“Way to go Joey. What did you do this time?”
Before I could answer Bennie said, “Shut up Luce. It isn’t a mechanical issue or they wouldn’t have said we were being directed to land.”
Wow, I hadn’t realized there was a real brain under the muscles. I ignored the two love birds who had started insulting each other in a way that made me think that Lucia needed to come up with a backup plan for her backup plan.
I was looking for my calm center; no sleep and less for from spending all night at the airport, broke and praying we’d get a spot on the next plane made one Josephine Balducci one very edgy girl. I heard someone ask a flight attendant what was going on and she only repeated what the captain had already said.
The intercom crackled to life. “Upon landing the flight attendants will direct you to the nearest exit. Proceed there as quickly as possible and …”
I never heard what else the captain was saying as some lady in the back freaked out and started babbling about there being a bomb on the plane. Pandemonium erupted on the plane and there was chaos all the way down. I got clipped in the left eye and in the mouth by people jumping seats to get away from a family that looked Middle Eastern, while others headed that direction attempting some type of pile on. Another kick, this one to my head, left me woozy and disoriented.
Landing was something out of a disaster movie but whoever was flying the plane was a freaking genius. We didn’t run into anything or blow up though we did skid enough to fishtail the last few feet before coming to a full stop. Things were still bonkers when a Homeland Security Team rushed onto the plane carrying automatic weapons. Those of us that had stayed calm were quickly hustled off the plane (most of us having the presence of mind to grab our carry ons), but not direction into a terminal. I guess the others were held for questioning on something.
“What the …?!” I heard Bennie mutter as he all but duck marched Lucia to keep her quiet and in line.
“What the?!” pretty much covered it for me too. We were being hustled along towards a cargo bay door while planes were landing all around us and being off loaded. I nearly jumped out of my skin when my cell phone vibrated from where I had tucked it in the rear pocket of my jeans. I pulled it out and saw I had six texts from Tony and one from the twins.
Tony: “txt as soon as you get this”
Tony: “911 Joey. call home asap”
Tony: “forget call … as soon as you land txt me”
Twins: “PHONE HOME 911 HURRY”
Tony: “r u there yet”
Tony: “still cking”
Tony: “don’t give up conexion suks”
All I could think of was my dad. As we entered an eerily quiet terminal by some tunnel from the luggage area the phone vibrated again. It was Tony.
Answering it I asked frantically, “Tony! Is it Dad?!”
A strangely intense Tony responded, “Joey listen to me carefully. Where are you at?”
“Atlanta airport. They …”
Sounding somewhat relieved he interrupted with, “OK, that’s good. The twins hacked in and thought they found where your flight landed. Is Lucia with you?”
“Sure. Trying to find out about our luggage. She …”
He interrupted again this time a little viciously. “Forget the damn luggage. Get her. And Bennie too, he can make himself useful for once. Go directly to the car rental counter. I have a limo waiting for you.”
“Tony stop fooling around and tell me …”
With more of an attempt at patience Tony responded, “Baby Girl, don’t take this the wrong way but shaddup. Just do as I tell you and fast and then call me again when you get to the car. I gotta take care of things on this end. Just hustle your bustle and head out to the cabin.”
The cabin? I turned to find that I’d outpaced Lucia and Bennie by several yards. They were staring horrified and transfixed by a television monitor that pictured a mushroom cloud as it rose above some vaguely familiar cityscape. I don’t know where it came from but a deep calm fell over me. I walked over to Lucia and Bennie, took their arms and steered them in the direction of the rental car area wondering distantly how I was going to figure out which counter to go to. Thankfully I didn’t have to.
Right outside the facility stood a large man with a sign that read J. Balducci. I knew it was no coincidence. “I’m Ms. Balducci,” I told him.
“Name?” growled the man.
“Joey … Josephine … Balducci.”
A look of relief crossed the man’s face. He looked like he’d been a boxer at one point … or maybe a bare knuckles brawler; his nose had been broken more than once and his left eyebrow was permanently split by an old scar. “This way. Mr. MacGregor wants me to drive you to a place. We need to hurry so follow me and don’t look anyone in the face or let them get your attention. Just keep moving, the natives are getting’ restless.”
“What?” Lucia whimpered, still in shock … and a little smashed from the three drinks she’d had on the flight. She gasped when Bennie grabbed her arm and pushed her forward. He turned to me and nodded. Maybe Bennie had some uses after all; if he managed Lucia I would have time to do whatever else needed to be done.
In the end it took the combined strength and bulk (both considerable) of the driver and Bennie to push us through the crowd and then into the limo itself. The crowd of people was becoming larger, angry, and unruly. They weren’t panicked yet but it looked like it wouldn’t be long and I wanted to be far, far away when that happened.
“Will someone tell me what’s going on?!” Lucia yelled almost in a panic herself.
“Don’t get hysterical on me,” I warned her. “Tony …”
“Tony?! I should have known!”
Lately Lucia has gotten an attitude where Tony is concerned.. She resents what she thinks of as his nosey interference. To be honest Tony can be kind of bossy – maybe even pushy when you don’t want his help – but never to hurt the family. I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side but when he considers you family there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for you. Tony has always treated me the same as Lucia and by extension my family … and all because I chose to pick up a spalding that day. He’s cool about it, but he can be an overprotective pain in the buttocks every once in a while.
“Keep your wig on girl. Tony is trying to get us someplace safe.” Turning to the driver – there was no privacy window – I asked, “Excuse me sir, but what is going on.”
He snapped, “Do I look like the newsman? Cain’t talk, gotta watch the road and drive for Chris-sakes. Turn the TV on back there and leave me drive already.”
Before Lucia could let fly with a few choice words Bennie pushed the on button of the monitor. All three of us stared in disbelief. There had been several simultaneous terrorist attacks on US soil as well as at many of our embassies worldwide. Reports continued to pour in from around the country with the most catastrophic appearing to be small nuclear devices detonated near Mobile, Alabama … thus explaining the vague familiarity of what I had seen in the airport. Not all of the attempted attacks had been successful but enough of them were that it essentially brought the nation to a complete standstill and had the world holding its collective breath to see what we would do.
If we hadn’t been wearing our seatbelts we would have been thrown around the interior of the stretched Lincoln Town Car as the driver was forced to swerve, weave, and slam on the brakes more than a few times while navigating the increasingly erratic traffic.
A phone rang up beside the driver. He picked it up and I could hear a loud, angry, and rather distinct voice issue from it. “Oh crud,” I thought right as the driving tossed it back at me. I’d forgotten to call Tony.
“It’s for you,” the driver said dryly.
Tony eventually wound down enough for me to actually understand what he was saying. Trying to cut short what I knew was bound to turn into one of his famous lectures on worrying the family I yelled, “Tony!” Having finally gotten his attention I told him, “Geez, you know I can’t understand one word in three when you start going off in Italian.”
“Good,” he said gruffly. “You shouldn’t know that kind of language anyway.” I could hear the relief behind his irritation. “Listen Baby Girl, the driver I had on standby can’t get to the warehouse so you’re gonna have to drive.”
“Tony … this Lincoln …” I started, expressing my doubts.
“Not the Lincoln Ragazza. I’ve got another vehicle stashed. The back is going to be loaded down but that’s OK. You need to get out of that city asap.”
“What about my family?” I asked still worried despite his earlier assurances.
“Your dad is fine. I’ve got ‘em loaded and we’re on our way out of here. I’ve got Leo riding shotgun with them while your brothers take turns driving. They think they’re freakin’ Mario Andretti. Tell Lucia …”
“Tony?!” I’d heard a scream that I nearly echoed but stopped when I also heard Tony yelling at someone to stop with the backseat driving already.
He snarled, “Relax!” To me he said, “It’s all right. Ana is just … being Ana.”
“You riding with the twins?” I asked in disbelief. Tony rode with the girls as little as possible as their dramatics on the road could be hard to handle.
Lucia looked like she was going to start talking again and I held my hand up in a stop motion so I could hear Tony because the connection was beginning to cut in and out.
“Just tell Lucy the family is doing fine. I’ll take care of them. Sounds like we’re losing the signal so listen up. You remember that combination I gave you?”
“Yeah,” I said hesitantly.
“Do you remember it or not?” he barked.
“Yeah, I said yeah already,” I barked back at him.
Calming he said, “Good, that’s good. Your driver is going to drop you off and keep going. You need to go to Level 2 and open bay 27 with that combination. You’ll find what you need in there to get out of Dodge. Check under the seats and remember what your dad and I taught you. I …” The connection squelched out for a second like a fax machine going off and I jerked it away from my ear. “Joey! Joey can you hear me?!”
“Yeah. Look, Tony …”
Then I heard an Italian expletive followed by, “Another one?! Head for the pier before we get completely cut off.” As if realizing I’d overheard something I wasn’t supposed to Tony turned his attention back to me and said, “Don’t worry. Just head straight for the cabin. Tank is full and there’s extra cans to help get you there. Joey … Josephine …”
I sighed realizing something I hadn’t wanted to know before. “Tony … stay in one piece. OK? I’ll drive from my end, you drive from yours … we’ll … we’ll meet up.”
A static-y silence filled my ears for a long moment before he said, “You just get to the cabin. Me knowing you’re safe will be a good thing.”
I tried to say something back but the connection died. I was still debating whether to call him back when a sharp right following by two more and then a sudden left put us at the door of something that looked like a parking garage with walls.
“Get out,” the driver said in a strained voice.
I was pulling on my backpack and grabbing my carry on when Lucia started up again causing the man to scream, “Get out or I throw you out!!”
Bennie and I pushed Lucia out of the car door and tossed what luggage she and Bennie had out after her. Bennie was wrangling with her and I was the last getting out. I only had one foot planted when the driver hit the gas and peeled away leaving tire marks on the concrete … and nearly on me. I fell forward trying to escape and the door closed briefly but painfully on my left ankle, spilling me to the ground.
“Maniac!!!” Lucia shouted after him shaking a vicious Italian salute at him.
Bennie covered her mouth and dragged her into the building then came back to help me. I was hobbling but was getting angry enough that any fear had evaporated. “You OK?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I muttered darkly between clinched teeth. “Good thing we got the bags out first.”
“Yeah,” he answered quietly, hefting both his and Lucia’s gear with little effort. I pulled mine behind me heading towards the stairs. “Tony gotta plan?”
I nodded and then we were with Lucia who was stilling fuming. “So. What is this grand plan of Tony’s?”
“Come on. We need to get going. I’ll explain so long as everything is where it should be. And be quiet.”
“Don’t tell me …”
Bennie grabbed her and covered her mouth again. Quietly and deliberately he whispered, “You heard Joey. Quiet. Tony put her in charge. Tony tells Joey. Joey tells us. We follow the plan and Tony gets us clear. You got it?”
Knowing Bennie wouldn’t turn loose until she agreed Lucia finally nodded. “You’re a pig,” she spat at him.
“Probably. But I’m smart enough to know what Tony’ll do to me if I screw this up. Family or not, it won’t be healthy for you to get in the way of what Tony wants.”
“Fine. Whatever,” she muttered angrily as she straightened her hair.
Thinking as I hobbled up the stairs I was about to start explaining when loud pops echoed all around us. Instinctively we all ducked which is probably why we weren’t spotted. I heard vehicle doors closing then the screech of tires as it exited down the ramp. After a moment I moved to look around the corner of the stairwell but Bennie stopped me with a shake of his head. He fought Lucia for her purse a brief second then dug around in it and pulled out her compact mirror. Opening it he used it to give him a view around the floor area without having to stick too much of his body out.
He hesitated then rolled out and over behind a large dumpster that was nearby, then he disappeared from view. A tense few minutes and he was back. “No one living left around.”
I noticed him tucking something away in the back of his pants. “Bennie …”
“The guy doesn’t need it anymore,” he said defensively.
“No kidding,” I agreed after spotting a guy who couldn’t help but be dead considering his head was splattered all over the concrete wall behind him. “I was going to ask what the model was. It looked like a 9 mil but you hid it too fast for me to look at it close.”
Bennie and Lucia both stood there staring at me like they’d never seen me before. I rolled my eyes. “Geez, shut your mouths before something nasty flies in. You know Tony. You really think he’d send someone unqualified to act as your babysitter? And you both know my dad. You think he’d let me leave home not knowing how to protect myself?”
Bennie slowly grinned. “That Tony. He’s always got a plan.”
Lucia sniffed and then pouted. “Tony never showed me no guns.”
“After that report you wrote when we were in highschool? I quote, ‘Guns are the scourge of modern man. No one should have guns because they are dangerous. Only policemen and …’.”
“Stop it,” she snapped. “I didn’t mean everybody, just the trouble makers and stuff. I’m not a trouble maker.”
Even Bennie winced at the size of that clanker. Ignoring Lucia I led them over to one of the bay doors and went to town on the lock.”
“Wait … how did you …” Lucia asked jealously.
Bennie showed his brain again by putting two and two together. “That firm Tony works for has offices here in Atlanta. He comes here a lot. Used to even have a girl here.”
I hadn’t known that last part but it shouldn’t have surprised me. Tony was the type to attract women like bees to honey and he enjoyed the attention. Mom said that lately though he hadn’t been as eager to be chased but I figure he was probably just getting more discreet no matter what he said to the contrary.
I turned my attention back to Bennie. “It’s possible, but that’s not the point,” I told them. “You know Tony; he has back up plans for his back up plans. Well this … this whatever it is that this storage area is meant to be must be one of them.” Bennie lifted the bay door on what turned out to be a small garage style storage locker. The room was barely big enough but it held an F250 with an extended cab and full sized bed.
“Sweeeeet …” murmured Bennie.
Noticing clean hand prints on the otherwise dusty hood I mumbled, “Somebody’s been in here.”
“Could’ve been Tony,” Lucia volunteered. “Ma said he was making the rounds while we were in Las Vegas.”
“Maybe,” I acknowledged. “Bennie check the tanks. Lucia put the luggage in the rear of the cab. We need to hoof it before more people start freaking out like that driver did.”
I was looking for the keys under the floor mat when Bennie called to me quietly. “Found … something.”
I squeezed my way around the truck and then nearly screamed despite myself.
“What?” asked Lucia.
“Just more gas cans but they’re pretty nasty. If you load the luggage Bennie and I will get these cans.”
“Whatever,” she said giving her typical answer.
I looked at Bennie and we both looked down at a corpse whose lack of smell despite the blood all around the head told us it was fresh … very, very fresh as the blood hadn’t even coagulated.
“Tony mentioned that he had tried to get us a driver but he – or she – hadn’t been available. Maybe this is the guy … and maybe … maybe he decides to make a run for Tony’s stash and just blow Tony off.”
Bennie points up. “Look. He came through the ceiling.”
Suddenly I was able to relax. “No, the idiot fell through the ceiling and must have done it head first. That would explain the … uh … the … the …” I had to stop and swallow back the bile that was rising in my throat.
“Yeah,” Bennie sighed. “I doubt those other guys … whatever.”
I nodded. “He’s dead and I’m trying to keep us from turning out that way. Forget about the rest of this. Let’s roll the truck forward, see if we can slide these gas cans in the bed and then hit the road before Lucia starts thinking too much.”
Bennie shuddered and I nearly smiled at him despite the circumstances we were in. Lucia could really get going if given a chance. When we opened the bed cover Bennie whistled. “We do not want to get stopped by the cops.”
“Relax; this is Georgia not Brooklyn. I’m licensed to carry in most states in the south and these are hunting rifles not bazookas.”
“That ain’t no hunting rifle,” Bennie corrected, pointing to a heavy-barreled AR-15.
I smiled, “Target practice. I’ve got the awards in my wallet to prove it.”
“Oh yeah,” Bennie sneered sarcastically. “They’re gonna believe that all right. Some chick with a New York license ….”
“Florida license; I switched my residency to lower my tuition bill,” I said my grin getting a little wider. Then I sighed and said, “Don’t worry about it. Just grab that case of self heats. They don’t taste like Momma makes it but it will fill your belly. We’ll need to stop … never mind, here’s a case of water to go with it. That’ll more than get us started.”
Bennie added, “Campin’ gear up here near the cab. Want I should pull it out?”
“Pull a sleeping bag or blanket, whatever is there. We may have to trade off driving.”
Bennie did what I asked but said, “This baby has duel tanks and then there’s the extra cans but that ain’t gonna get us home.”
“We aren’t going home, we’re heading to my parents’ retirement cabin,” I told him.