Chapter 1

Copyright© 2009 by Jay Cantrell

I inherited the family business. But I try to keep from letting the family business define me.

The business defined my father — and that definition was the death of my mother many years too early.

I believe the official term is "organized crime." But my business is known by many names: La Cosa Nostra, The Mob, Mafia, The Syndicate. But it is a new era. Many of my interests are legitimate.

My portfolio includes investments in restaurants, auto parts chains, grocery stores and manufacturing plants. My charitable contributions include donations to low-cost health clinics, no-kill animal shelters and safe havens for domestic abuse victims.

In short, I'm trying to be the man my father never was. I firmly contend that any single selfless act I commit is one more than he ever considered. Simply put, my father was not a nice man.

There is a portion of my domain that are somewhere on the south side of legal. As with many illegitimate concerns, those interests consume a large portion of my time. I have tried delegation with little success. The men and women who populate my profession are, to a person, immoral, greedy and power-hungry.

I can delegate my legitimate business far easier despite the fact that many people I deal with there are exactly the same: immoral, greedy and power-hungry. If the manager of a grocery store oversteps his bounds, I fire him. If the manager of my bookmaking business oversteps his bounds, I'm forced to take more drastic steps.

I'm really not cut out for the drastic portion of the business.

I do have a human side and it is the side of me I prefer. To that end, I have divested myself of any drug interests. I abhor drugs and their users. Drugs are the single largest thief of dignity in the world. I have seen drug dealers sell their product to 10-year-olds. I have seen drug users sell their 15-year-old daughters for their next fix. It is appalling.

There was no end to the offers when I made the decision to rid myself of my drug-funded holdings. Although drugs are the scourge of humanity, they are a cash-filled industry that requires very little skill except ruthlessness. If you are young, stupid and not afraid to kill someone, the drug trade is for you.

I am not quite young, educated and value human life so I avoid it. It really is that simple.

Although I am respectful of humanity, I do possess a touch of my father's ruthlessness. Unfortunately it is a necessity in my line of work.

When I find physical confrontation necessary I generally handle it myself. I believe it was my father's decision to delegate the parts of the job he found distasteful that made him such a bastard.

My father was a coward when it came to confrontation. He could sit back and order a man's death without batting an eyelash. He could pick up the phone and order the destruction of an entire family between the dinner and an aperitif. He lost his grasp on humanity.

That loss of humanity was the reason I found it necessary to kill him. His decisions and lack of valor led to my mother's death and, thusly, his. But there is no reason to dwell on the unpleasant.

I believe that it is in my long-term best interests — mentally, physically and spiritually — to hold myself to the same standards of those I employ. It keeps me grounded in reality and it allows me to maintain my civility.

It is that civility that is at the root of my story.

One of the portions of my life I like least is when it is necessary to "brace" someone. It rarely happens that I have to get involved personally. While it is true that any action more severe than a beating requires my intervention, it also is true that more often than not the threat of a beating is enough to convince a deadbeat to pay his debt — especially if it comes directly from me.

But alas, more often than not is not always. So there are times when I find myself where I found myself that rainy Monday night: outside some poor bastard's house because he had exhausted my patience.

In this case, the man was Leo Gomez. He had borrowed $25,000 from my agents and his payments had stopped arriving. He had been continually late. I often forgave late fees for one simple reason: if you're dumb enough to borrow money from a man who makes his living the way I do, you probably didn't have many other options.

Still, it is a matter of personal pride that I pay my debts. At the very least I expect to be notified if you can not pay your debts. Leo Gomez failed on both accounts — which meant my personal involvement in the matter.

I rang the doorbell of the small split-level house and waited. I was certain that I would wind up breaking down the door to gain entry so I was somewhat startled with the door flew open. It is rare that I enter these situations alone. But I had met Leo Gomez personally and I wasn't worried about him.

Instead of Leo, I was face to face with a small, blonde woman of about my age. There was a fire in her eyes. I was glad that I had my hand on my gun in my overcoat pocket. There was a younger version of her standing discreetly behind her.

"Good evening, Ma'am," I said politely. "I'm looking for Mr. Gomez."

The woman's gaze never flickered.

"If you're a bill collector you're just going to have to take a number," she said.

I smiled. I have been told my smile is disarming. I hoped it was true because disarming is what I was going for.

"I suppose you might say that I am a collection agent," I said noncommittally. "But Ma'am, people like me don't often wait in line to be paid. I have been very patient with Mr. Gomez. May I assume he is your husband?"

While she was processing the information I noticed a scent.

"Mrs. Gomez, could you and your daughter please step outside the house," I said. "I believe you have a gas leak."

"I told you I smelled gas, Mom!" the girl said sharply.

The woman glared at her.

"You're here to break my legs!" she said. It appeared as though my disarming smile had failed. "There is no way I'm stepping outside with you."

I decided honesty was the best answer.

"Actually Mrs. Gomez, we are past the leg breaking stage," I said. "I am willing to wait in my car while you and your daughter leave safely. I have no quarrel with you or her."

The woman laughed in my face.

"Yeah," she snarled. "We'll just make a break for it on foot in the rain while you chase us down. Look, pal, he's gone. He left us high and dry. He took all the money and the car and left me all the bills."

"Mrs. Gomez, at this point I care more about your safety than the return of my money," I said. She certainly wasn't expecting that reply. "Eventually, I will find your husband and I will get my donation back. Now please, the smell of gas is very strong. If you promise to vacate the house immediately, I will leave for now. Is there anyone else in the house that we need to get outside?"

The woman motioned for her daughter to follow her outside. I admit that I felt a sense of relief.

"If you would like, I will give you the keys to my car," I said as I pulled the keys and my cell phone from my pocket. "You can lock the doors or drive it to any place you need to go to feel safe. Right now, would you be so kind as to contact 411 and get the number to the gas company so you can notify them. I'm going to go around back and look for an emergency shut off."

The woman was still staring at me. But she took my keys and my phone and headed with her daughter in tow to the safety of my Mercedes.

The backyard was lit only by moonlight when I came around the corner. I am a naturally cautious man — in my business, it only makes sense — and my caution was rewarded.

There was figure sneaking through the neighbor's trees toward the Gomez house. I didn't need a second glace to recognize Ricky Scudaro, a relatively small-time criminal born without the sense that God gave to geese.

He stopped in his tracks when he saw me and immediately high tailed it in the other direction. As I watched his retreating back, I reached for my cell phone only to curse myself for giving to the Gomez woman.

However, I was certain that Marcus, my aide, would be able to locate Mr. Scudaro in short order. The man was too stupid to bother to hide and I was certain he would be found at the nearest bar or, eventually, his mother's house.

I shut off the gas to the house and went back around front. I was somewhat surprised that my car was still in front. I smiled when I heard the heater motor kick on.

Mrs. Gomez lowered the window slightly when I knocked on it.

"The gas is shut off for now," I said. "Did you notify the gas company?"

She nodded that she had.

"Very well," I said. "Do you and your daughter have somewhere else to go?"

For the first time I saw something other than anger in the woman's eyes. I wasn't certain but I thought it was pain.

"No," she said sadly. "Will you drop us off at a shelter? The gas company can't come until tomorrow or the day after. I'm supposed to call them and let them know if you managed to shut it off. Can I use your phone again?"

I smiled warmly — a coup since I was freezing my rear end off in the cold rain.

"Of course you can," I said. "Mrs. Gomez, I told you. I have no problem with you or your daughter. I will assist you however I can."

The woman finished the call and I asked for my phone.

I called a local hotel in which I held a vested interest and spoke quietly to the owner. He assured me it was no problem to house the Gomez women for a day or two in one of the suites to which I have access.

"Mrs. Gomez, my name in Michael McPherson," I said and women's eyes widened in horror. I'm sorry to say it has the effect on many people thanks to my father and namesake's irrational urges.

"The Second," I added hastily. My father's disappearance had hit the news a year or so earlier but I had tried to maintain a low-key persona in my role as his successor. Of course only Marcus and I were certain that he wasn't coming back.

"I have made arrangements for you and your daughter to stay at the Watkins Inn," I continued. "I believe it will be best for you to stay there for a few days, perhaps until this weekend. Will it present a major problem for you?"

"Other than the fact that I would have to sell a kidney to afford one night at the Watkins Inn, no problem at all," she said sarcastically.

"It is my treat," I said. "I believe that you should go there as soon as possible. Perhaps it would be better if you simply picked up some clothes and toiletries for the next few days rather than try to get anything from the house until we're certain it is safe."

I peeled off $500 from my money clip.

The woman refused to take it.

"There is no way I'm taking money from a mobster," she said. "I take the money and in two days I owe you twice as much. I'm sure that's how Leo got in over his head."

"Mobster is passé," I replied nicely as I handed her my business card. "As you can see, I prefer the term 'private lender.' Mrs. Gomez, your husband got in over his head because he likes to lie and gamble and he likes to drink. I am asking for no interest on the money I loaned to him. I believe it was a mistake to do business with him and I want to conclude that business. In your instance, however, the money is not a loan. It is necessary for you to stay elsewhere. You have no place else to stay. It is necessary for you to have clothing and shampoo and toothbrushes. I would doubt you have the expendable cash for those items. It is necessary that you eat. I doubt it is in your budget to eat out for a few days."

The girl looked up at me across her mother and smiled.

"It's really not in our budget to eat in for a few days either," she said gamely. "Mom wasn't kidding. Dad took every penny. He waited until her paycheck was deposited and split."

I upgraded the girl's age from my initial impression of around 12 to a more accurate range of mid-teens.

I smiled back at the girl.

"Unfortunately, your father preyed on one of my weaknesses to secure the loan," I told her. "He led me to believe he had a very sick child at home and he needed the money for treatment. Mrs. Gomez, I am not a monster. I am willing to help because I can help and, frankly, you need help."

The woman grudgingly took the money from my grasp.

"It is a loan," she said. Then she smiled. She was a very pretty woman. She seemed much too young to have a teenaged daughter. "Although I hope we can work out some long-range repayment plan. I like my legs."

I lowered my head in self-deprecation.

"I'm sure you have very nice legs, Mrs. Gomez," I answered. "If you insist on repayment, I will not deny you that. We'll simply say that you may pay it back as you see fit. There is no interest and no terms attached."

I hoped she understood what I meant.

"Thank you," she said. "I was worried about terms, too."

She seemed to realize that she was sitting in my nice warm car while I was standing on the sidewalk in the rain.

"Oh," she said suddenly. "You're getting soaked. I'm so sorry."

I heard the locks pop and she started to get out. I shook my head.

"May I have your house keys so I may lock it up?" I asked. I had noticed the front door still stood open.

"I didn't even bring them," she said. "It took all the courage I had left just to come outside. Thank you, Mr. McPherson."

"Please, call me Michael," I replied. "I'm going to go inside and open a couple of windows to allow the gas to dissipate. I'll grab your house keys. Is there anything else you need?"

"My purse is upstairs in my room," the girl said. "Would it be too much trouble for you to grab it for me?"

Mrs. Gomez shot her daughter a harsh look.

"No," I replied. "It will be no trouble. Mrs. Gomez, is there anything you need?"

The woman shook her head.

"Shoes, perhaps?" I mentioned. She glanced down at her bare feet and sighed.

"I suppose that would be best," she said. "I have a pair beside the door."

"If you would prefer, you can take my car to the inn," I said before I headed inside. "I can call my assistant to pick me up here. You can use it until you can make alternate arrangements."

"Cool," the girl said before she could stop herself.

"We can not possibly do that, Mr. McPherson," the woman said. "You have done too much for us as it is."

"Michael," I corrected her. "And you certainly can do that. I'm positive that you have places you need to be. Your daughter has school to worry about and the inn is not really within walking distance of this district. I assume from your scrubs that you work at a hospital. There is not one located close to the inn, so that is a problem. Additionally, I have done nothing that any decent person wouldn't do."

The woman was shaking her head, not in a motion of negativity but as if the words she was hearing did not make sense. I decided to clarify.

"Although I am in the same general line of work, Mrs. Gomez," I said. "I am not my father."

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