Every relationship starts getting serious. One of the key indicators was to meet each other’s friends. Harold was up first. He had planned to gain even more trust from Sienna by introducing Antonio to her at a bar. The laid back meeting place was to help things go right and drown out if things went wrong. Antonio always seemed to be at home in a bar. Sienna was not a bar person but Harold would be there for her. Besides she had the night off. A night where Sienna could unwind was rare, and she was going to enjoy it.
The relationship was a fake. Harold knew he had to make it real in appearance. Trust was the only way to gain access to the camera monitors. As minor as it seemed, the building he was targeting was essential for shipping the inventory all over the country. It would also be another fire that a public relations guru could not make disappear without explanation.
Following the first fire, a company spokesman immediately reacted. Successfully diverting the blame for leaving the building in a state where it could catch fire. The focus was shifted to the heroics of the police force saving the homeless man from death. A well funded legal team ensured the investigation did not ruin the company name. Harold hated watching the company act like they had the politicians in their pocket. He wondered if they did. The effort and risk he took yielded no rewards. The next target had to be located in a highly populated area. It would have to be a blaze that was not simply extinguished. The fire would be fueled by the inventory to create a sore the company could not easily explain away. Black smoke from burning rubber would beacon all eyes to the company that ruined his life.
Sienna would be a casualty of the financial fallout. He had grown attached to her but not enough to keep from reaching his goal. Any act he did and was caught doing would be traced back to her. Perception was reality in the court of public opinion. The sentence would be handed down to her family. It was a sacrifice Harold was willing to make. He felt the least he could do was to take her out to a nice dinner and drinks. When this was all over he may even want to date her without ulterior motives. Surely she could understand the need for such a sacrifice, Harold justified.
Sienna had dressed like a real person she thought. It was a chance for her to get out in a dress. The fit was a little bit snugger since last time she wore it. Quite some time had passed since she was able to justify wearing date clothes. If it was not going to be tonight, what major event would have to happen for her to pull them out of her closet? Debating with herself had become one of Sienna’s past times. The usual answer was the least attractive one. Tonight, she was bucking the trend. She was choosing to feel the most attractive. The kids were with a babysitter so tonight it was time to have real adult fun. Harold had brought that back into her life. She did not want to say anything and chase him away, even though, she was falling for him. It had been so long since she reached this point with anyone, that it scared her on how he would react.
Antonio was running a bit late, giving Harold time to show his getaway place to his date. Times where she would send him a message were answered from this very bar he said almost proudly. He did not include the part where it was the safe haven after Jess left him. Calling the regulars and bartender by name and getting a return of the salutation, made Harold appear to be important. He at least felt that way. It was nice to see her guy was popular. Part of the single mother wished it was not in a bar. Confidence was not lacking from him here though. That part impressed her.
Bar scenes were abandoned far into her past, Sienna barely remembered them. She whispered a joke to Harold she figured it would be a man who drove her back to one. Shared laughs were part of the bonding of their relationship. It had been a long time since she allowed her guard down enough to risk forming that bond. Even her children were noticing the change in her demeanor. The smile she carried had been permanent for the last few times she had talked with him. It had been awhile since she had called herself anyone’s girlfriend. Harold was going to change that.
Drinks flowed as the wait for Antonio drug on. Her rule of a two drink maximum had already been broken. The words started flowing more as the wall of niceties were drowned away. The volume of her voice was getting loud enough to compete with the growing background noise of the jukebox. Smiling was a new constant as the jokes between her and Harold revealed a genuine chemistry. Then in one quick flashback the laughter was cut. Memories from work rarely were happy. The memory of the slender but somewhat tall man approaching the table was a work memory. Fears were realized when Harold rose to greet him.
“Antonio, this is the woman who has been stealing my time.” Harold announced proudly as he pointed toward Sienna. Those words created a nightmare scenario. Antonio was the man, who more than likely was the murderer from the other day. She had already given his description to the police. Part of her wondered if she should sneak away and call the police.
“Nice to meet you Sienna,” Antonio presented his hand for the greeting. Holding it in place awaiting the seated woman, Harold’s friend wanted to make a good first impression. Her tension was not hard for him to sense. One of Antonio’s natural gifts was to understand other’s feelings with a few hints. A few drunken nights Harold told him he missed his calling. The occupations he stated how it would help ranged from poker ace to psychologist. “Harold has told me so much about you.”
Reluctantly Sienna offered her hand back. Her line of work must have already been known if Harold mentioned much about her. “Nice to meet you, too,” the tone was a little more flat than his greeting. Acting was never her strong suit. Her kids made sure she was well aware of that fact.
“Do I know you?” The bit of familiarity struck Antonio quickly. He knew exactly where he had seen the security guard before. Several times their paths seemed to cross. one in recent enough memory where she would remember. “I swear you look familiar.” Tension had developed the moment their eyes met. Antonio was just adding to it by bringing the question up.
“I agree you do look a bit familiar. Do you work at Stanley?” Sienna caught the misdirection of tension and shifted it back to him. She knew he was not an employee, but mentioning where she had seen him might make him uncomfortable. She honestly wanted the tension to reside entirely with their dinner companion. A confession of why he was at the location of the murder might give her clarity on what to tell Harold.
“I used to.” Anger mixed into the answer. “Moved on to better things,” Antonio was trying to make himself sound better. He had experienced the judgment of people when they heard of a lost job. Pride was struck when they cast their eyes. The reasons for the job loss never seemed to matter. Unemployment was a status that people immediately inserted into a stranger’s character.
Tension doubled in the air as Antonio took his seat. It almost knocked Harold over. Girlfriend and friend were the two assets of his life. Both the plan and the cover relied on the two sitting at the table. Harold would have to cut the tension to save the separate relationships. “Sienna works for their central security.” Fake pride was a smokescreen to subdue her. Antonio would follow his lead he hoped. There was too much at stake for him to chase her away.
“Must be a nice job,” Antonio picked up on Harold’s lead. “When I worked there we never ran into them, but we knew they were there.” Wounded pride shrank. “I have to admit it is work I could not do. Staring at the same screen for hours would put me to sleep.”
“There are days.” Harold interrupted her intent. For the sake of the evening she would move forward with the conversation. Wary that she might be having dinner with a killer Sienna kept her guard up. No matter what she was doing she would keep a watchful eye on their dinner guest. “You learn to make a game of it, craving every little movement.”
“I bet.” It was not hard to see that Harold’s romantic interest was not going to trust him. All the sidekick could do was to play the small talk game. It may be a form of communication, but all he was doing was making noise with the other two. Antonio wondered which of his acts of defiance was caught on camera.
Her patrol revealed Antonio’s victim. Media went wild when the police reported the body. Sienna kept her mouth shut about what she had seen. The attention on the News would put a spotlight on her that she did not want. Harold was the only person she had informed. One thing she did not mention was a description of the man she witnessed fleeing. If she had discussed that with him this meeting might have never take place. Their relationship might not be strong enough yet for her to cause legal problems for his friends. As much as Sienna wanted to do the right thing Harold might be her future.
“What was that murdered body found on your guy’s property all about?” Antonio wanted to play off what he did know. There were few brief moments he could recall about that night. After the news announcement there was a bit of wonder if Harold had anything to do with it. Antonio was well aware of Harold’s stance on taking a life, but part of him wondered if he had broken that yet. They had a mission and some of his partner’s convictions were getting in the way. Still, there was a moment where Harold had ventured away by himself.
Sienna could not believe the guy she had just met was fishing for inside information. The report she gave the cops was not public knowledge as far as she was concerned. There was a line she did not want to cross and become one of ‘those’ girlfriends, but Harold’s friend was not winning her over. “I was actually stuck behind the cameras that night. No one tells me anything.”
Harold chimed in. He knew they were there that night and caught a break by not going through with their plans. “Don’t worry. I am sure with all the hassle that would ensue; you got a break not hearing anything.”
Conversations can provide entertainment or information. They can carry reassurances or humor. The trio’s talk was nervous attempt at killing time. The laughs were few and far between. Forced interest was a prevalent cloud. Antonio had started off on a bad side of Sienna and did nothing to change her opinion. Interrogating the security guard, provided no real information for Antonio. It was a waste of an evening.
Sliding his chair away from the table, Antonio prepared to depart. “The evening has been fun, but I am afraid, I am getting too old to stay up much later. You two have fun and be safe.” He was younger than Harold but Antonio was well aware of his status. The longer the third wheel stayed the longer his friend had to entertain him. Nothing was truly gained for him from the meeting. He had plans of his own that required his focus and energy.
“Are you sure you have to go?” Feigned concern would earn Sienna points. She liked Harold. His friend’s approval meant nothing in the grand scheme. She invested a lot into this relationship. Faking sympathy for someone he cared about was not that much more of an investment.
“I am afraid I must.” Maybe Harold was deceived but Antonio knew the ploy she was playing. He was not wanted there. They needed her as an unknowing accomplice. Money was running low. An outside motivation from personal justice was driving Antonio. Harold had not yet reached the level of desperation where he could partner with Antonio’s other schemes. The forces out in the city were darker than his blue collar life could currently comprehend. Antonio was ready to be a tutor. The student was not yet ready to accept the lesson. Slamming his last twenty dollar bill on the table, “you two have a drink on me as payment for the company.”
Harold rose to his feet. “I appreciate it. Are you sure you cannot stay?” Sienna was not happy in the delay. The option had already been presented and turned down. She just wanted him gone. She craved have alone time with her possible love.
“Really, you two have a good night. I will look you up tomorrow man.” The departure was a game. Sienna had played it well. She displayed a care for his friend’s company when there wasn’t any. He knew Harold was smart enough to see it as well. A final verdict Antonio issued was that Sienna would be no problem to their plans.
As his friend departed through the door, Harold returned his attention to his date. She was anxious and ready to ambush him with all the questions she had been holding back. “How long have you two been friends?” The opening question was pretty harmless. It would take a little stealth to work up to the actions of the other night.
Harold had been ready. The spotlight had clearly hit him the moment the two people left in his world met. “We have been friends for over a decade, ever since I taught him how to steal a pop from the machine at our old work place.” Bragging about ripping off his former and her current company, made Harold feel a little empowered. He spent the next few minutes relaying the story, and how stingy the break room machines were. Even after they had been paid, they still had to be shaken to pay out their end of the bargain.
A long detailed explanation did not dissuade her from her goal. After a few more harmless questions she struck straight to the point. “Did you hang out with him a few nights ago?” The thought of the murder and Antonio at the scene, made her pray Harold had not been involved.
Immediately a fear that they had been spotted and identified put Harold at unease. If she placed him at the place of a potential crime, he would never be able to use her. The access Sienna’s job provided him would be closed off. All the effort placed in earning the trust would be wasted. “No,” hiding the defensive tone was hard. “I told you I was home and went straight to bed.” Showing her the text messages they exchanged that night as proof.
The bar seemed to enclose on Harold as he felt the sudden judgment. If he failed to convince her, all was going to be lost. Something in particular seemed to draw a judging look on him. It was a face he swore he had seen before but could not place where. The woman was enjoying her drink as she was writing notes with her quill pen. He had to be drunk Harold justified. No one used quill pens anymore. He had to deflect the questions back to Sienna. Whatever she knew he had to dig out, He wanted to confront and disarm it. “Why what did he do?” Ignorance played in his tone. Pride was taken in the ability to portray a clueless man, when it came to these types of conversations. Jess had helped him perfect the art when they were married.
“I am just curious.” Sienna was not as good as playing ignorant. Telling her partner that his friend was a murderer would place a strain on their future. Still she wondered if he would be strong enough to handle the truth. Truth would eventually come out. Would she be punished for hiding it from him?
“There is more to it isn’t there?” Harold felt compelled to call out her lie. It would be the only way to get to what she truly knew. “You have seen him before with your work haven’t you?”
Saying anything would have been the way to avoid this confrontation. She lacked the foresight to know that. The struggle in her mind was larger than she perceived it would be. How much would be lost if she spoke the truth? How much respect would she lose? The fear of going back to being alone was trumping all other emotions. She did not want to lose her man. The bar was full of women who would gladly take him off her hands. One particular woman caught Sienna’s eyes, the reddish haired woman with that stupid pen. The woman’s face was familiar, and even though the city was pretty big, familiar faces crossed paths often. Still Sienna could not place where. The intrigue did not take her prisoner as she turned to her man. “I was curious how much time you two spend together.”
A sight that was not common enough for the rest of the worker’s at the shelter, was the young college girls on the serving line. The two girls were both owners of flawless faces, painted more for a night out than serving the poor. Their hair must have taken hours of time. Men who had been without real food for days were more distracted by the two girls then they were finally beating starvation. Holidays brought an influx of volunteers but not usually during this time of year. There were no holidays close enough to guilt the young, obviously rich girls to the shelter. They were either doing the act out of kindness or because it was to be closer to someone else in the volunteer staff. Antonio could sense things like that at any distance. It was a common act with people their age.
The shorter blonde was visibly unhappy to be there. She looked to be out of her element by not being in charge. It added to her discomfort. Not to the point however where she would be a suitable candidate to recruit. He needed desperation. The darker haired companion invading a coworker’s personal space would never let her leave anyway. While the two young girls were pleasant to his eyes, they were not conducive to his plans.
Long bench seating provided an excuse to slam his tray and body down next to someone and start a conversation. Antonio could almost smell desperation levels on anyone. What got in his way were personal morals the person may have. He felt his job in finding the right partner, was to find someone who he could persuade away from those moral obstructions. He prided himself on never being stopped by those morals. Some targets took longer than others.
Part of the free meal that was received was hearing a sermon. For most it was a small price to pay for a meal that was not from a dumpster. Antonio used the sermons to gauge his potential targets by how well they were paying attention. He wanted someone who was either too intent or too disinterested. Too intent meant they were at a point where they had hit rock bottom if he could reach them they would be easy to manipulate. He could use one last crime as a means to a better life. If the target was not interested, it was due to the belief they did not think the sermon applied to them. Their luck had been down for so long that they no longer believed anyone was looking out for them. It was sort of a game to him to find the right ones.
Judith and Marie could not be more opposite than the two girls in the serving line. Both had experienced real life. Scars of wisdom had covered their faces. Their hair had dulled a little bit from the time they were the serving line girl’s age. The roads life had lead them on, ultimately, ended up in this shelter. Misery bonds friends quickly, and the two had become inseparable, even though they were opposites.
Marie was listening intent to the sermon. Each word drilled a permanent look of attention on her face. Latching onto the message as if it were meant entirely for her, she had become a focus of Antonio. He was immediately sold on the duo when he noticed the disdain Judith recoiled with every moment she heard a word over the slurping of her soup.
Antonio became the snake moving silently weaving through the forest of people. Sitting across from the women they immediately had the sense not to talk to him. His words came out so seductive to changing their lives, they had no choice but to listen. “How would you like to change your lives for good?”
Marie sighed a bit of relief as she was finally brave enough to fund her redemption. Each handful placed into the bag was a step closer to climbing out of the gutter. It amazed the former clerk that a store would keep this much cash at its location. The other troubling part was that for as much money that was kept on location, there was no real security in place. It was the blessing she had hoped and prayed for all those times. The ease of the moment assured her conscious that this was meant to be.
Judith did not believe in the answered prayer theory. She bought into the naïve owner theory. It amazed her that such carelessness would have been taken in handling someone’s assets. Having never spent much time around a business that produced money she could only speculate one would take better care. The small store had existed only a short time, and from what she could tell, its main item was lottery tickets. No inventory seemed to be that attractive even to slip in a pocket. The target made the older woman feel insecure about the safety and ease of the cash. Feeling the store had another purpose, could not be easily dismissed. Despite Antonio’s explanation of immigrant owners Judith had been around long enough to know something was not right.
Shadows seemed to have become Antonio’s comfort zone. While the women did the work, he hid in them. Even an easy mark needed a lookout to make sure schemes went smoothly. Whether the scheme was to turn a good natured woman into a thief or a good hearted man into a murderer, it always helped if there was no interference. Antonio was there to prevent the interference of wealth changing hands. The women’s lives would be changed forever after this. It would not hurt that he got a boost from it as well. Bringing Harold down this path seemed impossible but he was not going to give up. Profit was to be made now that the doors had been opened. Greed had a way of trumping desperation. Antonio was leading the desperate away from their shadows.
Whipping the money into the bag at a faster pace, Judith felt the growing sense of impending doom. They had to hurry and get the deed done quickly. She had a trust in Antonio but it was not enough to overthrow her growing suspicion. Something was going to happen, even though they had taken precautions, it would not be enough to deter the bad. Every change of light, every flicker of a bulb on the flashlights grew the unnerving feeling. It was becoming well fed at the buffet of Judith’s worry. The creaking in the floor originated at Marie’s feet. The money was not going into the bag fast enough.
A hand flew up quickly from Antonio. He needed all the movement to stop as a familiar feeling had crossed him. New accomplishes did not catch the signal right away. Annoyance replaced the worry for a moment as he repeated the action. Finally, the rookies to crime caught the meaning. Their muscles tensed as all movement stopped. Sound of each breath magnified. A threat to his profit and safety had made itself known.
Painted glass flew as it shattered. The projectiles sliced the skin of Antonio’s cheek. Pain did not follow the trickles of his blood. A warning gave him enough time to lower his head out of the brick’s way. It was a distraction to the trio as soon after the soft thud of six shots chased in the open window. A suppressed flash meant the gunman was not a minor thug. Familiar noises can trigger memories, this time it triggered another robbery gone bad. The party that looked over the other shop a few streets down apparently also watched over this place. Silenced pistol shots had created a memory that Antonio had hoped never to repeat. To his dismay, he was reliving that moment now.
Concern for his two minions disappeared the second the window shattered. Escaping became his only purpose. Survival outweighed the need to keep the two women alive. He knew he made the right decision when his legs pushed him past the two slumping bodies. He almost tripped over Judith. Painful desperation had caused her hand to lurch forward. She had survived on the street for a long time. Sadly, she was going to die when she tried to leave it.
The groans of pain from Marie let Antonio know both women were still alive. Two deaths would not be added to his tally today. Their passing truly would not have bothered him. Real damage would come if it became his reputation that partnering with him would lead to certain death. Bleeding to death may be in their future that blood would not be on his hands. The crime’s lookout could live with knowing that. A quick kick of his leg freed him from Judith’s dying clutch.
Springing to his feet Antonio once again was upright. Silenced shots no longer were a threat as the flashing of sirens replaced them. Silent alarms must have informed a monitoring company that the store was being robbed. Whoever was the guardian of these neighborhoods would have to wait for his justice later. The police were calling dibs on bringing Antonio in.
Reaching the back door, he noticed the familiar red and blue lights shine through the cracks around the door frame. He had no choice he would have to find a place to hide. An opportunity to escape would have to present itself. Antonio felt too important to go down by a petty break in and robbery.
Clemmons was the first one in the door. Within a breath behind him followed his back up. With weapons raised, their arms crossed with flashlights to make the light parallel to the barrels. Nerves stayed focused as the possibility of an armed bandit became a real possibility. Two bodies with non lethal shots in their shoulders were on the floor. Writhing in pain on the floor in a growing pool of blood, it was not hard to know they were part of the original crime gone wrong. The lack of a gun meant there was at least one other person to find.
Nights like tonight made time go by fast for the officers. A bit of adrenaline hit Clemmons when he noticed the two women. Robberies were one thing but the area seemed to have more than its share of bodies the last few days. Securing the scene was a priority. They could get paramedics in to look at the women’s injuries as soon as it was safe. Each minute the search took lowered the women’s chances for survival a percentage.
Ever since the first statement about Antonio that the veteran officer took he had painted an appearance in his mind. Vision of what the man’s appearance would be had occupied Clemmons. When the flashlight shined on the hiding man, Clemmons knew he had met the man. There was no real place for him to hide; Antonio had hoped the injured women would have distracted the officers. Any delay in the police search would have created the cloak Antonio could use to make his escape. That cloak never shrouded the look out.
“Get on the ground and keep your hands visible.” The stories had created a bias Clemmons could not hide. He could not blame bad decisions on the man who was getting in the prone position in front of him. It was very clear that Antonio was a catalyst.
Judith looked at Marie. The women had gone this route to get out of the gutter. They had placed a lot of trust in Antonio’s promise that he would get them out of the shelter. Neither woman could have imagined they would replace the shelter or street with prison. She let out a painful grunt as she had a moment of clarity that the recruiter to the life of crime kept his promise.
Thanks to Rick Rupert for the excellent photography for this chapter. Contact him at Rupertrick@gmail.com to inquire about his work.