Enjoy the first part of Aspens in Autumn
one of the short stories found in the Seasons of Love collection
A combination of odors – greasy food, sweat, and desperation – assailed his nostrils as Bishop Hamilton made his way across the crowded floor. He’d been up for thirty-six hours straight and had neither the time nor patience to continue the search for much longer. Not to mention his client was hounding him every hour for updates. If he’d only closed up shop early that day…
Three days earlier, he’d been seated behind his desk admiring his view of the Superstition Mountains, contemplating a weekend jaunt to Nantucket Island to visit his best friend, Grant Cutler, Grant’s fiancée, Taylor, and their daughter, Lily. Tracking down Taylor and Lily after Grant discovered that his daughter’s biological mother had put her up for adoption at birth without his knowledge, it’d taken his buddy three months to convince Taylor that all he wanted was to be in Lily’s life - and hers too.
Now, the happy couple was busy planning their wedding while he was stuck in Phoenix combing through one rowdy club after another searching for his elusive quarry, instead of sitting on the beach with his toes buried in the sand watching his soon-to-be goddaughter build sandcastles. Damn the television execs that made a career as a private investigator seem glamorous.
If it’d been anyone else requiring his services that day, he would’ve turned them down flat, but no one said no to Anthony Donato without considering the consequences. When the restaurateur and alleged mob boss strode into his Phoenix office flanked by two men who dressed an awful lot like G-men, Bishop’s plans for a weekend getaway evaporated.
Trying not to draw comparisons between his own five-foot-ten, one hundred sixty-three pound frame and the man who towered over him by at least twenty-four inches, he felt a flash of envy over his potential client’s thick head of hair. His own shiny dome – a genetic hand-me-down dating back at least four generations – added to the ‘tough-guy’ image he often relied upon both as a Staff Sergeant in the Corps and in his current profession as a PI, but every once in a while he couldn’t help wondering if sporting a mop like Donato’s would ensure his success with the ladies.
Moving around his desk, he offered his hand to the crime lord. “How may I help you?”
“Word on the street is you’re the guy to go to when something lost needs found.” Donato shot the cuffs on his hand-stitched Italian suit, then walked over to the window, sunshine glinting off of his sleek black coif. “Nice view.”
“I like it.” Adopting a tactic he’d learned during his time in the Marines, Bishop waited the man out, and it took only a matter of seconds before the notable businessman turned his back on the scenery and sauntered over to the desk.
“I’d like you to find someone.”
Bishop had no misconceptions over the use of the word ‘like’, but he couldn’t resist being a smartass. “Anyone in particular?”
Donato quirked a brow, deciding for the moment to overlook the private investigator’s sarcastic wit. “One of my employees disappeared last night. A young woman. She absconded with several tens of thousands of dollars of my money and I’d like it back. And see her rightly behind bars, of course.”
“Of course.” If the woman in question had stolen money from Donato, Bishop knew that prison would be the least of her worries. Still, if she’d been stupid enough to work for him in the first place, and then steal his money, she deserved what was coming to her, didn’t she?
Nice rationalization, bub, but you know better than that.
Silently shushing his conscience, Bishop motioned to a chair on the other side of his desk. “Please, have a seat, Mr. Donato. I need to know everything you have on this woman.”
Donato settled into the chair, then nodded to one of the associates who’d accompanied him to the office. The man handed over a manila folder which Donato in turn handed to Bishop. “Everything you need is in there. Find her, Mr. Hamilton, and quickly. For each day that money isn’t in the bank, I’m losing interest.”
They both knew that lost interest wasn’t the reason for urgency. Donato was not a man you double-crossed and the longer the woman was in the wind, the longer it would be before he delivered retribution.
“I’ll get right on it,” Bishop said, flipping open the folder. There was an eight by ten, low-quality, black and white video still of a woman with light-colored hair and perky assets, an incomplete job application which he immediately found suspect, and a single page rap sheet with a clearer picture of the woman in the surveillance photo listing a half dozen charges for reckless driving. “Not much to go on. No family, no bank accounts, not even a cell phone number. I find it hard to believe you added someone to the payroll who left such huge gaps on her employment application.”
Donato bristled. The manager who’d filled the empty position based on a wink and a smile had been dealt with accordingly and reminders of the man’s incompetency rankled. “Are you questioning my hiring practices, Mr. Hamilton?”
“Not at all,” Bishop replied smoothly. “I’m sure you had your reasons for allowing someone to walk in off the street and insinuate themselves into your business without so much as a background check.”
The two goons who stood sentry on either side of Donato exchanged worried looks. No one had ever had the gall to speak to their boss in such a fashion. On point to carry out whatever order assigned to them, they looked confused, then relieved, when their employer began laughing.
“You’re a funny guy, Mr. Hamilton.” Donato’s teeth gleamed as his expressed his mirth. The guy must keep up with his regular dental appointments.
“I try.” Bishop smiled and leaned back in his chair, ever watchful for subtle changes in the men that would indicate he was in danger. None came as the man’s laughter gradually wound down to a chuckle.
Wiping away a tear, Donato stood and straightened his jacket. “Just so we’re clear, I expect results within a week. Surely, you won’t need more than seven days to find her.”
Bishop also rose, his body language not giving away the warning bells ringing in his head like air raid sirens. “That depends on how far underground she’s gone. With as much cash as she has on hand, she could pull quite a disappearing act.”
Donato’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. Well then, I won’t keep you a moment longer. Oh, and I expect daily updates. Clyde will leave you my direct contact number.”
Something’s hinky with this whole scenario, Bishop thought, closing and locking the door behind his client. Doing business, even legitimate business, with Anthony Donato was a red flag in itself. And his gut told him there was more than met the eye with this woman, too, this Ramsey Fiorentino. Donato had two dozen bodies on his payroll perfectly suited for situations like this, so why hire outside talent instead of going after her himself? And why the skimpy information packet?
His spidey-senses tingled but he tamped them down. This was a simple locate and deliver, and the sooner he completed the job, the sooner he could take a week off. Maybe a couple of weeks. Visit with Grant, Taylor, and Lily on Nantucket, then head over to Martha’s Vineyard to sample some wine, maybe spend a day or two in Rhode Island touring the mansions in Newport.
Studying the picture of the woman who’d dared to cross one of the most influential, if not law-abiding, men in Arizona, he wondered if locating her was going to be as easy as he hoped. Casting one last glance at the ferry schedule out of Hyannis, he closed the tab on his computer and opened a new one, initiating a search for his latest target.
As it turned out, finding Ms. Fiorentino was proving to be a bit of a challenge. He assumed she’d skipped town because, well, why wouldn’t she? A stash of stolen cash and the mob on her tail would be incentive enough to leave this cactus-strewn town, but his contacts in Mexico assured him no one matching her description had entered the country, legally or illegally, in the first twenty-four hours that she went missing, and after two days of scouring the airports - both public and private - bus terminals, train stations, and rental car agencies, he was left scratching his head at how she got out of Dodge. Until one of his CI’s rang him up and reported seeing a woman fitting her description in a bar out by the Motorsports Park in Chandler. So she hadn’t left the state after all. Odd.
By the time he got out there, she was gone. On a hunch, he showed her picture around in some of the bars and clubs in the area, receiving affirmative nods in each one. She steals close to fifty grand and spends her time bar-hopping? Did she have a death wish or was she just plain stupid?
Debating whether to head further south, he decided to head north towards Wild Horse Pass Boulevard. On his left, he saw Sidewinder’s, a popular biker hangout, and pulled around back, parking his Jeep in the alley. Once inside, he walked up to the bar, shouting at the leather-clad bartender in an attempt to be heard over the noise coming from… well… everywhere. “I’m looking for a woman.”
“Ain’t we all,” came the reply. “Whaddya have?”
“Give me a Coke.” Ignoring the bartender’s grunt, Bishop turned and leaned against the metal rail, surveying the darkened room carefully. This was the eleventh establishment he’d visited this evening and he was running out of options. Maybe he should head south, but he doubted-
Wait! Over there! Could it be?
Fishing a photo from his pocket, he squinted at the mug shot in his hand then over at the woman loitering in the corner. At first glance, the two looked nothing alike, but he knew in his gut it was the same person. Downing the Coke for the caffeine rush, he tossed a five onto the bar then took a circuitous route to the far side of the room, his eyes never leaving their target.
Ramsey Fiorentino brushed her once-blonde, now-black hair over her shoulder and adjusted the cap on her head, retreating further into the meager shadows the wall by the restrooms provided. She held no expectation that she was out of danger, but she’d needed to stop and reevaluate her situation and figured a crowded bar was her safest bet. Exhausted to the point of delirium, filthy from – what was it now? – four days without a shower, and so hungry she’d scarfed down half-eaten food from an unbused table, she knew she couldn’t go on for much longer without a plan. She also needed money, which was a hoot, because that’s what had gotten her into this mess, to begin with.
If only she hadn’t stayed late at work last weekend. Amber had asked her to cover her shift so she could meet some guy at a club, and since Ramsey was still paying off court fines from her latest motor vehicle infraction, the chance at earning extra cash seemed too good to pass up. So what if it meant closing up after everyone else had gone?
She’d wiped down the tables, vacuumed the carpet, and said goodnight to Joel, the bartender, then changed in the ladies’ room, looking forward to a hot soak in her tub when she got home. Apparently, the city of Phoenix had different ideas, for when she got out to her car, she found it booted, no doubt due to the stack of parking tickets in her glove box.
Swearing a blue streak, she let herself back inside the restaurant and headed to the office to use the phone, having had her own cell service shut off the week before. She heard voices coming from the kitchen - angry voices - and though she knew better she couldn’t help but take a look. Pushing the door open a crack, she peered into the room in time to see her boss, Anthony Donato, end Joel’s life with a bullet to the heart.
A scream sprang to her lips but she fought it back, creeping silently down the hall and out the front door, too frightened to think clearly. She should call the police, no…wait…she’d have to go back inside to call and there was no way in hell she was doing that. She also had no way to get home with the wheel clamp on her car.
Swiftly running out of options, she spotted Joel’s ancient Honda parked near the dumpster and ran over, praying it was unlocked. It was and wrenching the door open, she felt around under the seat for the keys. They weren’t there, nor were they in the glove box or tucked behind the visor, and fear rose in her throat.
With only a matter of minutes before Donato and his men came outside, she tore the casing off of the steering column to expose the wiring. The only illumination came from a security light a few feet away, so it took her longer than necessary to find the right wires. Stripping them with her teeth, she touched them together as the back door burst open and Donato and his henchmen raced out.
“Come on, come on!” Tapping the wires again, she nearly wept when the engine burst to life. She threw the car into reverse and floored it, her eyes never leaving the men who were aiming their guns at her. As bullets bounced off of the hood and the windshield shattered, covering her in glass, adrenaline surged through her as, tire squealing, she backed into the street and disappeared around the corner.
With barely a thirty-second head start, she cut the headlights and zigzagged her way through the neighborhood in the dark at speeds that would certainly earn her another reckless driving ticket, glass leaving a trail of breadcrumbs on the pavement as what was left of the windshield disintegrated. Two specks of light appeared in the rearview mirror, minuscule but growing larger at an incredible rate, and her hand slipped off of the sweat-slicked steering wheel as she attempted a left turn.
The front tire of the Honda slid into the opening of a drainage curb cut and momentum carried the car up onto the concrete barrier. Panicked, Ramsey reversed and revved the engine, but the undercarriage was wedged tight, the tires spinning uselessly a half-inch from the ground. Having no alternative, she flung open the door and scrambled out, her feet hitting the ground at a run. Racing across some stranger’s backyard, she barely made it out of sight before a car careened to a stop near the still running Civic.
“Find her. Now!”
Donato’s order cut through the night, spurring her on. Thankful she’d changed into street clothes before leaving the restaurant, Ramsey sprinted across yard after yard, squeezing through gates and climbing over fences, putting as much distance between her and a bullet as she could. Hours later as the sky lightened, she slowed, cautious about being seen by pre-dawn joggers and early-riser executives. The residential neighborhoods had given way to streets lined with shops and eateries, and she ducked into a Starbucks to catch her breath.
She bolted into the ladies’ room and locked the door. Hands shaking, she dug her tips out of her jeans pocket and counted them. One hundred and thirty-four dollars. A slow night, even with the extra shift, but it would have to do. There was no way in hell she was going back to her apartment, and she’d dropped her purse at the restaurant after Joel…
Squeezing her eyes shut, she vanquished the disturbing image. There was no time to think about that right now, not if she didn’t want to end up the same way. Think, dammit, think! Who can you go to for help?
The cops were out. With no I.D., hell, not even a cell phone, there was no way she was setting foot in a police station. Who knew which boys in blue were on Donato’s payroll? At least one, she’d bet, and with her luck, it would be the one taking her statement. No, she couldn’t go to the authorities. If only her Uncle Mike were alive. He’d know what to do. But eighteen months earlier, liver cancer had taken the only living relative who lived in town, and she had no one else to turn to. Amber was the closest thing she had to a friend and that wasn’t saying much as she didn’t even know her co-worker’s last name.
Someone pounded on the door. “Hey, open up! Why is this locked? Does anyone have a key to this thing?”
Ramsey splashed water on her face and took a deep breath to calm her nerves. Unlocking the door, she brushed past the forty-something customer dressed in casual chic impatiently tapping away on her cell. Ignoring the woman’s nasty comment, she scanned the line of customers waiting to order before heading for the door.
Praying that Donato and his men weren’t waiting for her outside, not wanting to stay put in case one or all of them had a sudden jones for a grande-half caf-skinny-one pump-caramel macchiato, she dashed out into the open then ducked into a nearby convenience store.
Keeping a lookout by way of the security mirrors in the ceiling, she quickly perused the hair products aisle, snatching a box of Raven Black hair color off the shelf. Her leg bouncing furiously as the clerk counted out her change, she grabbed the bag and headed to the rear of the store, slipping out the back door into the alley amid his loud protests. Sticking to side streets and alleyways, she moved deeper into the city with the theory that she’d be safer with more people around. Of course, the opposite might prove true. More eyes on her meant more chances she’d run into someone working for Donato, but it was a risk she had to take.
Even in the last week of September, the mercury hovered near 100°. She wished she’d had the forethought to buy a bottle of water at the same time as the hair dye but it was too late now, and she didn’t want to risk showing her face in another store. Ignoring her thirst, she kept moving until she came to an abandoned service station. The ground was littered with broken beer bottles and assorted trash, and graffiti adorned both the outer building and the interior of the restroom that she ducked into.
Picking her way among puddles of vomit and urine and discarded condoms, Ramsey turned the knob at the sink, sending a prayer of thanks skyward when filthy water sputtered from the faucet. She let it run hoping it would clear, in the meantime dragging a detached stall door over to the entrance and barricading herself in. She needed time to catch her breath and work out a plan, neither of which she could do if some junkie burst in looking for a place to shoot up.
The water was still sort of beige in color but she figured it was the best she was going to get, and stuck her face beneath the stream, drinking deeply. Wrinkling her nose at the metallic taste, she pictured herself on a beach sipping a frozen margarita instead of worrying about the millions of microbes that were no doubt setting up shop in her digestive system at that very moment.
Her thirst quenched, she pulled the box of hair dye from the bag and ripped open the carton, setting the contents on the ledge above the sink. Gazing at her reflection in the cracked, filthy mirror, she wondered, not for the first time, how she’d gotten herself into this mess. All she’d wanted – no, needed – was a job. Was that too much to ask?
Apparently, since the only thing she’d been able to find on short notice was a waitressing position at Nonna’s, Anthony Donato’s family-style restaurant. One of the many he owned, Nonna’s featured good food at reasonable prices and the dining room was always filled. Except on Sunday nights – last night – when families spent quality time together in their homes before the work week began. Now, if it’d been a Tuesday, she’d have more than double the amount of tips in her pocket, enough to last six or seven days on the street instead of three. If she was lucky.
“Hold it together, Ramsey. You’ll figure something out.”
Her pep talk doing little to boost her flagging spirits, she stripped down to her bra, not wanting to get black dye on her white t-shirt. Cringing as she applied the color to her honey-hued locks, she was glad there weren’t scissors or a razor blade around. The sensible thing would be to alter her looks as much as possible but hacking off her pride and joy would’ve hurt her heart. Not as much as a .38mm round, but close.
Sticking her head under the forced air dryer which miraculously worked – how did the water and power stay on in abandoned buildings when the utility companies had no problem shutting hers off if she was one day late with her payment? – random thoughts floated through her brain. How long before Donato caught up with her? What would he do to her once he did? Did it hurt to die? How many shampooings would it take before this color washed out?
That last one came to her as she scrutinized her new look in the mirror. Maybe she should’ve gone with something lighter. Chestnut? Bright Toffee?
Okay, you’ve officially lost it! You’re being hunted by a cold-blooded killer and your first concern is did you choose the right shade for your skin tone? You’re not going to have a skin if you don’t get your ass in gear!
That propelled her into motion. Yanking her shirt over her head she wound her hair into a knot. Spying a discarded ball cap laying on the floor in the corner, she lifted it with two fingers and sniffed it, gagging from the stench. Still, she couldn’t be too picky given her current circumstances and each additional method in which she altered her appearance was a plus. Lining the interior of the cap with the insert from the box of hair color, she stuck it on her head, pulling it low over her forehead. Not that it would stand up under close inspection but anyone giving her a cursory glance would likely continue on with their search. That was her theory, anyway.
Reluctant to leave the imagined security of the restroom, Ramsey removed her barricade and cracked open the door as quietly as possible. Poking her head through the opening, her heart pounded wildly as she scanned the vicinity for anyone wishing to do her harm but all she saw was a homeless man muttering to himself as he pushed a laden shopping cart across the pitted asphalt.
Taking a deep breath, she slipped out of the restroom and darted up the hill behind the service station, dropping to her belly when she got to the top. The afternoon sun beat down on her as she burrowed into the dried grass calculating her next move, whatever that was. She had no one, had nothing, except her will to live, and she wasn’t giving that up without a fight.
Three days later found her here in this bar, disoriented by the loud music, besieged by leather and chains, eating bits of cold burgers and soggy fries off of peoples’ plates, so tired she could barely stand, but she was still breathing, so she must be doing something right. She was down to thirty-seven dollars and twenty-eight cents and figured by this time tomorrow the name Ramsey Fiorentino would be a memory – well, if there’d been anyone around to remember her.
The feeling she was being followed first occurred to her two days earlier. Not in the literal sense, because if someone was there they would’ve grabbed her in a heartbeat. She chalked it up to the heat and her lack of sleep and dehydration, but she couldn’t shake it. Someone other than Donato was tracking her.
She obtained confirmation about her stalker, as she liked to think of him, the previous night at Stella’s, which was also where she had a close call. The club was hopping at ten-thirty at night and she’d sought it out as a place to lie low for a while. About to enter, she froze when one of Donato’s men walked out, his arm brushing hers. He didn’t so much as hazard a glance in her direction, engrossed in a phone call with persons unknown. Instead of counting her blessings and disappearing, she shadowed him down the sidewalk eavesdropping on his conversation. She heard her name, then silence, then as the goon began speaking again she sidled closer, berating herself at the same time for her stupidity.
“…damned if I know where she is…the boss hired some PI to find her…I don’t know, Hamilton something…yeah, yeah, the guy who was on TV last week teaching little old ladies how to defend themselves…I don’t know…the boss gave him some bullshit story about how she lit out with his cash…laughter …she’s not going to be around long enough to find out…”
The goon reached his car and unless Ramsey wanted to slide into the passenger seat, the conversation as she knew it was over. Walking past the sedan as if she wasn’t about to throw up, she dodged into the first doorway she came to, trembling like an aspen leaf. So, not only were Donato and his men looking for her, some PI was on the case, too. Hamilton, Hamilton… oh crap! Bishop Hamilton?
She’d seen him once at the courthouse where she’d been attempting to dissuade a judge from fining her up the wahoo for yet another driving violation. Bishop was in the gallery on an unrelated case, but something about him attracted her attention and as she walked out of the courtroom her knees weakened when he nodded at her and smiled. Word on the street was he was a pit bull when it came to closing his cases, and now he was after her. Well, good luck to him!
A flicker of movement to her right alerted her to his presence a fraction too late.
“Well, hello there, Reckless. What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
Copyright © 2013 - 2018 Kristine Raymond. All rights reserved.