Nikki entered the steamy rain forest of the laundry and headed toward the few unbroken machines. It was too early for the place to be very busy, so she didn’t have to bodycheck anyone to win a couple of machines. She rammed her clothes into two washers and set them running.
From the front window, she could see the sedan parked outside. She headed toward the rear exit, heart fluttering at the idea of escaping her guard. She gripped the knob. Almost free. How long would it take him to realize his quarry had flown the coop?
Footsteps in the nearly empty room of slushing washers and whirring dryers snapped her head around. Her enemy had entered the building. The dark-coated, rangy man looked as out of place as a Doberman at a poodle party. His gaze met Nikki’s, and he didn’t try to pretend he was there for any other reason than following her. He walked over to a row of plastic seats and sat. The chair was so low, his knees thrust into the air and his legs splayed. He looked uncomfortable. She hoped he was.
Nikki turned the knob. If she stepped outside, would he come after her? She imagined blocking the door with a Dumpster and running away. But what would be the point? She’d have to come back for her laundry eventually, and she had to return to the bar. It wasn’t as if Jay didn’t know where to find her. If she was truly going to convince Kuypers she was on board with paying him, she shouldn’t run away from her watchdog.
Nikki let go of the doorknob and walked to a table full of tattered, outdated magazines. She leafed through pages of celeb photos and quotes while she strolled to the row of chairs across from her persecutor. She dropped into a seat and continued to study her magazine.
Take that, asshole! You can’t intimidate me, even if I know for a fact you can lift me as if I were a toddler and stow me in the back of a car.
Nikki pretended to read for several moments, but at last she couldn’t resist looking up. She expected to find Jay’s eyes staring back at her, but his gaze was focused on the worn linoleum.
His rough-hewn features and scars made him look like some character in a crime movie. An image not far off the mark. She wasn’t sure of the exact color of his hooded eyes, but last night she’d thought they were pitch-black—maybe with hellish flames dancing in them. Today there were shadows beneath them. Good! She hoped he was as exhausted as she was from their sleepless night.
A flare of pure hatred shot through her at the memory of him handling her like a sack of laundry. It was too easy for that venom to pour out of her mouth. She leaned toward him.
“So you don’t even try to stalk me from a distance? Just march in here and plop yourself down in the middle of my laundry day? I’m not afraid of you, you know. If your boss had wanted my legs broken, you would’ve done it last night. If you’re trying to intimidate me, you’ve failed.”
He didn’t raise his gaze from the floor.
“How long are you going to keep this up? Until I agree to let him use my bar? I said I’d make the payments, and I will.”
His hands rested on his thighs, fingers curled slightly, not tense at all. His entire demeanor was as relaxed as if he were sitting in a comfy armchair rather than an uncomfortable plastic chair. That pissed her off even more.
“What would you do if I screamed for help right now? Said you were threatening me?” She fished out her phone and brandished it at him like a gun. “I could call the police right now. Report you as a stalker.”
So much for her plan to keep her cool. Now he was going to be forced to action. Probably snatch her phone away and stomp it under one of his big shoes.
But Jay kept on sitting quietly, as if she hadn’t said a word. She might have been a pigeon pooping on a stone statue.
Nikki took a deep breath, settled back in her chair, and put the phone away. “Okay. I know you’re just doing your job or whatever, but I can’t stand having you watch me. Why don’t you tell your boss I’m toeing the line and you don’t think I’m going to be any trouble?”
At last his gaze moved from the spot on the floor to her face. Immediately Nikki wished he’d look back down. The intensity of his eyes was too much. She swallowed and forced herself not to look away. Damned if she’d let him win a staring match.
“I shouldn’t be around much longer. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
His voice was soft yet so deep she felt it reverberate in her very bones. He’d displayed the same politeness last night even as he’d forced her into the car. Wasn’t that the mark of a professional? Sorry, nothing personal, miss, but I have to kill you now. She should find it chilling, yet she was oddly soothed by his words, his tone.
Curiosity got the better of her fear and anger. “Why did you come in here if you’re supposed to be covert?”
He paused before answering. “I knew you’d spotted me. There didn’t seem to be any point in hanging back. Besides, I thought you’d probably try to leave through the rear.”
“Oh.” His unexpected frankness took her by surprise. For a moment, words failed her. But only for a moment. “How did you know? I was careful not to look directly at the car.”
He shrugged and gave no answer. His gaze drifted to the bank of dryers behind her.
Nikki exhaled in relief at being off the hook of his gaze. Now what? How could she carry on as if this were a normal laundry day when this man was perched across from her like a gargoyle?
As if hearing her thought, Jay said, “Ignore me. Do what you normally would.”
She snorted. “Right. ’Cause that’s easy.” But she resumed leafing blindly through her magazine.
Silence and caution had never been her forte. Neither was backing off or not poking at things. She still had a few acne scars, proof of her inability to stop picking. She dropped the magazine to her lap again.
“So, Jay. That’s your name, right? How does someone become a henchman? You just wake up one day and think, Goon is the career for me? Is there like a school you go to or something? Kneecapping 101. Advanced Applied Pressure. Variations on Threatening Postures.”
A choked sound came from the gargoyle, and the scars on his cheeks shifted as his mouth moved in what was nearly a smile. Nikki felt ridiculously triumphant that she’d been able to prod some sort of reaction from him. But of course, she couldn’t take the win and let it rest.
“Seriously, why do you do it? Is the money, like, unbelievable? Couldn’t you find anything else you were good at? Or is it a family thing? Maybe you’re ‘connected’ and there’s no way out. I bet that—”
Her chatter was interrupted by a ringing phone. Not hers, his. He took the phone from the pocket of his coat, checked the ID, then rose and walked toward the front of the building.
Her moment to run for it? Naw. The wash cycle would be done soon, and she couldn’t abandon her laundry. She watched the dark figure silhouetted against the brightly lit windows. He looked like a cardboard cutout of a man, not quite real.
After a few seconds, he put the phone away, and without another glance at her, he left the building.
Nikki popped out of her chair and hurried to the window. She watched Jay stride down the street with that hitching step and get into his car. Then he drove away.
Shift over? Surprise and relief wrestled inside her. She had the surreal sensation that she’d dreamed the whole thing. What a weird fucking night!
And what now? Business as usual, except that in addition to paying off liquor distributors, she had a new weekly expense to budget for, a criminal partner who threatened her livelihood in a whole new way.