In the Shadow of Malice
Almost midnight, an empty parking lot, no prying eyes.
Adam Blake hit the key fob, locking his sedan as he stepped out of the shadows. His senses picked up a hint of the wild honeysuckle that grew along the chain-linked fence lining the west side of Pete’s Diner. As a warm May breeze washed over him, he rolled the tension from his shoulders and scanned the perimeter. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary.
Quite frankly, the reason he kept coming back surprised the hell out of him. Even through the food was great, Adam craved the company the small diner provided. The regulars were all so damn normal. Adam needed normal.
His life had become a reflection of what he did for a living and he needed a drastic change. Pete’s Diner had become a baby step in that direction. The occasional hour spent with familiar strangers chased away his lonely, harsh existence.
From his position, he could identify the two people who remained in the deserted restaurant. The wizened old trucker was there on his weekly run from Norfolk, Virginia, to New Haven, Connecticut. The young woman sitting alone in one of the booths was the owner’s granddaughter. From what Adam could surmise, Calista Martin had no life outside the diner other than her music studies at the university a few miles down the road. The ever-present cello case propped on the bench next to her kept her company.
The double doors behind the counter opened and a big man in a navy blue double-breasted chef’s coat and sculled cap set a large silverware caddy on the counter. Pete Bradshaw was built like a guerrilla on steroids. Strands of blond-gray hair escaped the edges of his cap and gray stubble covered his chin. But what stood out most was the enormous fried egg skull tattoo on his left arm, the yellow yolk resting right in the center of the left eye socket.
Calista approached Pete as he poured coffee into a travel mug. The hard angles of his face softened when he glanced at her. He replaced the carafe back on the heating unit and a grin spread across his face. A bellowed cheer loud enough to rattle the windows followed as he lifted her into his arms and swung her around like she was a little girl. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and gave him a quick hug before turning to the trucker and hugging him as well.
The celebratory moment could only mean one thing: Calista Martin posted her final assignment for her master’s degree in music performance and secondary education. The bright smile on her face sent an unusual feeling of warmth into the pit of Adam’s stomach. For reasons he was too tired to define, a sense of pride for her accomplishments raced through him. He recognized the strength and dedication it took for Calista to follow her dream. Adam had no dreams other than to protect those he loved and to stay alive one more day.
Her beaming smile pulled at Adam like a magnet, forcing his feet to step closer to the entrance. Removing her arms from around the older man’s shoulder, she paused and turned toward the window. Their eyes held before she raised her hand and motioned for him to come inside. She moved toward the door and held it open for him.
“Am I too late for a quick burger?” Adam asked, closing the door behind him.
“The kitchen is still open. Pete will make you something.”
Calista lowered her eyes and eased away from him. A hint of pink came into her cheeks. She acted the same jitterish way every time he got too close. Most people gave him a wide berth and that was usually fine with him. But Calista was so open and friendly to everyone who came through the door. For some reason, it pissed him off that she treated him with the same wariness like everyone else did. He wanted that normal symbol of kindness she gave to others too, at least here.
The trucker set his ticket and a twenty down by the register. “Calista. Heading out.”
She stepped out of the path of the doorway. “Thanks, Nate. Be careful on the road tonight.”
“Always. And you get out of this grease-hole. Celebrate.” He placed a Nationals baseball cap on his head. “Yo, Pete. Where’s my jitter juice?”
“Watch your mouth, or the owner of this grease-hole may just spit in your next meatloaf.”
Pete’s voice was low, menacing, but his jovial expression gave away his true nature. He took the travel cup, waited a second for the last drip of fresh brewed coffee to drop into the carafe, and filled the oversized mug.
The scent of fresh, hot coffee wafted across the room, masking the overpowering odor of greasy fries. Adam inhaled, hoping the scent of caffeine would revive him. Pete took a cup from beneath the counter, filled it to the brim, and set it at Adam’s regular table.
“Same-old-same-old tonight, Adam?”
Adam took a deep sip of the hot brew. “That would be great, but make it to go. If I sit here for too long, I’ll be out for the night.”
“No problem. It will be right out,” he said before facing his granddaughter. Calista busied herself with wrapping silverware into napkins and then placing them in the caddy next to the menus. Pete took out another cup, filled it half full, and set it next to her.
“I can’t drink coffee this time of night,” she murmured at her grandfather like he should know better than to tempt her.
“Half a cup isn’t going to kill you.” A smirky grin appeared on his face. “Neither would a good roll … ”
“Pete! God, the things that come out of your mouth.” Calista picked up the mug and brought it to her nose, taking in the scent of the strong, rich brew. “And you can’t joke about spitting in people’s food.” She took a sip, closed her eyes and swallowed. A groan of pure pleasure rumbled in her throat.
Adam coughed out his coffee and almost swallowed his tongue. Calista Martin was a walking, talking sensual magnet if ever there was one. From her shoulder-length strawberry blond curls that bounced when she moved to those warm cocoa, almond eyes that made a man feel noticed, Calista was a natural beauty with a body that would give a blind man wet dreams. Her groan sent blood rushing to dormant places better left alone.
To hide the growl that slipped through his lips, he chortled. Calista gave him a hard glare but again quickly lowered her eyes. Pete let out another window-rattling laugh, which sent Calista’s cheeks and neck into a deep crimson glow. Before he returned through the swinging doors to the kitchen, he nudged her and said, “Tell Adam your news.”
“What news, Calista?”
“It’s nothing really. I just turned in my last assignment for my master’s degree.”
Adam rose, and lifting his coffee mug, tapped her mug lightly on the rim. “Congratulations. That’s fantastic.” He eased back into the booth. “So, what’s next for you?”
“After six years and 166 college credits, the only thing in my near future is uninterrupted sleep.”
Adam let out a chuckle. “Will you teach or perform?”
“Both. I have sent several audition tapes to orchestras and applied to just as many teaching positions. Now I have to see who bites. The best scenario is I’m hired to perform where I can also teach.”
When she lifted her eyes to meet his gaze, her mouth opened to say something, but all she produced was a noisy breath. She darted off her stool and pointed to the corner of his right eye. “You’re bleeding.”
Adam yanked a couple napkins from the dispenser and blotted the area around the small Band-Aid. A couple drops of blood must have pooled at the corner of the bandage and dripped down the side of his face. He gave the area a quick wipe, crumbled the napkin, and placed it in his pocket.
“It’s nothing. Work accident. A protester didn’t like the guy I was protecting. Threw a bottle at him but hit me instead. I should have grabbed a larger Band-Aid.”
“I don’t think it’s nothing.” She lifted his hair away from the area. “Have you seen it? The skin is turning a nasty shade of black and blue.”
Calista moved behind the counter and pulled out a first-aid kit. She approached the table, cupped his jaw in her hand, and gently peeled off the Band-Aid. The feel of her hand on his face sent an unexpected jolt through him. He shifted his face out of her reach. “It’s nothing.”
Ripping open the gauze package, she folded it in half, and laid it on the wound, applying pressure. Something sharp slid over the cut, making him cringe.
“Damn, that’s not helping, Calista.”
She removed the gauze. A small, brownish piece of glass was mixed in with the blood. “Pete said you run a security firm. Maybe you need to ask for combat pay.”
“Can’t ask for more pay if it’s your own company. I practically work for free so I can give my employees combat pay.” He then eased her hand away from his head, holding down the bandage himself. “Don’t fuss. It’s no big deal.”
“You could have a concussion, Adam.”
“I don’t.” He grabbed another swatch of gauze from the kit and ripped it open. He added a squeeze of antibiotic ointment, and attached it with tape to his forehead. “See, all better.”
Calista gave him a hard stare before she closed the first-aid kit and replaced it behind the counter. She picked up a spray bottle of cleaner and began to spray down the counter. “It’s your noggin.”
Pete came back through the kitchen door and set a to-go container down next to Adam before he addressed his granddaughter. “Put that rag down, Calista. You’re not closing tonight. Pack up and get out of here.”
“You let the other waitress go home. I’m all you’ve got. Besides, we shared a ride.”
“Believe it or not, I can manage without you. And the night my granddaughter earns her master’s degree, she doesn’t close down this grease trap. Take the car. I’ll catch a bus or walk home.”
Calista placed her hands on her hips. “I’m not leaving you to close by yourself and walk home. How are you going to go by and visit Mimi if you don’t have a car? I’ll take the bus.”
Adam stood. “I can give Calista a ride home.” He reached into his coat pocket for his wallet. Placing a twenty down next to the register like the last customer, he grabbed his to-go bag and leaned his shoulder against the door. “Calista, “I’m ready whenever you are.”
Calista busied herself by stuffing her laptop into her canvas bag, her fingers fidgeting with the zipper. As Adam waited for some sort of acknowledgment, he pushed down the irritation forming in the pit of his stomach. Even when he was trying to be a good guy, do a normal guy kind of thing, he was still treated like an asshole.
“It’s just a ride home, Calista. I’m too scared of your grandfather to try anything.”
“You don’t have to do that. The bus stop is right there,” she said, pointing toward the parking lot.
“I know where the bus stop is.” Adam reached for her large case and paused by the door.
She stood still, studying him until he almost fidgeted. “I don’t accept rides from anyone unless I know their last name.”
“Blake. Adam Blake.”
Calista first glanced at her grandfather. He gave her a nod. The room grew quiet while she made up her mind. She finally shrugged and said, “I would love a ride home. Lead the way.” She reached up and gave Pete a kiss on his cheek. “Give Mimi my love.”
“Your grandmother will be so proud of you. I can’t wait to tell her …”
He stopped as if his words clogged his throat.
“It’s okay, Pete. Mimi’s heart knows, her soul knows, and you’re right. She’s very proud of me.” Calista wiped away the tear that threatened to spill down her grandfather’s cheek. With another quick hug, she walked out to the parking lot.
Adam moved ahead of her, positioning his body so it shielded her between him and the building. A soft crunch near the dumpster sounded behind him. He froze. With his arms tight against his body, the familiar rush of adrenaline filled his veins. He shifted his position toward the dark shadows. A large calico cat bounced off the structure and disappeared into the bushes.
“That’s Max. He and Pete have an understanding.”
“It’s a cat. How do you have an understanding with a cat?”
“He brings Pete dead mice and Pete makes sure Max eats like a king.”
Adam chuckled. Something he seemed to do a lot around Calista. With one final visual sweep, he relaxed his stance and opened the passenger door of his Acura. After Calista was settled in the deep leather seat, he ambled around and unlocked the trunk, placing her cello in the bay. He slammed the trunk and got behind the wheel.
Before he could stop himself, he asked the question that had been bugging him. “I thought I heard your grandmother passed away a while back. Did I misunderstand?”
“No, you heard right.”
“But you just told Pete to …”
“He drives to the cemetery every night after he closes the diner, sits next to her gravestone, and tells her about his day. They were married fifty years. That isn’t a loss you ever get over.”
“And your parents? They are gone too?”
“Yes, it’s just Pete and me. Mom and Dad died in a car accident when I was eleven. Mimi and Pete raised me.” Calista twisted so she would face him. “What about you?”
“The same. Both parents gone.”
Adam hadn’t a clue why he brought the subject up. He had no business spending time with Calista outside the diner. That wasn’t a baby step into a normal existence, but a giant leap off a high cliff. His life made him hell on relationships.
But there was just something about Calista he couldn’t ignore. Maybe it was time to see if there was anything between them. If not, he could just walk away before he hurt her, too.
“I’m sorry about your parents.” She placed a hand over his arm. Their gazes held before she broke away and scanned the interior of his car. “I figured you would drive some sporty number or one of those black, mysterious SUVs.”
“What’s a black, mysterious SUV?”
“You know. One of those cool bulletproof numbers with blacked out windows.”
“Calista, just what do you think I do?”
“You’re like Batman.” Her voice was barely above a whisper and she squirmed in her seat, her gaze on a spot in her lap. “When you leave the diner, you return to your bat cave unless you’re out fighting bad guys.”
He grimaced. Now what, smartass? Lie to her, or tell her who you really are and what you do?
“Who knew music teachers had such active imaginations? I’m no superhero.”
He could never tell her what he did for a living. His path may have been chosen for him, but he hadn’t walked away when he had the chance.
“And I’m not a music teacher―yet.”
“You’re going to be hired so fast, your head will spin.” He placed the key in the ignition and started the car. Backing out of the space, he pulled onto the side street.
“Where are you going?” Her voice sounded normal.
Adam slowed and stopped at the light. “I’m taking you home.”
“But I didn’t tell you where I live.”
“Yeah, I guess I need that, don’t I? This is the way the Metro bus always turns.”
Calista grinned. “It’s not far. Take the second left. My neighborhood is a couple miles on the other side of the beltway. Once you pass over I-495, I’ll direct you.”
Following her directions, Adam headed north on the deserted street. The faded streetlights casted a fluorescent gloom over homes on either side of the street, but the lack of lighting didn’t distract from the well-cared neighborhood. People took pride in their homes much like the suburbs of Los Angeles, where he grew up. There was a time when someone like Calista was exactly the type of woman he dreamed of settling down with and raising a bunch of little Blakes. She had a kindness in her that he sorely missed. But with the twelve jaded, nightmarish years he had on her that he could never erase, that dream was gone. It couldn’t exist in his reality now.
“What’s wrong? You’re so tense.”
“Sorry, my mind was on something else.”
“If you get on the Beltway here, you can get off at the next exit, avoiding all the lights.”
Adam turned on his blinker and eased over a lane. Just as he entered the entrance ramp, a stabbing pain exploded in the back of his eyes, ricocheting across his frontal lobe. An involuntary, animalistic moan escaped through his clenched teeth and he squeezed his eyes shut against the searing pain. His hands shot up to cover his head as his foot slammed down on the accelerator. The car shot across the road, jumping the curb, and hurled up a slope. Adam hit the brake inches before the front bumper smashed into the trunk of an old oak tree. His forehead smashed into the horn, the blaring sound deafening.
Calista slammed the gearshift in park and shut off the ignition. She pulled his head away from the steering wheel. “Adam, what’s wrong?” She tried to remove his hands from his head, but he held on tight.
He couldn’t think, couldn’t reason. He swallowed the acidic bile in his throat. The blinding pain increased until he thought his head would burst. Then the sound of a child’s desperate cry filled his head. They’re hurting Mommy! Help her!
What the fuck was that? Every word of the child’s plea seemed to cut through his frontal lobe to the back of his head. A gripping panic slammed into him as he fumbled in his jacket pockets. “My cell. Find my cell.”
Calista searched his pockets. “Here, Adam. I’ll call 911.”
He dropped his head back against the seat. Everything around him faded in and out of focus—except Calista. The pain pounded between his ears as dark, red spotted dots swam over his vision, allowing only minimal light in. Sweat beaded around his eyes and screamed down his spine. He shook his head to clear his vision and grabbed the phone. It took a couple tries, but a line on the other end began to ring.
Calista gasped, her hands covering her mouth. “God, you’re bleeding again, but not from the wound on your head. It’s coming from your eyes.” She swiped a finger at the corner of his eye and her fingers came away dripping with his blood. “I need to get you to a hospital.”
He began to shake his head, but the pain was so bad, he froze. The phone continued to ring in his ear. Eighth ring, ninth. On the tenth ring, it was picked up.
“Rina.” His best friend’s name came out in a raspy whisper. “Rina.”
“Katrina is a little busy right now, Blake. Why don’t you join the party?”
The man’s voice came out in a thick, rough, eastern European accent. Adam recognized it and a chill spiked through him.
The agony in the scream he heard next pierced Adam’s heart. He shoved down the sharp pain in his head and allowed the years of training to resurfaced.
“You’re dead, Ludis. You hear me. Your fucking life is over,” he ground out.
“Big words. I’m going to carve her open then hunt down the kid. Your kid, you motherfucker. And when I’m done with her, I’m coming for you.”