Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I flipped the card over the table, a grin curving my lips. “Hit me.”
“Are you sure about this, Josh?” Bruno asked, examining the eight of diamonds in front of me, right next to the unfolded card. He leaned closer, and the dealer noticed he was trying to avoid him eavesdropping. “We’ve only got one chance. This is all our money.”
“Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” I stared at the dealer for a second, eyeing the card he had. He’s trying to play us. A Queen only meant he wouldn’t be willing to receive any more, which was absolutely perfect. “Hit me.”
With extreme delicacy—although that wasn’t quite the word I’d used to describe the movement—he handed me another card facing down, his face remaining as stoic as it’d ever been. Eli, who had been awfully quiet until now, let out a small grunt when I flipped the card to expose an Ace of spades.
It felt almost like they were all expecting me to surrender, but instead I stacked all of my remaining chips in the betting square and leaned back. “Now I stand.”
“Fair enough, anyone else?” The dealer asked, staring mainly at Eli and Bruno, though both of them shook their heads with hidden worry. I already knew their cards were trash, so I didn’t worry too much. “All right, let me see your hole cards.”
Eli flipped it first, revealing a total of nineteen with a King and a nine. Not as bad as I’d thought. Then it was Bruno’s turn—he disappointed me the most—who showed only a thirteen. He should’ve asked for at least one more card. Idiot. The dealer’s eyes fell on mine, but I spoke first. “Please, I’d like to see yours first,” I said politely.
“And I’d like a date with Angelina Jolie, pretty boy, but not everything we want in life is given to us. Now quit playing and show your damn card, because I doubt my boss would like to hear you’re acting like a little brat.” He’d stalked forward a little bit over the table, yet I refused to let him win. Instead, my grin grew wider.
“Josh,” Bruno warned, and Eli grumbled something under his breath.
Regardless of them, I started speaking again. “I also doubt he’d like to know his most trusted dealer was stealing money from him,” I said, my eyes diverting to the small duffle bag he had tried to hide unsuccessfully behind some of the boxes in the storage unit. I could almost see his eyes fuming under the dim light shining above us, and I could easily tell I had hit the right spot.
“I guess what they say about you is true, Josh Fitzgerald,” the dealer muttered, slowly dragging his hand toward his card and turning it over.
“And what would that be?” I asked, feeling my adrenaline rushing once I saw he had a total of twenty—a queen and a ten.
“That you’re the definition of asshole.” His muscles tensed slightly as I let my hand hover over my hole card.
“Oh, well, they must be right.” I turned the card and let out a sigh, enjoying the view of the eight of diamonds, the two of hearts, and the Ace of spades, all summing twenty one, in front of me. “Blackjack.”
He stared in shock for a second, Bruno and Eli sharing that feeling, but then it all snapped back. “You fucking cheated,” he spat, pulling out something from under the table. Before I knew it, I had a barrel pointing directly at my face.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Eli stood up first, Bruno following. “This is not what we had agreed on. He won fairly. Now give us the money and let us talk to him.”
“Antoine said no weapons were to be brought,” Bruno growled.
“He didn’t tell me that, just like he didn’t tell me I couldn’t blow up his head.” Staring right at me, the dealer—whose name, surprisingly, I was still unaware of—pressed down the hammer, but before he could do anything else a gunshot echoed in the storage unit.
Bruno and Eli ducked, though I kept my gaze up high and noticed how half of the dealer’s body fell face-forward over the table while his legs were still supporting him on the floor. Behind him, a dark silhouette stepped forward from the entrance door, which was now ajar, and stepped into the faint light.
“I didn’t tell you that because I planned on blowing your head off first,” the familiarly croaky voice said. “God, Cooper, I used to like you.”
“Antoine,” I let out with certainty, standing up and watching Bruno and Eli do the same. “Pleasure to finally meet you face to face.”
I had to admit, I wasn’t someone who’d get easily nervous, though this man was part of the big guys. If I messed up, I threw away everything I’d ever worked hard for. Not only that, but our lives were at stake, too.
“The pleasure is mine, Mr. Fitzgerald. I’ve heard lots about you,” he said, stepping closer until he was right next to the dealer—or Cooper, from what I had gathered.
“Please, call me Joshua,” I said, rounding the table and offering him my hand. He shook it firmly. “I hope you’ve heard good things, sir.”
“Not one has been bad,” he reassured me, glancing back at Bruno and Eli, whose faces still carried shock. “You two must be Bruno Raegan and Elijah Baldwin. Heard a couple of things about you guys, too.”
“It’s really an honor to meet you, Antoine,” Bruno said, and Elijah nodded.
“We couldn’t be more grateful that you called us.”
“Eli is right,” I said, adjusting my tie. “And we’re at your full disposition. Pray do tell us what we should do.”
Antoine took a moment to reply, but soon enough the words were flowing out of his mouth. “Tell me something, Joshua Fitzgerald…. What do you know about the Russian Mafia?”
“I know enough,” I replied, intrigued. “We always keep them on the lookout.”
“Very well, so you must know who Valentine Mikhailovich is, right?”
“Isn’t he the guy who’s in charge of their largest group?” Bruno asked, rounding the table as well and meeting us.
Eli remained put and simply crossed his arms over his chest. “He’s married to your sister.”
“Indeed,” Antoine said, seemingly pleased with my friends’ knowledge on the matter. “And that is precisely why we’re here. I want him dead.”
Silence fell over the three of us for a long-lasting minute, but I couldn’t hold my curiosity back. “You want him dead because he married your sister?” Bruno and Eli were probably wondering the exact same thing since they didn’t add anything. They just waited for Antoine’s reply.
“You see, when my father passed away, he divided the inheritance quite…terribly. I did of course get the whole business and I’m the official administrator, but he gave my sister some of our most important foreign headquarters. Never had Esther gone to any of these locations until two years ago when we were having some issues with the Yakuza.”
“The good old Japanese Mafia, huh?” Eli sighed, shaking his head. “Those little rats should know their limits. After what they have done, they still think they can show up their faces?”
“Well, I don’t think they know it since we found out they were messing around with our base in Moscow. Esther decided to go and handle it herself directly, and so she contacted the Russians. This is where she met Valentine, and since the Sicilian Mafia and the Russian one have never really been known for amiability, them ending up falling in love and marrying each other last year seemed like a terrific idea.”
“And you’re not happy about that,” Bruno concluded.
“Clearly not,” Antoine said, letting his fingers wander over his gun as he continued his story. “I wouldn’t mind her poor choice of a husband if she didn’t possess the ownership of those headquarters. Especially the one in our home, Italy.”
“Why is that a problem?” Eli asked, finally stepping closer to us and joining the small circle we’d formed next to Cooper’s lifeless body. If I didn’t know how to handle my sense of humor, I would’ve laughed at the scene we were displaying. It almost seemed like it was pulled out of a movie.
“Do you even know what being married to someone means?” Antoine snapped.
“They didn’t sign a prenup, did they?” I asked.
“Luckily, my sister is not that stupid, but I know that little parasite better than anyone. He’s after that office we have in Verona. All of our family’s history and documents are there. She literally opened the door to the Russians, who are, mind you, our established enemy.”
“How are you planning on killing him?” Bruno asked.
“That’s where you three come in,” Antoine said. “But I beg you please follow me. I have something to show you.” He began walking toward the exit and we followed. Eli stayed behind for a second to grab the duffle bag and the rest of the money, leaving only our cards and Cooper’s body in there.
“He gives me the hibbie jibbies,” Bruno whispered in my ear, and I shrugged lightly.
Antoine was walking ahead of us, and he waited until Eli had caught up to speak. “Right now, Valentine and my sister are headed to Santorini for a meeting on the Yakuza. What Valentine doesn’t know, however, is that I have something of his. It won’t be long before he notices or someone informs him, so this is where you three will be of much help.”
We followed him outside to the parking lot, the only sounds around us being our footsteps on the gravel and the crickets hiding in the nearby bushes. There was no one out here—naturally. “I’m not sure what you want us to do,” I said.
“This thing I have of his is very…delicate, and I need to keep it safe, hidden.”
“You want us to look after it?” Eli inquired, securing the bag’s strap over his shoulder.
“Indeed, I do.” Antoine walked over to the back of his black Range Rover, letting his hand rest on the trunk’s handle. “But, as I said, this is something you should be extremely careful about.”
“I think we can handle it, sir,” I said, feeling confident.
“Fair enough,” he said, seemingly convinced, and so he opened the trunk. “Boys, this is Anastasia Mikhailovich, Valentine’s daughter.”
Bruno snorted. “What the—”
“This is a joke, right?” I stepped forward, seeing the unconscious, red-headed girl curled into a ball in the corner of the trunk. She couldn’t be older than twenty one.
Antoine moved next to me, his face more serious than ever. “Does it look like I’m joking, Fitzgerald?”
“You kidnapped one of the Russian leader’s daughter?” Eli chirped, grunting afterwards. “This is not gonna end well.”
“Had I known you were so childish,” Antoine began, but I didn’t let him finish.
“We’ll do it. What Eli is trying to say is that it’ll be hard considering the fact that this is his daughter we’re talking about. Not only that, but they are as powerful as us. They have eyes everywhere, Antoine.”
“Getting a hold of her wasn’t that hard. She’s studying here in the NYU, pretty smart girl, actually. I’m sure a man like you would know how to keep her well-hidden.”
Bruno crossed his arms, looking a bit unsure himself about the whole situation. “Do you have any suggestions on where we can do that?”
“There’s a little woodsy zone out in the suburbs. I have a cabin there with high security. It’s registered as if an old couple lived there, so I doubt they’ll know you’re in it. In any case, I’d give you another place to stay at. This cabin, however, is equipped with just the right things, and it looks like the best option so far.”
“Why not keep her in one of the office’s cells?” I asked. “Why risk it by keeping her somewhere else?”
“Because where do you think they’ll barge in looking for her first?” Antoine retorted with slight frustration. “I’m trusting you with my leverage, Fitzgerald. I need to know you’re fully committed to this. You and your two friends.”
“My father wanted me to do this and be successful. You know you have my full commitment, sir.”
“Mine too,” Bruno added.
“That makes three of us,” Eli said.
“Perfect, then I suggest you take the lady and get driving. You have a long way to go before you get there. I’ll send you the address after you’re out of the downtown area so that their radars don’t catch it. It’ll be encrypted anyway, but I rather be extra cautious.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, letting Bruno step forward and take Anastasia out of the trunk. Elijah headed to our car in the meantime, opening the back door for Bruno. Out in the light of the parking lot, I noticed the red bruise on her forehead and the scratches on her pale cheeks. “She put up a good fight, didn’t she?”
“Like a ninja,” Antoine replied. “Take care of her, Joshua. Our entire business depends on that girl.”
“You have my word, Antoine,” I said.
“How old were you when Seth died?”
“Dad passed away when I was sixteen,” I answered. “Almost nine years ago.”
“He would’ve been proud to know where you’re at now, son,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder for a brief moment before shutting the trunk’s door. “You better get going now.”
“You’re right. Thanks again, sir,” I said, heading off to our car and hearing him getting into his and turning on the engine.
“I’m counting on you, Fitzgerald. Don’t disappoint me.” And with that, we saw the Range Rover driving out of the parking lot and leaving us—and the still unconscious girl in the backseat next to Eli—alone.
“You’re driving?” Bruno asked me, and I nodded. He hopped into the passenger’s seat and I rounded the sedan to get into my seat.
I started the engine and let the seatbelt secure itself over my body, but I was unable to start driving before I addressed something that kept nagging my conscience. “Hey, Eli, do me a favor and loosen up the ropes she’s got in her hands a little bit. There’s not enough blood pumping into them and it might cause some damage.”
Bruno turned his head to look at me, his expression a bit confused, though Eli did just as I told him without questioning. “Done.”
“Very well, off to the suburbs we go.”
“Something tells me this will be a long night,” Bruno muttered, sinking into his seat, but I paid his negativity no mind, focusing on the road ahead of me instead.