Shadow Rider: Chapter 24

The wind slammed into the cars as they made their way toward the estate Barry Anthon had rented. Emmanuelle was in the car behind Francesca and that made Francesca very uneasy. She knew Stefano’s sister could take care of herself far better than she could in the situation, but Barry wouldn’t want Francesca killed, not until he had Cella’s cell phone safely in his hands. But Emme was vulnerable.

Stefano and his brothers had humiliated Barry in front of Francesca and Emmanuelle. He wasn’t a man who would forgive such an insult. He believed himself to be superior to everyone else. He felt entitled to take anything and everything he wanted. Barry would retaliate against the Ferraro family, and what better way than to humiliate Emme? His men were animals. Monsters. They destroyed lives at Barry’s whim and enjoyed themselves immensely while doing so. Francesca had no doubt that those men were tormenting Emme in the car, especially Marc. He would want retribution for Emmanuelle defending herself.

As the cars drove through the heavily guarded gates under the archway, Francesca spotted at least ten more guards roaming around the property. Those were the ones she could see. Her heart sank. Four guards at the gate and ten more roaming just the grounds in the front, how many more were there? Even if Stefano brought his brothers with him, the chances of all of them being able to slip through that many guards unscathed seemed nearly impossible.

They drove right up to the front door. Harold’s finger bit deep into Francesca’s arm as he yanked her out of the car. As she stumbled out, the dark clouds above their heads opened up and slammed them with rain. It poured down in long silvery streaks, falling from the sky to hit the ground in great splashes. Harold swore and dragged her up the two steps to the wide porch with its marble columns and overhead roof. Just those few steps out in the open had them soaked from the downpour.

Francesca looked back toward the other car. Emmanuelle was pulled out of the car and shoved hard against the hood, Marc behind her. Her hands were zip-tied in front of her and clearly he thought she was helpless. He reached around and caught her breast, squeezing hard through the open jacket, humping her from behind while the others watched and laughed.

Harold paused to watch as well, grinning and rubbing his crotch. “I get a turn at that,” he announced to Francesca. “And if Barry doesn’t kill you first, I’ll be taking my turn with you, too.”

Emmanuelle kicked up hard between Marc’s legs, driving the heel of her boot into his balls and then slamming her head backward to smash his nose again. He screamed, a high-pitched shriek that had his friends howling with glee as he dropped straight to the ground. Arnold, the man who had driven the car Francesca has been in, bent over Marc to try to help him to his feet. Marc shoved at his hand and continued to writhe on the ground.

Jimmy stepped over him and grabbed Emmanuelle’s arm. “Come on, wildcat. Let’s get you out of here before he can move. He’ll shoot you, and we’ve got plans.”

If anything, the rain came down harder, making it difficult to see through the silvery bands. The wind howled an ominous warning, sending the sheets of rain straight at the house. It blew so hard the windows rattled and the porch itself was instantly drenched in the downpour.

Harold cursed more and thrust the door open, nearly running through it and dragging Francesca with him. “I hate this fucking place,” he snarled. He hadn’t taken the time to wipe the soles of his boots and he nearly slipped on the marble tiles. He had to let go of Francesca in order to keep from falling.

She stopped where she was, just inside the door, holding it open so she could keep her eye on Emme. Jimmy was hurrying her up the steps, head down to keep the rain from his glasses. Francesca didn’t have her hands free, but she stuck out her foot and tripped Jimmy as he hurried inside. Stepping close to Emme, she looked her over carefully for signs of abuse.

Stefano would lose his mind if he could see his sister. Emme was very small, and the men had clearly slammed her around. One eye was showing signs of swelling shut and there were two more cuts on her face, one on her right cheekbone where someone had hit her with a fist and the other on her chin.

“I’m okay,” Emmanuelle assured her. “Just getting to know them.” She flashed a wan smile. Her bound hands were up by her breasts her and her jacket was once more in place, covering her tattered shirt and what lay beneath it. “He’ll come, Francesca.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Because Stefano would walk into a lion’s den for the people he loved, or the ones that needed his protection–or justice.

They were taken through the great room, and it was enormous. All marble floors and hanging crystal chandeliers. The furniture was velvet, and a gleaming grand piano sat at an angle, dominating one side of the room. A man played, the music swelling through the house, a haunting melody that seemed obscene as a backdrop for what Barry and his men had planned. The piano player looked up and winked as they were shoved past him. His leering grin revealed two metal teeth shaped like fangs. Francesca recognized him as one of Barry’s immediate crew that had destroyed her apartment when she lived in California. Everyone called him Fang for obvious reasons.

They moved through a wide hallway with wainscoting and arched doorways opening into other various rooms. Two men played pool and both straightened from where they were bent over the table and smirked at the women, all the while rubbing their crotches grotesquely, deliberately showing both Francesca and Emmanuelle what was in store for them. She knew them from San Francisco when they’d helped destroy her apartments. Denny and Si were brothers and notoriously nasty.

Francesca glanced at Stefano’s sister. She appeared completely calm and she made no move to wipe away the blood on her face or mouth. She kept her head up, but her gaze took in every detail of the house and the men in it as they passed. Francesca followed her lead, although her heart pounded like mad. Barry had a crew of ten men that he kept close to him. She’d recognized seven of them so far. That meant the other three had to be close. If so, that was ten men used to killing for Barry. There had been too many guards to count outside and she assumed they were local muscle Barry had hired.

Barry’s right-hand man, Del Travers, stepped out of a room as they passed. He was dressed in his suit and tie. Francesca knew he was a lawyer and he’d gone to school with Barry. He stared at Francesca without expression. That was one of the things she always detested about him. He was cold, like a fish. She always wondered whether or not under that perfect suit he had scales.

Harold shoved her hard in the back, making her aware as she stumbled forward that she’d stopped for a moment to stare at Del. A slow burn of anger began to rise in her. She was tired of Barry taking her life apart piece by piece. She didn’t want them touching Emmanuelle. They were sick, perverted men and they had no business being close to a woman like Emme. She hated that they’d put their filthy hands on her, that they’d slapped and punched her.

Barry Anthon had surrounded himself with men just like him. He walked over people, a monster, charming those he wanted to manipulate, and hurting those he thought he could. And he did it for fun. Emmanuelle bumped her slightly and she glanced at Stefano’s sister. Emme shook her head, as if reading her thoughts of open rebellion.

“Don’t provoke them,” she whispered.

Francesca clamped her mouth shut and continued down the hall into a large room where Barry sat at a bar, waiting for them. The last two of Barry’s crew were with him. All ten men. Stefano would have to face them all if he came for his sister and her. And he would come.

Larry Fort was behind the bar. He was one of the worst. He’d laughed when he’d shoved her to the floor and torn the sink out of the wall so water sprayed throughout her apartment. Then he’d smashed the toilet and systematically shattered everything she owned. His partner, George Hanson, stood to the back of the room, his gaze immediately going to Emmanuelle. He glanced at Francesca and then at his boss.

Barry sat in a high-backed chair, much like a throne, a glass of bourbon in his hands. He looked terrible, his face swollen and distorted so that his usual good looks were impossible to see. He had stitches in three places. On his cheekbone, above his eye and along his jaw, all on the right side of his face. His lips were grotesque, triple their normal size. Both eyes were black and his nose had tape over it where it had been broken.

He stood up slowly, every movement stiff. “Put them in those chairs.” He indicated two straight-backed wooden chairs. One was set in front of his “throne” and the other was toward the end of the room, back in the shadows. The room was well lit with bright overhead chandeliers, just like in the great room. The floors were the same marble, but this room was quite a bit smaller in size.

The lights flickered several times as the storm raged outside. The rain beat continuously at the window and the wind shrieked in fury. Harold dragged Francesca over to the chair, pushing her nearly up against Barry, who stood very close–on purpose, she was certain–staring at her through the slits of his eyes. Yellowish goo clung to the corners of his eyes and up close, he looked even more ghastly than he had from across the room. Harold shoved her hard and she fell back into the chair. It nearly went over backward and neither man lifted a hand to keep her upright. She was just lucky that the chair didn’t go all the way over.

“Welcome to my home away from home, Francesca,” Barry said. He placed his hands on the arms of the chair, bending down to peer at her closely. “It’s a far cry from what you’re used to. That pissant Stefano doesn’t know how to live with all the money he’s got. You shouldn’t have crossed me and neither should your bitch of a sister. I would have had more fun with her, showed her the good life before I turned her over to my boys. They’re patient. Aren’t you, boys?” He lifted his head to look at the men in the room.

Six of them. The four that had brought them from Theresa Vitale’s home and the other two waiting with Barry. His other men were still scattered throughout the house. Francesca kept counting, hoping for better numbers, but any way she looked at it, Stefano was going to be in trouble because he wouldn’t bring his cousins to this fight. Just his brothers. She knew that instinctively.

She didn’t look away from Barry or react to his vile statement. She didn’t doubt for a moment that Cella would have been turned over to his men after Barry was done with her. She was certain he’d done that very same thing to countless other women. They feared him too much to ever testify against him in court.

“I would have taken you in front of her. Her baby sister, so sacred, yet you gave yourself to the highest bidder at the first opportunity. I should have offered you money. You’re a slut just like all the rest of them, aren’t you? You’d do anything for money.”

She lifted her chin. “You know better than that, don’t you, Barry? You know Stefano will come for me because he loves me, that’s what you’re counting on. The fact that he loves me. And he loves Emme. You don’t have that and there’s a part of you that hates everyone because you don’t. You’re not capable of real love, Barry. You’re just not. You’ll never know what Stefano has. I love him unconditionally. With everything I am and I’d do anything for him. What woman will ever give that to you? You pay these men to be loyal. They aren’t loyal out of love. You trick women and then you throw them away because you can’t feel anything. Ever. I’m sorry for you.”

As she talked his face reddened, the stain spreading across the swollen bruises. “I’m not the one sitting in a chair, tied up like a fucking turkey, dessert for the men after they kill Stefano Ferraro.”

“He’s hard to kill,” she said softly. “That’s what you’re worried about, isn’t it? You have ten men inside this house, maybe more. You have another dozen outside. What does that say to your crew and me? You’re terrified of Stefano.” She leaned closer to him, her gaze steady on his. “And you should be.”

“He’s going to find his sister and you the center of attention. That should distract him just a little if he has such love for you both.” He sneered at the word love.

She didn’t answer him. Just watched him and prayed Emmanuelle wouldn’t draw attention to herself. If she did, Barry would do something terrible. She felt the hatred pouring off of him every time he made a reference to Stefano. More, he was just a little insane. There was something very scary in his eyes.

Thunder roared outside, close, shaking the house, rattling the windows. The lights flickered again and went out, the room going dark. Barry swore. “What the hell?”

“The generator will kick in, boss,” George assured. “Give it a minute.”

There was a short silence. Francesca could hear Barry’s labored breathing. He was much more afraid of Stefano than he wanted anyone to believe. When the lights flickered back on, dim and yellow, casting shadows all over the room, she could see sweat beaded on Barry’s face.

“I want you two guarding the door,” Barry instructed, waving his hand at Marc and Jimmy.

“I’ve got a score to settle with that little bitch,” Marc said, indicating Emmanuelle with a chin lift.

“Yeah, boss, his balls are swollen,” Harold said gleefully. “She dropped him twice. Smashed his face. With her hands tied.”

“Little thing like that and he’s not man enough to handle her.” Arnold took up the taunt.

“Shut the fuck up,” Marc raged. “I’ll show you I can handle her.”

“Get out and guard the door. Do it now before I put a bullet in your head. I said you’d have your chance at her, all of you, and I meant it. Her fucking brother will come. He’ll want to look like the brave hero for his fiancee. I want you waiting for him. Kill him on sight.” As he issued the order, Barry kept his gaze fixed on Francesca’s face.

She didn’t blink. Didn’t look away. Inside, her heart stuttered dangerously, but she didn’t give any visible sign that she was in any way worried. She wasn’t about to give him that kind of satisfaction.

“You’re so sure he’ll save you,” Barry said bitterly. “Maybe it will be too late and he’ll come in here and find your throat cut.” He stepped close to her and shoved a knife against her throat, the blade biting in.

She didn’t pull back. “Like this hasn’t been done a million times to me already, Barry. You need new material.” Francesca forced boredom into her voice. She even gave a slight yawn. “My first week or two here in Chicago, I had this happen to me twice.”

“You want new material?” Barry snarled. He pulled the blade away from her throat, his yellow slits for eyes reddening along with his face. “You want to see new material?” he repeated, his voice swinging out of control. High-pitched. Insane even. He gripped the knife in his fist and brought it down hard into her thigh.

She screamed as the blade tore through the outside of her thigh and came out the other side. The pain burned through her, leaving her breathless, raw, her heart pounding hard enough to hear. Her blood roared in her ears. She’d heard of men being tortured, stoically not making a sound and she couldn’t imagine how they did it. She couldn’t catch her breath, or take her eyes from the knife handle sticking out of her thigh.

Barry pulled the knife free and wiped the blood on her jeans, grinning at her. “That new enough for you, bitch? Do you want more? I can show you more.” Hatred burned in his eyes. Maniacal glee. He got off on her fear. Her pain. She saw the truth in his eyes. He needed to see those things. She’d been too calm and hadn’t given him his fix, or the respect he felt he deserved.

Mesmerized by the look on his grotesquely swollen face, and the red-yellow of his eyes, Francesca watched him touch the tip of the blade to her left shoulder. He placed one hand on the hilt of the knife, ready to drive it through her flesh there. All the while he smiled at her. George laughed. Harold cleared his throat. No one else made a sound, just waiting. All of them watching as mesmerized as she was, while Barry drew out the torment by forcing her to wait.

“Why is it that when a man doesn’t like something a woman does, something he would do himself, he calls her a bitch?” Emmanuelle asked, her voice as calm as ever. “I’ve always wondered about that. Is it because you’re such a little bitch, Barry? Always whining to Mommy when things don’t go your way? I saw you at the racetrack when your car didn’t win and you threw that little fit. That was bitch behavior. Did anyone call you a bitch then? Because I thought you were a total bitch. You moan and groan and complain, but act like a mean girl in high school. Petty and cruel just because you’re one of the popular kids. But you really were only popular because Mommy and Daddy had money.”

Francesca risked a look around the room, her breath hitching in her throat. Emmanuelle was playing with fire. Barry would kill her for that. A blow to his pride would be worse to him than a physical beating. The men were all smirking, not daring to look at their boss, but obviously enjoying the fact that Emmanuelle had taunted Barry.

Barry turned his head slowly toward the shadows where Emme sat in the chair, her hands bound in front of her. He reminded Francesca of a snake with his red slits for eyes and his cold expression. She moistened her lips, terrified for Emmanuelle. Barry stepped back away from Francesca, never taking his eyes from Emme.

Francesca timed her moment, waiting until Barry was within five feet of Emmanuelle. “Actually, Emme,” she said. “He isn’t a bitch–he’s a pussy. You’re really just a pussy, aren’t you, Barry? You always have to have your big bad men around because you can’t get it up yourself so you need them to take care of a woman while you can only watch.” She’d never said that word in her life. Not once. But she’d had to think of something to get his attention off Emme.

Her leg burned and blood stained her favorite pair of blue jeans, but she’d all but forgotten about the stab wound in her fear for Stefano’s sister. Barry would kill her for certain.

Barry made a sound in his throat. A snarl. Like a dog might snarl at something or someone provoking it. He spun around, moving back toward Francesca. Lightning zigzagged across the sky, lighting the room for a second, throwing their shadows across the floor and up along the walls. The dull yellow lights flickered. All attention was on Barry. No one could look away, hypnotized by the crazed expression on his face. Two lines of shiny saliva hung in strings from either side of his mouth. He looked almost as if he was foaming at the mouth, like a rabid animal.

“You’re dead. That sanctimonious son of a bitch is going to find his sister and his fiancee dead. And then I’m going to kill him.” He rushed toward Francesca.

“You can’t kill Stefano, you moron,” Emmanuelle taunted. “I’m tied up, and you can’t kill me. How do you think someone as inept as you could possibly best my brother?”

Barry spun around, this time only feet from Francesca. She could smell the sweat pouring from his body. Feel the heat of his anger. She looked toward the shadows where Emme sat, as did everyone in the room. In the dim lighting Francesca could no longer see anything but the chair legs. The rest of the chair and even Emmanuelle’s legs had disappeared into the shadows. Barry took three steps toward the other side of the room, desperately seeking to find Stefano’s sister.

Francesca felt hands on her upper arms. Emmanuelle helped her up, forcing her to step forward right into the mouth of one of the shadows. There was a terrible wrenching sensation at her body, as if she was flying apart, and then Emme went still, arms around her.

“Don’t move,” Emmanuelle said very softly in her ear. “They can’t see you. Don’t make a sound and don’t move.”

Francesca nodded, clinging to her, afraid she’d fall, knowing Emmanuelle had taken her inside a portal. Her leg throbbed and b
urned. It felt like rubber, but she was determined to stay upright. The zip-ties were gone from Emme’s hands, although Francesca’s were still on, binding her wrists together, so she had to curl her fingers into Emmanuelle’s jacket.

Barry rushed over to the chair where his men had shoved Emmanuelle Ferraro. The zip-ties lay on the floor and she was no longer there.

“Boss . . .” Harold said. Caution in his voice.

Barry spun around and to his horror, Francesca was gone as well. “Where are they?” he demanded, gripping the hilt of the knife, holding it in front of him as if he could defend himself against an unseen attacker. “Where the hell are they?”

His men shook their heads.

“Well, find them,” he screamed. “Find them right fucking now. If you don’t bring them back here in five minutes I swear I’ll cut your heads off.”

Harold, Arnold and George rushed toward the door. Larry remained leaning his weight against the bar, grinning like a maniac, not obeying a direct order. That was fine with Barry. He needed a target to take out his wrath on.

“I’ll carve my fucking name in your throat,” he promised, and stalked across the room. The urge to kill was strong. No one humiliated him and lived to tell about it. He was going to carve those women into little pieces, but first every one of his men was going to do them as many ways as possible and he’d film it all and make Stefano Ferraro watch the film before he died.

The Ferraros had always acted so high and mighty, everyone was afraid of them. Well, everyone feared the wrong man. He reached the bar and stepped around it, coming up on Larry’s left side. The man hadn’t moved a muscle. Hadn’t looked at him, when he’d been staring so intently just moments earlier. Larry was too still. A chill went down Barry’s spine and he stepped back. He could see that Larry’s head was at a peculiar angle, as if his neck was broken. Barry backed away from the bar. The man was definitely dead. But how? No one had come into the room. No one had been close to Larry.

He’d heard rumors about the Ferraro family. Stupid, ridiculous, impossible rumors, about how they could make things happen to people without ever leaving their homes. That their enemies just died or disappeared. It was nonsense. They weren’t part of any crime family. He’d had his connections check several times, just to be certain he wasn’t stepping on toes when he’d gone after a couple of drivers on the track. He’d been assured they weren’t in organized crime, although the rumors persisted.

Lightning lit up the room and almost simultaneously, thunder boomed, shaking the house again. It was a huge, well-built house and shouldn’t be shaking. The rain lashed at it and the wind shrieked and howled. Shadows lengthened and grew, throwing out strange-looking tubes from every direction. The tubes looked like arms reaching for him. Out of the shadow a knife appeared, the tip biting deep into his forearm.

He screamed. Eloisa Ferraro was suddenly there. “You shouldn’t have stabbed her, Barry,” she said, and then she was gone again, as if she’d never been. As if she was a ghost. A fucking phantom.

With an oath, he turned and ran toward the door, toward the safety of his men. Yanking the door open, he tripped over something heavy lying on the floor. He went down hard. Very hard. His body rolled and with a sob of frustration he pushed himself to his hands and knees, looking quickly around to see where his crew was, to see if any of them had witnessed this further humiliation.

Marc sat on the floor across the doorway, his body tied in a web of intricate knots, his head drawn back at an impossible angle. It looked as if he’d struggled and the ropes around his neck had tightened until he’d strangled. The knots formed a strange, elaborate harness. Several feet from him, suspended from the ceiling by his wrists, was Jimmy. The knots formed what appeared to be long sleeves that went up his arms to his shoulders and formed a circle around his throat. Staring up in horror, Barry could see where Jimmy had held himself as long as possible, but then his strength gave out and he’d hung himself.

Barry swore and crawled backward, scrambling fast. He’d heard of such knots, but he’d always associated them with erotic bondage. He’d gone to a demonstration once, but it was an art he didn’t have the patience to learn. During the demonstration, he’d heard a bit of history and knew the knots had originally been used to restrain prisoners and sometimes torture them. He hadn’t listened too closely because he was only interested in watching the naked woman get tied up.

A shadow moved on the floor where the body swung and once again those strange feelers reached toward him like arms. A knife plunged into his thigh, a fist around the hilt. It emerged from the shadows just as the one before it.

Then Ricco was there, shaking his head. “Shouldn’t have touched her with a knife, Barry. You’re not going to be in one piece by the end of this.” Then he was gone.

Gone. Disappeared. The knife was still in his leg, blood bubbling around the blade. Barry was afraid to pull it out, but it was grotesque there. He was losing his mind. There was no other explanation. Still, he was bleeding from two knife wounds, but shadows didn’t come alive. That couldn’t happen. Not in real life. Was he hallucinating?

“George! Arnold!” He called out for the two men who had been with him the longest other than Del. Del was a great lawyer and he loved to indulge himself with women, but he wasn’t as good at kicking ass as George and Arnold.

No one answered him. Other than the howling wind and the sound of the piano, he couldn’t hear a sound coming from any room. No one was coming to help him. He had to jerk the knife out of his leg on his own. Taking a deep breath, he wrapped his fingers firmly around the hilt and yanked hard. For a moment the world spun and was edged in black. The pain was excruciating, worse than when the blade had gone in.

Barry dropped the knife and ripped his shirt to wrap the wound up. It hurt like hell but there were no signs of arterial bleeding. The stupid son of a bitch couldn’t even find an artery. How stupid were the Ferraro brothers anyway? Bringing a knife to a gunfight? He tossed Ricco’s knife away and then his own to pull his gun from its holster under his arm. He’d all but forgotten it. He didn’t generally do any of the strong-arm stuff–those were his men’s jobs–but he could if he had to. This was a case of if he wanted the job done right, he’d have to do it himself.

Del. Del was close, in the next room. His lawyer didn’t want any part of what was going to happen to Stefano. He didn’t like getting his hands dirty. He claimed he was the law and he needed deniability, but he was a fucking coward. He liked to participate with the women. In fact, he was one of the worst, beating the crap out of them while he fucked them before going home to his wife and children. He especially liked young girls. Teens. More than once Barry’s men had had to clean up his messes, but he was a damn good lawyer so Barry kept him around. This time, the bastard would use a gun.

Barry pushed himself to move. He was shaking and that just pissed him off more. The door to Del’s room was open and he stepped inside. Del had draped himself on the bed, hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. The rain slammed against the window so hard the window rattled. Shadows played along the walls and across the bed.

“Get up, you lazy fuck,” Barry snapped, impatient with the way Del always chose to stay out of the muck with the rest of them.

“He can’t, Barry,” Emmanuelle’s soft voice said in his ear. She was right behind him. Close. He could feel her breath against his neck. “He’s dead. So sorry. His neck broke when he tried to rape me.”

Before he could turn, before he could make a move, a hot blade sank into his side. Low. Between his ribs. Fire flashed through him. His breath left his body in a concentrated rush or he would have screamed the house down.

“You shouldn’t have stabbed Francesca, Barry. It was very stupid of you.”

The knife retreated and he spun, one hand clamped to the wound, the other clutching the gun. He whirled, cursing. Tears leaking out of his swollen eyes. There was no one there. Nothing but shadow. Breathing heavily he leaned against the wall, trying to think. The stab wound in his leg was the worst. Ricco had really nailed him. Eloisa barely scratched him. Emme’s knife hurt, but really, how bad was it? He could still breathe. He had the gun. Fuck the damn Ferraro family.

He just needed to rally his men. Denny and Si were in the poolroom. Lazy bastards. They were always clowning around, oblivious to what was happening around them. He’d shake them up. He paid them damn good money to do what he said. He hurried down the hall, dragging his leg, cursing every jarring step. He slammed his fist on the poolroom door and it sprang open.

Denny was on the floor. He had marks across his face, as if he’d been caned. His pool stick was still clutched like a weapon in his hand. Si was on the table, the same marks on him, his pool stick broken. Barry’s heart began to pound. Hard. He tasted terror for the first time in his life. The wind rose and drove the rain at the bank of windows. Outside the trees swayed macabrely, the shadows dancing through the window onto the walls and floors, even across Denny’s face as if laughing at him.

“Shouldn’t have stuck that knife in her, you fuck,” Giovanni said, and slammed a knife into Barry’s good leg.

Up high. In his thigh. Almost an identical wound to the one his brother Ricco had made. Barry screamed. He couldn’t stop screaming as he fired the gun repeatedly at Giovanni. But Giovanni had vanished as if he’d never been. As if he wasn’t human. A phantom. A ghost. Barry wiped his eyes with his gun hand and slumped against the wall. He had to get out of there. He could hire someone to kill Stefano and his entire family. Wipe them out. He would get satisfaction from that. He didn’t need to see it done, just so long as it was done.

He wrapped the wound on his leg and headed for the kitchen, intending to go out the back way. There was a car waiting outside. There was always a car. He’d sent Arnold and Harold out to hunt the women down. If he was lucky, they were still alive and they could get out with him. He stopped just outside the kitchen. There was no door, only an archway. The room seemed quiet–so quiet he could hear the piano. Fang stilled played. He was still alive. The music sounded better than it ever had–but bizarre, as if the drama unfolding in the house was nothing more than a theater play that he was stuck in the middle of.

Arnold sat at the kitchen bar, a sandwich in front of him. There was a whole ham cut into thin slices on the bar beside the plate with the sandwich. Harold was against the wall behind the bar. Barry stepped inside and hurried to them. “Get up. We’ve got to get out of here. The Ferraro brothers are every . . .” He trailed off.

Arnold was pinned to th
e chair by a series of knives, his eyes wide open and staring in horror. Harold was held to the wall by knives going from his belly to his chest. Barry staggered back, reaching for the archway to hold his trembling body up. He looked wildly around. There was no one. Only silence. The shadows played across the back door as if daring him to enter them. He shook his head, sobbing. No way was he going out that door, not with the shadows moving across it.

“I like knives, Barry. Learned to cook in Europe when I was training there,” Taviano said, his voice close to Barry’s neck. “And to use knives for all kinds of purposes.”

Barry brought up the gun and Taviano slapped it away. Easily. So easily. Barry closed his eyes, knowing what was coming, trying to steel himself.

“I gave them a little demonstration, but they weren’t impressed, or at least they didn’t say so. You know you shouldn’t have stabbed her. She’s ours. Dumb, Barry, but then you always were a dumb prick.”

The knife went in on the other side, in the same spot where Emmanuelle had stuck him. He knew there was no sense in looking for Taviano. He’d disappeared, just as all the other Ferraros had disappeared. Like ghosts. Barry stayed very still, leaning against the archway, sobbing. He had no idea how long he stayed there, blood running down his clothes, his mind uncomprehending.

This couldn’t really be happening to him. He always won. He was always in control. Now he was staggering through this mausoleum, bleeding from multiple stab wounds, his men dead inside.

The sound of the piano penetrated through the lashing rain and shrieking wind. Lightning still lit up the sky, as if the storm stayed crouched over the estate he’d rented. Fucking Ferraro family. Think they own Chicago. He pushed off the wall and stumbled down the hall toward the great room and the sound of the piano. Fang was still playing, seemingly unaware of the deaths taking place around him. More, the concerto he played was intricate, difficult, something Barry wouldn’t have thought in Fang’s repertoire. Barry had gone to several concerts with his mother and heard the greatest pianists in the world play. Fang wasn’t one of them, yet his playing now was superb. The beautiful music sounded so incongruous as a backdrop for the ugliness happening inside the house.

Barry burst into the great room and the first thing he saw was George. The man was lying beside the piano bench, his neck at an odd angle, his eyes open and staring in horror. Fang was facedown, just on the other side of the piano. The man playing was Vittorio Ferraro. He turned suddenly, one hand lifting from the keys. In one movement he picked up the small throwing knife, turned and flung it at Barry, all the while his other hand still played. Then his second hand joined, even before the knife sank into Barry’s shoulder.

“Shouldn’t have stabbed her, Anthon,” Vittorio said, and dismissed him, keeping his back to him as he played the concerto.

Dismissed him. As if he were of no consequence. It was humiliating. If he’d still had his gun he’d have killed the son of a bitch. The knife barely hurt, not with the wounds in his thighs throbbing and burning. Not one knife had touched a vital spot. Not one . . .

Barry looked around him, his heart pounding hard. He felt hands on either side of his head. Almost gentle.

“You’re dead, Barry. Justice is served.” Stefano broke Barry Anthon’s neck. He stepped back, dropping the body to the floor. “Did you call Sal? He’ll need to really clean this place.”

“It’s done. Get your woman and let’s go home.”

Stefano nodded and went back to get Francesca. He stepped into the portal where she was waiting for him with Emme. Emme had wrapped up the wound in Francesca’s thigh, but Stefano lifted her into his arms. “Put your arms around my neck and your face into my shoulder, bambina. Keep your eyes closed. I don’t want you to see any of this.”

“Okay,” she agreed softly.

“It’s over, Francesca–he’s dead. He’ll never hurt another woman.”

“Thank you, Stefano. All of you. Let’s go home.”

Stefano stepped into the next shadow and took his woman home.


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