shoulders. "I've got no choice!"

 

"You and your goddamn blood oath! How many Syndicate Don's are gonna have to die

before they understand 'trust no one'!" She pushed Brian away and looked at Auna. The condemned woman looked back, full of terror.

 

MaryAnne's chest heaved from her ire, and when it calmed down enough she walked over to the woman. "I wonder," she said, "how much of what she knows was passed on Johnny Mancini. And I wonder...given the opportunity, what Mancini would do with her upon finding out she failed him."

 

Fresh tears welled in Auna's eyes. To have Johnny Mancini's praise, to have him proud of her, had meant so much...to have a life where she held power and influence of her own, was a dream that was cut short.

 

To have her life, period, meant a little more. "Don't let him kill me," she pleaded to MaryAnne. "It was all Johnny's idea...to have me win my place here and take over when Brian died."

 

"Yes, but...you failed him, didn't you?"

 

"Because of you," Auna cried. "I did everything I had to do, and it would have worked! It would have..." she gave a sob.

 

MaryAnne chuckled. "Yeah, I know honey, I'm the bane of the Syndicate. And at this moment, I'm the only thing keeping you alive, and you blame me for your failure? Mancini would be very disappointed in you, you know..." MaryAnne looked over at Brian and at the other faces that watched her, considering the stakes. “You'd blab everything Brian's told you to the Feds in a heartbeat, wouldn't ya, if you thought you could get a plea bargain out of it..." She looked back at Auna. "Sending my cousin, and the others here off to prison, yet destroying the very organization that Johnny wants to reclaim. What would Johnny think if you did that?"

 

Auna sniffed, and looked at MaryAnne uncertainly. "I swore an Oath to the Syndicate when Johnny ran things...I couldn't destroy it. Not so long as he's alive and there's a chance for him to take it back."

 

MaryAnne nodded. She realized the further into this she was getting, the more Auna's life was hanging on her decision, as opposed to Brian's. She turned and paced for a moment, looking down at her closed left fist, which still held the lethal cigarette. "You tried to kill my cousin, Auna. Technically I should be letting Syndicate justice have it's way. But my conscience won't rest if I know that my cousin has wielded the power of deciding who lives and who dies."  MaryAnne turned back to Auna. "However, either way, I may end up just as damned as you are..."

 

The former deputy laid out the deal.  "I could turn you over to the Feds, and you’d live. But if you open your mouth about anything and I find myself having to settle accounts with Johnny Mancini like I did with Frankie Tyler…or I have to fight the D.A. to keep him from frying people…so help me you will be at the top of my list. You wouldn’t be safe from me anywhere, not even jail..."

 

MaryAnne let her words hang in the air. She was making a risky bet...of everything. The continued existence of the Syndicate, Brian's life and freedom, even her own. She looked around at the faces that stared back at her. Maybe she'd gone too far...

 

Auna was quick to nod and accept the terms, her face a watery mask of fear and smeared mascara. The top ranks of the Syndicate looked from MaryAnne, to Auna, and then to Brian.

 

The Syndicate Don clenched his fist and glared at MaryAnne.  She had interfered. Not only that, but she had overruled him.  Now his captains stood there in confusion, and Brian had to either reverse his edict in deference to MaryAnne's will...or he had to stand behind his judgment. 

 

Kinship and two kinds of law stood in the balance. After an awful silence, Brian spoke.  "MaryAnne...you had no right," he said quietly. 

 

MaryAnne turned to face him. She met his gaze, her look half-defiance, half-sorrow. "You're wrong, cousin. I had every right." She paused and drew in a breath. "I'm taking her in. Period."

 

"You have no badge," Brian reminded.  "You can't force me to accept this. You shouldn't even be here!"

 

"I don't need a badge..." MaryAnne tugged on Bandit's leash, and the animal came to full attention. He stood straight with his ears pointed forward looking at Brian, a low growl coming from deep in the Shepard's chest.   If that wasn't enough, MaryAnne slowly reached behind her and pulled her 9mm pistol from her waistband. She held the gun up for Brian to see. "You shouldn't be here either," she reminded.

 

His dark eyes flared to anger. Was it his day to have the whole world turn against him? Brian looked down at the snarling muzzle of Bandit, then raised his face to MaryAnne's.  He registered the gun in her hand, and gave a slow nod.  The line was drawn between them again....

 

He spoke to her, his voice strained. "If saving a Mancini means that damn much to you...then take her!"

 

MaryAnne looked at him and then dropped her gaze down to the floor. Without a word, she turned to Auna, waving the gun at her to go towards the door. Auna moved and MaryAnne followed with Bandit. When both women reached the exit, MaryAnne stopped, motioning Auna to wait.

 

The ex-deputy turned back to Brian. Yes, the line was drawn, but it wasn't anything they hadn’t faced before. Although she hated it being this way, MaryAnne accepted it as a consequence. After all, there was a totally different kind of line that could have separated them, and she refused to let Brian cross it. "I'm not saving a Mancini," she said. "I'm tryin' to save you from becoming a Mancini."

 

Brian regarded MaryAnne silently, offering no reaction other than a slow, released breath. Something of the anger retreated in his dark eyes. Then he turned away.

 

Distantly, he heard the familiar sound of Maverick’s engine cranking over.  The TransAm’s tires chirped away from the curb, and MaryAnne was gone…along with the Dona, who had been nothing more than a device upon his life.

 

The Syndicate’s captains disbursed, sensing the Don’s need to be alone. Rusty hung back, coming to stand next to Brian, helping him stare across the Jigsaw at nothing. 

 

“Women,” Rusty muttered with a shrug. 

 

Brian turned around and belted him one. 

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The next day, the lab’s analysis of the cigarette was in.  Mayson read it and passed to Roger Kelley.  The lieutenant scanned the report over, giving a low whistle. “Cyanide.”

 

“Lots of it,” Mayson agreed.  “Neatly packed into a single cigarette, hidden inside an open pack.  It’s one of the more devious assassination ploys I’ve seen Mancini come up with.”

 

“Can you trace it back to him?”  Kelley asked.

 

“Not yet. Auna confessed to the attempt, but she’s keeping closed-mouthed on the source of the cigarette. She claims she bought it through someone on the street.” 

 

“She very well might have, but that someone probably used to work for Johnny Mancini.”

 

Mayson agreed.  “I’ve got our Substances Unit on it; we’ll see where it goes.”  The Bureau Commander took the lab report back and tucked it into a folder.

 

Roger Kelley stood at the front of the desk, debating a question.  “What about Brian Coltrane?”

 

“He’s alive,” Mayson affirmed.

 

“I know that,” Kelley sputtered.  “But his Dona was gift-wrapped and delivered to our front door last night.  Completely unharmed.”

 

A small grin appeared on the Commander’s face. “MaryAnne Coltrane made the delivery. She told me to make sure I had my vaccinations up to date before I took custody of Auna Mancini.”

 

“You were right.  MaryAnne can’t avoid a crisis ”

 

“For which, I’m grateful. She did better than I hoped,” Mayson said, leaning back in his desk chair.  “She not only got the warning through, but she returned here with both evidence and suspect in hand. Not a bad night’s work.”

 

Kelley nodded.  “I rather expected that our charming, resident crime boss would have handled things according to Syndicate tradition,” he pondered.  “Brian had every reason to turn the tables on Auna.  This isn’t the first time he’s been screwed by a Mancini, so to speak…”

 

Kelley,” Mayson said reproachfully.

 

“Sorry, Frank.”

 

“You have a point, however.”  Mayson sighed.  “I’ve been thinking about that too. It’s just possible that yesterday, MaryAnne saved her cousin…twice.”

 

“Therein lies the hope,” Kelley agreed.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Lou pushed the tray across the counter.  “Eat.”

 

“I haven’t ordered anything,” Brian objected.

 

“You didn’t come here for the atmosphere. Eat the sandwich.”

 

Brian took a bite of the roast beef on wheat.  “Happy?”

 

“No.”

 

“Neither am I,” Brian sighed.  He poked half-heartedly at the coleslaw.

 

“Dames come and dames go,’ Lou said wisely.  “Good sandwiches are few and far between.”

 

Brian’s eyes went sharp. “How’d you know anything about that?” 

 

“I’ve been making sandwiches for twenty-five years.”

 

“GAH! I mean about the Dona. You know something, Lou. Spill it.”  Brian leaned on the counter, holding the plastic fork in a lazy threat.

 

“All I know is what I heard.  A young woman stopped in here last night…pretty thing, tough-looking…had a dog with her…”

 

Brian sat the fork down and blinked.

 

Lou smiled at his expression.  “She wanted a sandwich for her and the dog.  Said it had been a long day, and she had a long ride home. Mentioned that you’d be on the rebound over your lady friend.”

 

“Great.” 

 

“She also wanted me to relay a message to you.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“She said…to take care of yourself.”

 

Brian looked down at the counter.  “Aw, hell.”  He gave a short sigh and ate the lunch.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

The ding of the door chime announced Lou’s next set of customers.  “Good afternoon, gentlemen!  Can I get you some coffee?”

 

Roger Kelley squinted his face.  “No thanks, Lou. I don’t want to spoil my appetite.”

 

“My coffee is good,” Lou said. “Ask anybody.”

 

Kelley looked around.  “Nobody else is here.”

 

“You missed the lunch crowd.  My big customer was in earlier, too.”

 

“Anything new happening?”  Mayson asked.

 

“Hard to say,” Lou ventured, pouring two coffees.  “He didn’t talk much.”

 

“There’s one thing I need to let him know,” the Bureau Commander said. 

 

Lou served up the coffee. “This is a delicatessen, not Western Union. You boys having lunch today?”

 

“Not anymore,” Kelley grimaced as he swallowed the coffee.  Mayson ignored his lieutenant and put in the order. Appeased, Lou agreed to pass along the message. 

 

Mayson handed over a copy of the lab report that had been performed on the cigarette. “Tell him to switch brands.”

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

Johnny Mancini had a spring in his step as the guards led him to the visitor’s area.  Today! Today he would get the long-awaited news.  By God, he hoped to hear all the details.  He had imagined, a thousand times over in his mind, the distinctly painful suffering that the poison cigarette would cause the victim. Asphyxiation, convulsions…choking and death.  Mancini’s only regret was that he didn’t get to see it in person. 

 

No matter; his revenge had reached through the cement and steel of Atlanta Federal, to close around the throat of his enemy.  All of Atlanta would know it soon.  The name Mancini was again synonymous with power.

 

Brian’s death opened the Keys and the Ledger to Auna…the holdings of the Syndicate would be titled in the Mancini family name once more.  With it, and with his guidance over Auna’s rule of the underworld, Johnny Mancini expected that his old empire would create enough money to buy anything….including his freedom.  Whether it came from a legal loophole found by a clever team of lawyers - or a daring escape, orchestrated from the outside and from within, didn’t matter.  All was possible!

 

It was with real pleasure that he took a seat behind the bullet-proof glass and waited for his visitor to enter.  Auna would be radiant in victory, redeemed in his eyes forever.  He would have to remind himself to ask her for a copy of the obituary when it came out.  He would tape it on his cell wall, and look at it first thing each morning.  Just imaging Brian’s name in text, above the two sweetest words he could imagine – found dead – brought him a satisfaction he hadn’t felt in years.

 

The door buzzed as the electronic lock was released to admit the visitor.  Johnny smiled, and his large frame leaned forward in anticipation.

 

A young, brown-haired man in a black suit entered the room, his boots crossing the cement floor in slow, measured steps.  He was dressed expensively, the black suit accented by small buttons of gold on the jacket.  The ring on his hand could not be missed. 

 

Brian sat down on the other side of the bullet-proof glass.  His dark eyes stared at Mancini with unconcealed hostility.  Without taking his eyes off of his old boss, Brian reached inside his suit jacket for a cigarette and lighter.

 

He flicked the gold lighter and lit up in front of the former Don. Smoke curled into the air, exhaled with Brian’s words.  “You missed…and it cost you somethin’…again.”

 

“What have you done with her?!” Mancini growled in demand.  Tell me!”

 

The dark eyes narrowed.  Brian lowered his brow and leaned his face in close to the glass. He took a drag from the cigarette. “How’s it feel,” he asked quietly, “to lose?”

 

Mancini’s fist banged suddenly against the bullet-proof glass, to no effect.

 

Brian didn’t flinch.  He turned the cigarette upright in the center of his knuckles and folded his fingers down. He displayed the gesture to Mancini with a cold smile. 

 

The guards removed Johnny Mancini before he hurt himself.  The ex-Don fought to get at the bullet-proof glass, enraged by the sound of Brian’s laughter.

 

*****                          *****                          *****

 

That night, on the Jigsaw’s rooftop, Brian stood alone amid the city lights.  The sounds of traffic, music, and echoed voices drifted with the night air.  The Jigsaw’s jukebox belted out a steady thud-thud-thud that washed into the street every time the front door swung open.

 

Above the old hotel, the stars in the Atlanta sky were pale and withdrawn, tucked shyly in the blanket of the evening.   Brian lifted his gaze to them, wishing he could see them more clearly; but the neon and fluorescent glow of the urban night seemed to banish the heavens from view.

 

Atlanta had been his home nearly all of his life.  Yet as much as he looked at the evening sky…it didn’t look right from here anymore.  Life in a small town had the best view.

 

It also had held the brightest future he had ever known. 

 

The sound of Auna’s voice, the scent of her perfume and the feel of her body, was still with him.  He could feel her ghostlike memory pressing against his mind, refusing to diminish from his thoughts. 

 

Now, she was in prison, and he would never know her touch again.  Feigned or not…there were moments when he knew she was not acting, when he loved her and she responded, and meant it…and when they danced, and she lost herself to the music, sinking into his arms.

 

But the love that I feel is so strong…and it can’t…be…wrong…

 

With you I’m not shy…to show the way I feel..

With you I might try…my secrets to reveal…

 

For you are a magnet, and I am steel…

 

“Goodbye, Auna…” Brian said softly, shutting the black rose inside the book of his heart.

 

 

 

 

The End