“Goodbye Alex!” my wife called as I walked toward the driveway. “Have a good day at work.”
“Bye-bye daddy!” added my 2-year-old, mimicking his mother’s wave.
He stood next to her, holding tight to her pant-leg. He looked up at her occasionally, to see if he should continue waving. He’d soon have to compete for her attention though. We had another coming any day now.
I smiled and waved back to them as I got in the car. “See you at dinner time!” I answered them. They stood waving in the doorway as I started the car and drove away. That image remained burned in my mind. I didn’t know it, but that was the last time I would ever see them.
My commute to work was always a peaceful drive. We lived in the suburbs of a big city which, unfortunately, was the biggest source of jobs in the area. I shouldn’t complain though, the city was much nicer than where I was from.
The road was lined with autumn-colored trees. Their leaves spiraled in the wind ahead of me, appearing to move in slow motion. It was a nice area.
We’d only moved here about a year and a half ago. The winters here were a little colder than I’d prefer, but other than that, this was where I wanted to be. This was where we would raise our family. Safe and far away from the world of gang violence, chaos, drug deals, and fallen comrades.
I arrived at my workplace, an overwhelming corporate building, one of many that crowded the city. I drove further down the street to a parking garage. It was two blocks from the company, but at least they covered the parking fee.
My work day was nothing spectacular. I was a grunt, filing papers for a big-name law firm. There was no clear path for moving up here, with most positions requiring a great deal of education. It did pay the bills though.
As I shuffled through the large mass of papers on my desk, an executive figure entered the filing room. He looked around, disappointed at its disorganized state.
“Alex, I thought we told you to clean up in here?” he asked in a condescending tone. The man was in his early fifties. Whether it was his age or the suit he wore, he seemed to feel justified in treating me like a kid. “And what about that Jenkins’s case. You’re going to have that to me by the end of the day, right?”
“Yes sir,” I answered nervously. “I was just about to put it together.” I wasn’t. But I had plenty of time to work on that later.
“Good,” he nodded. He stood awkwardly for another few seconds, struggling to utter a forced compliment or a thank you. When that failed, he simply smiled, turned and left the room.
As my day dragged on, I became more and more aware of the clock. I awaited the end of my shift anxiously. When the time came, I dropped the Jenkins’s file onto the executive’s empty desk with a audible ‘flop’ and headed to punch out.
My car waited in the parking garage where I’d left it. After a long day, I almost wished it could drive itself to pick me up. I turned the key to unlock my door, but the lock offered no resistance. “Great, I forgot to lock it,” I complained to myself, shaking my head.
I sat down in the drivers seat, and briefly looked over my possessions. Nothing seemed missing or out of place. With everything in order, I inserted the key into the ignition. For some reason I hesitated to start the car. Leaving the key in its off position, I got back out and examined the cabin a little closer.
Barely visible, there were two black wires running down from the steering column. I traced them as they went below the floor mat and under the driver’s seat. A crude black box hid an improvised explosive device in the shadows. It was something I hadn’t seen in a long time.
With my keys still in the ignition, I locked the door and shut them inside. I calmly walked toward the stairs and back out the way I came. If someone wanted me dead, they’d likely be nearby waiting to hear an explosion. I moved as quickly as I could without attracting any unwanted attention.
In my peripheral vision, I could see two men following me down the street. They acted just as casual as I was, but apparently we weren’t fooling each other. I turned inside a grocery store, hoping it would look like I had forgotten to pick something up after work.
As I turned into the building, I got a better glimpse of the men who followed me. I recognized them, they were Riccardo’s men. These two young men had been recruited by the boss back when I was still around. At one time they had idolized me. It was sad to see them so easily manipulated, but I knew where their loyalties lay. They’d likely stop at nothing to end the individual he’d labeled as a ‘traitor’.
I ducked into an aisle, keeping watch in a mirror that faced the door. Sure enough, the two men entered right after me. They split up at the entrance to comb the perimeter of the store.
How did they find me here? The question burned in my mind. I had taken careful steps to bury my past. They shouldn’t have been able to track me down. Unless...
No. Julia wouldn’t have betrayed me. If she had, they’d have found me years ago. If she’d been willing to rat me out, they’d have ended my life before hers. With her help, I’d been able to avoid the boss until now.
I remembered the last time I’d talked with her. A panicked phone call, unknown to my family. She’d called me at work about a year ago. She told me our password, something we’d established so I’d know she hadn’t been compromised. Julia told me that she thought they were on to her. She had called to say goodbye.
A few days after that, her name was in the paper. ‘Died in a fatal car accident’ the headline read, but I knew that was just a cover up. A pain that I had tried to forget stabbed at my heart. The situation only made the pain that much worse. Julia’s death was in vain, and soon, mine would be too.
I had to find a phone and warn my family. If these goons were after me, the boss had to know where I lived.
At my first opportunity, I made a mad dash for the door. I expected to hear gunfire and shattering glass but the only sound was that of traffic. Maybe they hadn’t seen me. I turned the corner and headed down an adjacent street. In a few seconds, they followed behind me. If they had guns, they weren’t using them.
Turning another corner, I ducked down into a subway station. If I was quick enough, I’d be out of sight before they turned the corner. I could take the subway, but hiding in an enclosed space was probably a bad idea. It’d be best to keep my options open.
I leaned against a wall at the bottom of the stairs and waited. Only one of the men ran past me. They’d split up above-ground. I attacked, hitting the familiar man hard in the side, then in the face when he turned to strike back. He stumbled backward, but shook it off.
My muscles were weak and my reflexes were slow. I’d gotten soft in the four years since I’d started over. I couldn’t win this fight. In the corner of my eye, I could see two security guards approaching, armed with nightsticks. Maybe I could take advantage of them.
I gave my assailant a low kick, knocking him from his feet. As security approached, I ran as fast as I could out of the terminal. I escaped inside the first business I came to, a large hotel.
I ran to the counter and picked up the phone sitting on it.
“Excuse me sir, you can’t--”
“It’s an emergency!” I yelled, shutting up the receptionist.
“Beep beep beep! The number you’ve dialed cannot be reached,” said an automated voice on the receiver. I tried again. And again. The same message played each time.
“Dammit,” I yelled, drawing the attention of everyone in the lobby. They’d disconnected my home phone. I began to panic. Everything I knew was at risk. I had to get home. That’s all I knew.
I ran outside, waving my arms, trying to hail a cab. I only made it a few steps when I felt a hard blow to the back of my head. Everything went black.
When I awoke, there was a black bag over my head. My hands were bound to the back of the wooden chair I sat in. My feet were tied to either chair leg. As I struggled to wake from my stupor, I became aware of the familiar voices around me.
The bag was lifted from my head. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright florescent lights of the room. The boss’s familiar mug soon came into focus.
“Axel my boy, it’s been awhile,” he sneered at me. “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s Alex now, isn’t it? How insensitive of me.”
“What do you want from me?” I barked at him.
We appeared to be in the kitchenette of a hotel suite. Damn, my luck. I’d managed to hide in the same hotel the boss was in. The two men from earlier were there as well as a few others.
“What do I want?” the boss mocked me. “I only ever wanted what was mine. Didn’t I treat you well Axel?” I didn’t answer. “As I recall, I gave you two a lot. Money, a roof overhead, a chance at a decent life? Never asking for anything in return except your valued service.”
I glared at the man as he pretended to pity himself. “The terms of your employment were simple Axel. Either you paid off your debt to me or you continued to work. Was that so hard to understand? And to make matters worse, you corrupted my little Jewel.”
My breathing grew heavier as I imagined my hands around the boss’s throat. I tried to free them, but my efforts only caused the restraints to bite deeper into my flesh. From the feel of them against my skin, they were comprised of either zip ties or a fine cord. The blood dripping down my wrists caused me to hesitate on trying any further.
“She was never the same after you left you know. Her undying loyalty started to waver. She grew soft, like you. She stopped following orders and began to act on her own.” His voice grew angrier as he continued. “She could have had a future, but you selfishly took that away from her.”
“Shut up you prick! Like you’d ever understand what--”
The boss drew a pistol from a kitchen drawer and struck the side of my head with it. My heavy breathing had begun to sound like a growl under my breath.
“Now now, I don’t think you want to be talking back to me,” said the boss. He screwed a long suppressor onto the end of the barrel and loosely aimed in my direction. “Where was I?” he asked.
“Somewhere between me owing you money and having taken Julia from you,” I replied spitefully.
“Oh, that’s right. Julia was like family to me you know. That’s why I always treated you two so well. But you took that away from me. So now, I’m going to do the same to you.”
“You already took her from--” I stopped dead when I realized what he meant.
“Yes, but you still have more to lose,” he answered. “You took my money, but you’re dirt poor now. There’s nothing on that avenue I can take from you. Jewel was my family, so how about I take yours?”
I opened my mouth to object, but the boss tightened his aim at my head.
“You’ve tried so hard to start a new life. Did you really think you’d pull it off? Did you really think I’d let you go so easily? Sorry boy, but no matter how far you run, you’re not off the hook.”
“My men are rounding up your wife and son as we speak. I’ll be personally paying them a visit after I’m done with you. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to survive the day.”
“You sick bastard! I’ll never let you get away with this!”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t. You’ve always had quite the resolve. That’s why I’m not going to make you watch. I’m not dumb enough to let you live that long.”
“AAAAARRRRGGGG!” I struggled to break my restraints one last time.
“Good riddance Axel. Give the Devil my regards.”
— * —
The sound of the gunshot jolted me awake. Even though I never really heard the shot, it haunted my dreams.
I had this same nightmare every night for at least a year after those events. Lately I hadn’t been as bothered by it. Maybe I was moving on. Tonight however, the dream had come back with a vengeance. It felt as real as the night it happened.
I don’t know what my contract to the Devil says. I don’t know why I work for him. He must have given me something important though. I know this because in exchange, I’m forbidden to look for my family. They are forever lost to me. Despite the pain, I can’t part with the image of them waving goodbye that day. I’ll hold onto it as long as I can.