“I dare you.”
Three words Josh loved to hear when he was a kid. They always resembled some kind of wimpy fighter stepping into the ring with him. There was no way he’d back down. Ever. Even if it meant near death.
Josh knew it wasn’t bravery that coursed through his veins. Stupidity was the word often used, but he knew he wasn’t some dimwit. Josh knew enough of those in life. Plenty of them. These complete morons, pretty much all guys, just sucking air and living life as if they were some character in a video game. Not the one playing the game but the one waiting to be turned on and picked and played out. Complete and utter fools.
As Josh stepped in the kitchen of the mansion, smelling that familiar lilac smell that always seemed to fill the first floor of this house, he thought about the dares and the morons. Josh wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t brave.
Maybe that was the word.
That was another good word. He wasn’t a fool because he always was being led ahead. Like tonight, he was usually pulled by his heart.
He tugged at his jeans that still felt too loose. Somehow Josh had lost some weight in the last few weeks, and it wasn’t like he was a candidate for some lose-the-fat reality show. But the busy nights and all the Carmella drama had made this whole thing of working out and eating a bit irrelevant. Women and work were far more intoxicating than any kind of meal or muscle might be.
Note to self. Get something really hideously awful for you to get a little meat back on your bones.
The lights were off but she was never downstairs anyway. Josh knew where to go.
“Good evening,” a voice said as the recessed lighting burst out above him. “Or maybe I should say good morning.”
Josh jerked back a bit and saw the short, round pug of a man who owned this house.
“Mr. Worth,” Morales said as he walked toward the long island standing between the two of them.
Josh remembered the famous line from Goldfinger.
“Do you expect me to talk?”
“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”
Morales examined him for a moment.
“Josh–you are a very, very stupid man. Good-looking yes. I guess. I don’t know. But I’ll give you that. But very stupid.”
She’s not here.
He suddenly knew this. Josh also knew that odds were high that he was going to die in the next few hours.
The hard edge of the wood countertop poked against his rear. Josh scanned the kitchen in a way he had never done before. To see if anybody else was around. To see if Morales had any kind of weapon. Then to see if there was any kind of way out.
All three things were negatives.
“You look surprised. Ah how we trust these little things.”
Pudgy fingers held on to a cell phone with a pink case that Josh recognized.
“Where is she?”
“What?” Morales said. “No greeting? Nothing?”
Once again Josh tried to scan for something or anything. He knew enough about the guy facing him to decide not to run. Morales wasn’t alone. That was certain.
“Do you know that when I was young—just eight or nine—I ran around town with a bunch of older kids. Hoodlums as the neighborhood called them. This was in the bad part of Miami, in the places the movies and television shows never bother to highlight. I remember once after we vandalized some older guy’s house—he had to be one hundred years old or something—he caught us and brought us back to his house and I swear that night I thought I was going to die.”
Josh always assumed Morales would have more of an accent. Perhaps sounding like Scarface or at least some really good druglord. This guy only sounded like some frustrated owner of a burrito restaurant.
“This old guy made us pay for the damages we’d done on his property. He made certain that we understood that it was his property. We had to stay for hours cleaning up and working for him. He was like some kind of Nazi, and I really believed he could have hurt us.”
Morales walked around the island. The loose, white pants and button-down beach shirt looked casual in the way a sporty Mercedes Benz might.
“Now my question, Mr. Worth. How exactly are you going to pay for the damages against my property?”
Josh glanced behind him and saw a set of wine bottles in some elaborate rack. He knew there was a wine cellar in the basement. This was simply for show, for the wine-to-go drive through.
The high forehead and round face showed off Morales’s dark tan. He stepped within a few feet of Josh.
“You’re a weak man, Mr. Worth. I know one when I see one. You take pictures of mostly naked women and you sleep with them and you think that accolades and getting laid make you strong but you are incredibly weak.”
For a brief moment, Morales looked down and then reached into his loose pocket to grab his small phone. Someone had sent him a message he was reading now.
One of the hands behind Josh’s back clawed at the counter and then found the thing he’d spotted in the corner of his eye. He shoved it in his back jeans pocket.
“Where is Carmella?” Josh asked.
“I love your sense of loyalty. You steal from me and yet you want to know where the goods are you stole.”
“Where is she?” he repeated.
“Oh, I don’t know. Honestly. I do know where her phone happens to be. You know our Carmella. Such a fragile, unpredictable little thing. She called me from someone else’s phone from Asheville today. From some kind of grove or something, babbling on and behaving like a sixth grader.”
“What are you going to do about her?” Josh asked.
“You haven’t even asked what I’m going to do about you.”
“I don’t need to.”
Morales gave a nod and then took a wine bottle off the large counter. He just stared at the unopened bottle, then gave a laugh.
“Nothing. That’s how I’m handling Carmella. You know her. Her gifts. Right? Why would I do anything to prevent her from using them? Once she hears-and sees—and yes she’ll see what happens to you—then she’ll have to come back around to know for sure. Once she believes what can happen to men like you–she’ll come back around. They always do “
The metal in his back pocket poked at him. He couldn’t let Morales or anybody else see it.
It was his one and only key to somehow getting out of this mess.