DARK ROAD HOME
BY ANGELA BENNETT
Jersey City, New Jersey
When Ethan McBain woke that morning, he smiled. Today was going to be a turning point in his life, both in a personal sense and in his career.
He glanced at his watch. Already two hours had gone by since he started going over the case. Clocks had been set back three days ago for Daylight Savings Time, and as the time neared six o’clock, the sky retained a hint of light as dusk settled in. His staff had left well over an hour ago, and the lack of noise and interruptions made him lose track of time. He’d been absorbed in paper work, happily preparing for a case involving a new client. Finally he was representing someone other than the notorious killer Victor Simone or any one of his accomplices, a case that didn’t involve charges for first-degree murder. Ethan welcomed the hit-and-run case, relieved he would be defending a client he wasn’t setting up for the FBI.
Six months before, another of Ethan’s clients and Victor Simone’s right-hand man, Anthony “The Accountant” Carzozza, was acquitted on all counts of first-degree murder. Of course, Carzozza was guilty of murdering the CEO of a bank, a hit his boss had ordered. But thanks to those inside the justice system on Victor Simone’s payroll, Carzozza again dodged seeing the inside of a six-by-eight cinderblock prison cell.
It was Carzozza Ethan feared the most. He despised the arrogant and cavalier criminal, a highly intellectual man who was a certifiable head case. Beneath his good looks and flaring charm, Anthony Carzozza was one man anyone in his or her right mind would be scared of.
Unfortunately, Ethan was in no position to deny the man his services. After almost two decades of being Victor Simone’s legal counsel and hating every moment he had to stand before the courts in his client’s defense, Ethan hadn’t been able to relieve himself from being the criminal defense attorney for an organization of hit men. Risking his career and life, he had to continue to be the eyes and ears into Victor Simone’s business.
He closed the file and scooted back his chair. You need to get going if you’re going to get everything done that has to be done. He stood, tossing the file into his open briefcase on the corner of his desk. Tonight was about his daughter and their plans for a Broadway show and afterward, dinner at a three-star restaurant in Manhattan. And if he didn’t get a move on, he would have to contend with her unhappy mood because he was again, as usual, late. Her face would be tight with anger as she remained silent, lifting a cold shoulder at him in the car while he repeatedly apologized with the broken-record promise that he would try better next time.
Not tonight. There would be no apologies. He wasn’t going to disappoint his daughter.
He tossed a few more files and a legal pad full of scribbled notes into the briefcase, and before snapping it shut, he glanced at the small blue Tiffany & Co. box inside. He smiled, already seeing the joy on his daughter’s face as she opened the gift and held the diamond-looped earrings she’d been dying to have.
He unrolled the sleeves of his white shirt and buttoned the cuffs. He was about to work on his tie but decided he’d deal with it in the car. He grabbed his suit jacket off the back of the chair, and as he slid it on, a single hard rap on the office door, followed by its opening, startled him.
Taken aback, he looked twice at the three men who entered his office. In front was Victor Simone, followed by his son, Joseph Simone; and stationed over the door’s threshold was Anthony Carzozza. Because Victor Simone was smart, cautious, and untrustworthy of anyone, not even his attorney, the leader of the pack had never stepped foot inside his office. Their client/attorney meetings were always held on the hit man’s turf.
So the unnatural and unexpected visit meant only one thing. Ethan took a deep breath and held it. So the day had come. It was the risk he’d been willing to take, but why today of all days? He thought he’d been careful. He’d believed Victor Simone would be apprehended before this day arrived. How wrong he had been.
Ethan stepped from behind his desk, his gaze flicking to each man until settling on Victor Simone’s eyes. They were icier than ever. The man’s grin was smug and tight, sending a shiver down Ethan’s spine.
“What’s going on, Victor?” he asked as calmly as he could, standing at the side of his desk.
Victor Simone stood behind the two chairs in front of the desk, both hands pocketed in his dark designer slacks. His grin didn’t falter. “Personal delivery. A birthday gift for your daughter.” He paused, a sick twinkle in his eyes. “A gift she’ll never forget where it came from,” he said, his voice strong with malice.
Ethan’s gaze slid left of Victor to his son, Joseph Simone, and quickly his eyes rounded into saucers as Joseph raised the Beretta from his side, aiming high at his trademark shot, one bullet between the eyes. Ethan’s head spun as his panic rose. His breathing came fast and shallow, his heart beating rapidly as a sudden jolt of phantom pain rose in his chest. He prayed for a heart attack. Oh, to be that lucky. Fear consumed him. Not because he feared death. But because he now realized, as his life flashed before him, that he’d failed his daughter. Her mother had died from childbirth, and his deeds had caused him to abandon her, now to be left all alone in the world. All because of his selfish quest to be close to and protect someone who didn’t need protecting.
Victor Simone’s grin disappeared. An evil presence broke out across his face. “Eye for an eye, Counselor,” he said, his voice eerily calm. “You take from me, I take from you.”
The words made Ethan shudder. A cold sweat draped the back of his neck. What was about to happen wasn’t because of what he had been doing to Victor Simone for almost a year. It involved something entirely different. Something more terrible and far worse had happened so long ago that Ethan had believed it was buried deep, never to be revealed. But Victor Simone’s words were laced in such a cold and evil undertone, his icy dark eyes coated in an undisguised venomous hatred; clearly Simone had finally uncovered the dark secret of the past and its hidden truth.
Simone turned on his heels and gave his son, Joseph, a single nod as he strolled toward the door. Carzozza stepped to one side of the threshold, and once Simone reached the doorway, he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. He held Ethan’s eyes with his, and in that moment, Ethan saw what Simone wanted him to see in the man no one ever betrayed. Raging vengeance. Simone then tossed a quick look onto Joseph’s backside. His eyes traveled slowly from his son’s head down his tight physique and toward the soles of his feet as though he were seeing him for the first time. His gaze went back to Ethan, who received Simone’s unspoken message.
That Joseph Simone would never know the truth.
Satisfied his message had been heard, Simone once more grinned wickedly as he turned and walked out of the room.
Carzozza stepped back in the doorway, his face sporting a wide smirk as he stared at Ethan. After a long moment, he left.
Terrified, Ethan stood in a shocked calmness as his insides trembled, and he looked at Joseph. He searched the eyes of his soon-to-be killer. They weren’t cold and evil but distant and vacant. Ethan wanted to believe he saw a hint of remorse in those hollow eyes, but the assassin had been trained not to feel.
There was nothing he could do. He was a dead man no matter what.
“Please, Joseph … my daughter,” he said in a panicked whisper.
I’m so sorry, Annabelle. I let you down. I love you. Please forgive me.
Ethan stood frozen as his killer, still aiming the Beretta at his head, stared at him for a long moment. “Joseph,” he said softly and inhaled one last breath before everything went black.
Sixteen Years Later
Everyone deserves a second chance.
As many times as she had gotten such chances, Belle McBain had never believed she rightfully deserved them. She had received more second chances than most. There had been a time when she was ungrateful, downright resentful, of those who intervened in her path of self-destruction just so she could give life another go. But like yesterday, and hopefully tomorrow, today she was glad for the people who had stopped her from giving up on herself and had given her the millionth second chance to pull herself together and learn to cope with life’s issues she had been dealt.
On the third floor of her Victorian home, as a high morning light poured into the master bedroom’s window, Belle dressed, slipping into a white T-shirt, khaki slacks, and one-inch black ankle boots. She pulled her long, chestnut-brown hair into a ponytail as she walked over to the cherrywood dresser. She picked up the plated sobriety medallion and managed a smile as her thumb caressed the topside, silently saying the serenity prayer. She then slid the medallion into her slacks pocket.
It was still hard to believe she was yet another day clean and sober, off cocaine and booze. Especially when the urges remained frequent and sometimes unbearable. The urges never go away, her sobriety sponsor would matter-of-factly tell her.
Harder yet it was for her to wrap her head around the fact that the days had turned into three years since her life stopped spiraling out of control. Three years since she drove her car off the road and into the ravine.
Strange how things had a way of working out. Her gaze drifted to the empty five-by-eleven manila envelope on top of the dresser. This time she couldn’t help but smile. She picked up the packet, feeling a little of the unexpected rush of pride and excitement that had pumped through her blood when she first received the licensure on Friday. That kind of passion was something she hadn’t felt in years, not even when she’d graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. She felt it now, though. Pride that she finally was making something of her life. Pride that she hadn’t given up, circling back into the deepening abyss from which she thought she could never escape.
In a slow process, while some days still remained harder to manage and struggle through than others, she had broken away from her destructive cycle. Gradually, she had detached herself from the past, from the shadows of her father, becoming her own person with her own identity. She was tired and wanted to stop being driven by the past, allowing it to control her. The past was dead. The past was gone. Time to live in the here and now.
The page came from the ground floor. She smiled inside. Yes, indeed. Letting go of the past and getting clean gave her a sense of clarity and a feeling for an unknown purpose yet to be discovered. She was living in the present and moving forward in a new and healthy direction. Her life was turning out okay … good, in fact.
On top of her game, the last thing she wanted right now was any more reflections on the past. She rounded the oak railing on the third floor and hurried down the stairs, her boots clapping against the hardwood. Midlevel, she slowed her pace. Her live-in boyfriend waited at the base, arms filled with a morning surprise. Her lips parted into a sheepish grin.
Dr. Mark Stratton stood five ten with dark, wavy hair, broad shoulders, and a lean physique with washboard abs. Playing daily racquetball and sweating out five hundred crunches each morning did him right. An overstuffed backpack hung off a shoulder while a hand clutched a large wicker picnic basket as a devilish look resonated in his sparkling sapphire eyes.
Through her sheepish grin, Belle asked, “What’s all this? I thought we were going out for breakfast.”
“We are,” Mark said. “To the park.” He held out the picnic basket and padded the backpack. “Got all the goods. Minus the crowd of people and interruptions.”
She stood in front of him and banded her arms across her chest. “Anyone tell you you’re a selfish person?”
Mark paused a moment. “Honestly, I can’t say anyone has.” Then he hiked his shoulders. “Don’t care if I am … not when it comes to you … to us.” He smiled. “And I promise I’m going to remain selfish for a few days since we haven’t had much time together. Me with work, you with the apprenticeship. I promise to take up all your spare time before things start getting busy again.”
She chuckled sweetly. “You promise to be selfish.”
Mark nodded. “Yep. And you can hold me to it.” He grabbed her around the waist and planted his lips on hers. After a long moment, he pulled away, their faces only inches apart. “I’m proud of you. You’ve come a long way, babe.”
Tears filled her eyes. She tightened her jaw, hoping to keep her emotions at bay. She gave a wan smile as she nodded slightly.
He pulled her in again, held her tightly. “McBain and Banks Investigation,” he whispered softly in her ear. “I like the sound of it.”
Mark knew exactly how far she had come. When the EMS had brought her into the ER at Jersey City Medical Center after her near-death experience in the ravine three years ago, he had been one of the doctors on duty. After assessing her and viewing her toxicology report, he made a referral for the hospital case manager to do a complete intake on her, and after five days of mending on a medical floor with suicide precautions, it was brought to her attention that if she didn’t seek help on her own, the hospital would have her involuntarily committed to an inpatient drug-treatment facility. She agreed to the terms and, upon discharge from the hospital, committed herself and spent eight months in rehab.
She withdrew from his arms and stepped past him. “Let’s get this picnic started.”
He tapped her ass. “Hoping to get me some of that tonight.”
At the sleek table in the foyer, she dug around inside her messenger bag for her lip gloss. “Why wait? I know a few secluded spots in the park.” She looked over her shoulder and gave him a wink.
“You’re a naughty girl,” he said excitedly.
She turned back around, and as she uncapped the tube of lip gloss, she glanced toward the room to her right. Its interior French doors were wide open. Hanging on the wall across the room was the framed private investigator license. Almost three years and six thousand hours of apprenticeship later, she definitely had something to smile about.
She turned around and faced Mark, who watched her intently apply the applicator of lip gloss, a light shade of pink, seductively to her lips.
He shook his head as he let out a long and heavy sigh. “Woman, you’re killing me. We better go before I throw you down right here.”
Belle laughed as she shouldered her messenger bag. Just then the doorbell rang.
Not expecting anyone, she walked over to the entryway’s window to sneak a peek before opening the door. It was nine thirty on Monday morning. She pulled down a sliver of the blind. A man, about six foot or better with a shiny scalp, stood there in a dark suit and red tie.
She looked behind her at Mark and shrugged. She opened the door, her body half hidden from view. “Yes?”
The man had a slim build; shoulders were firm and tight, suggesting high-ranking authority.
“Ms. Annabelle McBain?” His tone was stern.
“Yes … and you are?”
The man raised a hand and flipped open a leather case, displaying his credentials. “I’m Special Agent Cartwright with the FBI. Can I have a moment of your time?”
She glanced at his creds. “Regarding what?” she asked, confused.
The agent placed his credentials inside an inner pocket of his suit as he spoke. “Regarding Anthony Carzozza.”
Belle stood in shock, in utter disbelief. Though she hadn’t heard the name in years, she definitely recognized it. The blood drained from her face.
“Ms. McBain, you all right?”
She tightened her grip on the door handle and swallowed hard. “I’m fine,” she replied, her tone sharp. Then after another hard swallow, she said, “I have no interest in hearing anything about that man.” She shook her head. “And I’m sure I have nothing to say that would be of any help to the FBI.”
“In all due respect, Ms. McBain, the Bureau isn’t asking for your help. Well, not directly anyway.” The agent paused a moment. “I’m here upon a request.”
Belle furrowed her brow. “Request?” Her mind grew even more confused. What would law enforcement want from her? “Request from whom … for what?”
The agent cleared his throat. “We have Carzozza in police custody down in Florida. The agent paused. “He’s requesting to meet with you.”
Just when her life was moving forward, away from the past, was it now to take an abrupt turn and head directly backward?