It’s Friday! Today’s selection is a short story I wrote while dabbling with suspense. I was going to submit it to a writing contest, but that deadline came and went and I’m honestly not sure how to improve it to make it contest-worthy. Even so, writing it was an incredible learning experience and with the help of some very generous fellow writers, it is a million times better than the first draft of this short.
This story was inspired by this prompt: A boy, a girl, a secret.
Marton kept his eyes glued to the doors of Sommer Paper Products, waiting.
At quarter to nine, a petite and curvaceous black woman approached the entrance in a white business suit and heels. Short hair. Curled close. Red highlights. It was her. Of course, he’d already known Shawnda worked here. It wasn’t the first time he’d watched. He’d connected who he was looking for with Shawnda months ago and he’d waited, trying to throw the others off the trail while he worked his plan. Today was a critical step.
He checked his watch. Five to nine. Where was the other one? At one minute to nine, he couldn’t wait any longer. The plan was already off.
Crossing the street, he strolled into the front entrance and was escorted by his new boss’s secretary, Susan, straight into the conference room where the rest of the executive team had gathered.
“Where’s Anya?” Harold snapped at Susan. “Get Shawnda in here!” What a jerk, Marton thought.
Then Harold turned to Marton and smiled.
“Marton! Welcome. We are just delighted to have you on our team.” Harold reached out and pumped Marton’s hand.
“Thank you,” Marton nodded and smiled, distracted by the missing executive. Where is she? Is her name Anya here?
“You wanted to see me, boss?” Shawnda rested one hand on her hip as she pursed her lips, leaning on the doorjamb of the conference room.
Harold stepped away, and Marton scanned the room for the familiar face, the bright green eyes. The only other woman in the room was blonde with hazel eyes and she stared intently at Marton, running her tongue along her lips. Definitely not who he was looking for.
“Where is Anya?” Harold demanded again in a low voice, but loud enough for Marton to hear. “Did she say she would be late? It’s Marton’s first day, and our Social Responsibility Manager is gone?”
“I haven’t heard from her. I’ll go check.” Shawnda’s eyebrows furrowed, and her lips twitched.
Marton’s heart hammered in his chest. Did they get to her first?
“Why don’t you take a seat,” Harold said, guiding Marton to a chair next to a red-headed man, “and we’ll get started. As the director of product development, you’ll be working alongside most of the people here.”
Harold introduced everyone in the room. Elizabeth was the blonde. Marton had been seated next to the IT manager, Steve. After the short morning meeting, Marton glanced one last time at the empty chair before following Susan to his office.
“Everybody’s offices are on this floor around the outer edge,” Susan droned, “so you should have no trouble finding anyone you need. There is the one conference room and bathrooms on the north and south walls. If you have any questions, you can ask me.”
She passed an empty desk and opened the door next to it.
“Abigail is your assistant, but she is out this week with a family emergency. Anya’s assistant, Shawnda, will be filling in until Abigail returns. Do you have any questions?”
“No, thank you, Susan,” Marton said and tipped his head in her direction. Susan turned on her heels and walked away.
Marton closed the door and, taking a deep breath, meandered to his desk, running his hand over the empty shelves along one wall. He sat in his chair and swiveled it, facing the window. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.
It had taken two years to find the one he’d been looking for. He’d tracked her through the prostitution rehab center and trailed Shawnda, who must have been some kind of placement officer, to finally lead him to Sommer Paper Products. Marton hacked his way into this position, unbeknownst to the syndicate. And now here he was. And she wasn’t. And they were onto him now, too. A knock on his office door interrupted his thoughts.
“Come,” he called out, swiveling to face the door.
“Hi Marton, I’m Shawnda. I just wanted to poke my head in and say hi.”
“Your assistant is out for the week, so I’ll be working for you ‘til she gets back.”
“Wonderful.” Anya must be her new name. Marton leaned back. “Any news from… Anya, was it? Harold seemed pretty upset.” He kept his face relaxed, but picked at a ding on the edge of his desk.
“She hasn’t returned my call yet. I’m sure she’s fine.” She flashed a fake smile and closed his door. Marton no more than took a deep breath then another knock came to his door.
“Come,” he called out. The door opened and Elizabeth stepped in, closing it behind her.
“Elizabeth, right?” Marton said, trying to hide his annoyance. He needed to think!
“They didn’t even change the paint color from when Tony was in here,” she said, a hint of disdain in her voice, apparently ignoring his question.
“I don’t mind. Blue suits me nicely,” Marton said, his pulse pounding in his neck, coming up with a new plan on the fly. Step one was getting Elizabeth out of his office. “Would you be so kind as to show me where people eat around here?” He pushed his chair back and stood, offering her a smile.
Elizabeth tucked her hair behind her ears and brushed her hands down her top.
“Of course.” She slipped one hand into a pocket and opened the door, leading the way to the elevator. Marton gripped the brass knuckles in his right pocket in an attempt to keep himself calm.
As the elevator doors slid shut, Marton took a deep breath through his nose, Elizabeth talking all the while. He willed the elevator to move faster. She showed him the vending area and the cafeteria and talked about the closest restaurants that the executive staff frequented. Marton grabbed a bagel from the cafeteria and offered to buy Elizabeth a coffee. She agreed a little too enthusiastically, which played against his new plan. He clenched his teeth and followed her to a small table in the dining area where they sat, his mind whirling, not hearing a word Elizabeth said.
After just a minute or two, he excused himself to the men’s room.
“I have some business to attend to. Don’t bother waiting,” he said to her with a wink. She turned the slightest shade of pink.
Walking straight to the sink, he examined himself in the mirror as he washed his hands. His black hair was cropped and lines feathered out from his bright green eyes, deep lines etched into his forehead. When did I get so old?
“Marton,” Harold said, stepping up to a sink. “I see you found the break area. Have you been down to product research yet?”
Marton forced a smile as he looked at Harold. “No, I haven’t made it there.”
“Come on, let me show you.”
Marton followed his boss, his entire body vibrating with anger and frustration. They spent an hour walking through product research where Marton met the supervisor and, at Harold’s prompting, was briefed on a few projects they were working on.
“Email me the details,” Marton said to the supervisor as they left.
When Harold dropped Marton off at his office again, he found a huge stack of papers on his desk.
This should get you caught up. -Susan
Marton’s shoulders slumped as he picked through the top few papers: reports and summaries from Tony’s last few weeks, it seemed. He dropped into his chair and started organizing the pile into smaller ones. He realized he had a lot to learn if he was going to make this a successful gig. It seemed he had some bright subordinates on whose shoulders he could ride for a while. Of course, that only mattered if she was here.
He looked up and was disappointed to see Elizabeth in his office for the second time today.
“We’re all going out for lunch for your first day. You pick. Where do you want to go?” She leaned against the doorframe.
Marton blew out a long breath. “I’m not sure. What do you recommend?”
Elizabeth rattled off three different options, and Marton picked one at random. She beamed at him and he followed her out, trying to invent a legitimate reason to ditch after lunch because he needed to start looking. He hadn’t expected so much attention to be lavished on him today, and it was cramping his ability to work as usual.
After the long lunch, Marton looked at his watch. 1:30 pm. If they took her this morning, she was probably already dead. Which meant that he would be next, unless Michael stayed that particular order. Marton was pretty sure no one knew his connection to her, but at the moment he wasn’t sure if that was to her benefit or not.
Marton spent the rest of the day trying to deflect the attention that came with being the new face around the office. He kept waiting for his chance to slip away and finally got it when he declined joining the team for happy hour and dinner. Rushing down to the street, he walked around the block, surprised by the brisk, evening air but unsurprised by the black Cadillac Escalade in the alley behind the building, its windows blacked out, obscuring the driver. The car rolled forward, and the driver rolled down his window–of course, Josef. Marton kept his distance and fingered the brass knuckles in his pocket.
“Well, well, Marton,” Josef drawled, almost chewing on his words.
“Josef,” Marton replied, his eyes searching the street, his right hand working its way into the brass knuckles.
“Lose somethin’?” Josef’s mouth curled slightly on one side.
“What’s the name they use for girl dogs? Oh yeah, your b–”
Marton flew to the window, clamping his left hand around his syndicate colleague’s throat, his now-adorned right hand on the window sill. He leaned close, past Josef’s bulging eyes to whisper into his ear.
“Tell me what you know, or you’ll start losing your own dogs. Like your mom in Pensacola or your sister in Laramie. I find people, Josef.”
Josef gagged and Marton released his grip, sliding his right hand back into his pocket. Josef took in a huge breath and fingered his neck. His face was pale.
“How–” Josef began to ask.
“Don’t change the subject,” Marton lowered his voice.
Someone slammed him from behind and pulled a bag over his head, yanking him away from the door. He struggled as they shoved him into the back of the Caddy. Someone else climbed in and struck him just above the ear with what he assumed was a pistol. He feigned limpness and steadied his breath, fighting against the urge to react to the subsequent painful prods to his chest.
“He’s out,” a voice said. Pitr.
“What does Michael want with him anyway?” Josef asked.
“Johana isn’t talking.”
She’s still alive.
Josef swore. “Kill ‘em both. Who cares what the connection is.”
“I dunno, man. Michael wants to know why Brono’s girls got away after Marton handled him. Marton’s the best handler there ever was. Got all the inside jobs. Makes no sense,” Pitr said.
“I think Marton let them go.”
“Why would he do that?”
“That is the million dollar question, now isn’t it?” Josef said. “Dump him here.”
Marton heard the door open, and he ground his teeth to prevent making noise as he landed on the hard pavement. His head exploded in pain as he was kicked, and he grunted. Another came to his back and then a third to his face.
“What do you know?” Josef demanded, yanking the bag off his head.
Marton spit out the blood pooling in his mouth just as another kick landed on his kidneys. Josef continued to demand answers as they beat him nearly senseless.
“Well,” said Pitr, “not gonna get answers from him if we kill him.”
“I don’t care!” Josef shouted, kicking Marton again with each word. Small groans escaped Marton’s lips.
“How mad you think Michael will be if we don’t get answers first?”
Josef swore again, and Marton rolled to his left side to catch his breath, every spot on his body hurting. He laced his fingers through the knuckles as he heard the crunch of pebbles under a boot. Pitr’s face hovered and he dragged his tongue over his lips.
Marton swung up. The brass knuckles collided with Pitr’s jaw and slammed his teeth together, his tongue falling as he thudded to the ground. Blood sprayed out as he exhaled and then dribbled out the corner of his mouth.
Josef shouted and Marton grabbed the gun from Pitr’s hip, emptying it in Josef, who staggered forward a few steps before dropping to the ground, his eyes still wide in surprise.
Marton stood and tried to figure out where he was. Nothing looked familiar to him. Heaving himself off the ground, he hobbled up to the street, then hailed a taxi creeping along. His head was pounding, his left arm was useless, and it felt like they’d ruptured one of his kidneys. Every step hurt.
He climbed in and made eye contact with the driver, who raised an eyebrow as he looked at Marton in the rearview mirror. Not one of theirs. The cab stunk of fast food, cigarettes, and sweat. Marton fidgeted and resisted the urge to roll down the window.
“Where to?” the cabbie asked, his voice husky from smoking too much.
“Not sure yet,” Marton replied. “Drive somewhere.”
“Of course, boss.” He started the meter. “Gotta clear your head after the job?”
“The job?” Marton may have misjudged the driver. He needed to get out and soon. The problem was he didn’t know where he was or where he needed to go.
“Yeah, kill the guy, ditch the car.”
Marton had definitely misjudged.
“First day?” Marton asked. The cabbie looked surprised.
“What do you mean first day?” he growled, his eyes narrowing. “I look like a novice to you?”
“Yes.” Marton said, forcing himself to lean forward and hook his right arm over the front seat, his left curled into his body. “You do.”
The cabbie lifted his hands off the wheel. “Hey, man, I ain’t workin’ for nobody. They just give me some money and said to wait around for the guy finishing the job. I overheard the other stuff when they walked away.”
“Show me,” Marton said, nodding his head toward the pile on the front seat.
When the glove compartment popped open, Marton recognized the green envelope. They always used green for the one-time hires they’d eventually kill.
“You got yourself a raw deal,” Marton said. “You’re going to die. You want me to do it or them?”
“Whaddya mean?” The cabbie’s eyes were wide, his eyebrows nearly in his hairline. “They never said nothin’ like that.”
“Of course not. Would you have done it then?”
The realization dawned on the cabbie. For the first time, Marton actually felt sorry for a greener.
“Hey, man,” Marton lowered his voice. “I’ll give you a head start. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”
“What you talking about?” the cabbie said.
“Drop your cab at work and skip town,” Marton scanned the area. “They usually give 20-K to greeners. Makes no difference to them, they always get it back.”
Sweat poured down the man’s face. His chest heaved with each breath. His eyes jerked back and forth beneath his half-closed lids.
“What is this, a seizure? Greeners,” Marton grumbled.
He opened the door of the cab and stepped out. Looking up and down the street, he saw a pair of guys, probably mid-twenties, walking toward him, half a block away.
“Hey!” Marton called, waving them over.
They pointed at themselves.
“Yeah, come here! I think this guy’s having a heart attack or something!” The movement and yelling made Marton’s entire body scream.
They ran over, and Marton could smell the alcohol on their breath. His head swam and blood pounded in his temples. He hated the extra sensitivity to smells that a beating always gave him.
“Shiiiiiiiiii-” one breathed, blinking his eyes hard and leaning into the window. Marton turned to his more sober counterpart, who was staring back, eyes wide.
“You okay, man?”
“Yeah. Get some help.”
The young man took off running without a word, glancing back at Marton several times.
“You got a phone?” Marton asked the remaining man. When he didn’t answer, Marton punched him on the shoulder, sending a jolt of pain down his own arm. He gritted his teeth. “You got a phone?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the man said, pulling it out and offering it to Marton.
“Call 9-1-1, man.” Marton pushed the phone back toward the man, who then dialed.
Drunks. Marton shook his head and regretted it.
Once Marton heard dispatch answer, he hobbled away, rounding the corner at the next block before trying to run. Unable to, he ducked into a doorway and tried to catch his breath. The minutes ticked by as blood pounded through his ears.
“Think, Marton, think,” he urged himself. His phone rang.
“Hello?” he said.
“Marton,” the familiar voice oozed over the phone. “You slipped away from me.”
“Marton, I need you here with me. Not running around rescuing little whores.”
“Where is she, Michael?”
“I can’t tell you that, now can I, Marton?”
He heard a muffled scream in the background.
“It’s bad for business, you know,” Michael went on, “and really, just because you are the best handler I’ve ever known doesn’t mean you get what you want when you walk away.”
Marton clenched his jaw.
“Tell you what, Marton–” Michael began.
Marton heard a train rumbling through the phone, giving away Michael’s whereabouts. He hung up and made his way back to where he’d dumped the cabbie.
Marton swore. Looking up the street, the cab was still there with the drunk guy vomiting on the street. Police would be there any moment.
“No!” Marton grimaced. “No!” Every step sent jolts of pain up through his skull, and his insides felt as though they would burst any moment.
Having no choice, he took off again. He needed a vehicle. Looking up and down the streets, he finally found a lone Civic several blocks away, the bottom half nearly rusted off, the tires more than a few PSI short of full. He had no choice. Threading his fingers through the brass knuckles and taking a huge breath to prepare himself, he punched out the window and unlocked the door. Crawling to look under the dash, he hotwired the car. He raced as fast as he could on the spongy tires along the deserted back streets trying to get to the warehouse where he knew they were.
“I should have guessed. I should have known where they would be!” Marton was annoyed by his oversight.
After parking eight blocks away, Marton crept along in the shadows, wishing he had his gun. Or hadn’t used all of Pitr’s bullets.
He came across the first lookout and punched him in the throat, a sickening gurgling escaping from him. Marton grabbed his gun and kept moving, trying to breathe through the newest throbbing in his arm. A shout erupted from one of the rooftops, and a bullet whizzed past him. He was still too far away from Michael, who he assumed was camped out in the abandoned warehouse they always used for this kind of business. Marton hid in a doorway to plan. He needed a diversion.
His phone rang again.
“Michael,” he answered.
“Marton, is that you on our front steps?” Michael sounded almost cheerful.
Silence on the other end.
“Let me come in, or I will kill everyone,” Marton threatened. “Every. Last. One.”
“Marton.” Michael cleared his throat. That was his tell, what he did when things didn’t go according to plan. “Come now.”
“Not your night? Wasn’t Josef’s or Pitr’s either. Call off the dogs.”
Marton hoped his words would be enough. He wasn’t likely to win more fights tonight.
Michael laughed. “Do you–”
“No games, Michael. I found them all. Call your sister. Ask what came in the mail for her.”
Marton hung up and waited, checking how many bullets he had. Only five left.
His phone beeped a text. “Come.”
Marton walked down the middle of the street and made his way into the warehouse, trying to hide his limp. It was packed with men and guns, but Johana was nowhere to be seen.
“Marton,” Michael said, extending his hands wide. “Welcome.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s not here,” Michael said. “Did you really think I’d lead you to her?”
Marton closed his eyes and breathed.
All the cars will be parked underground.
If she isn’t here and they have her, where is she?
Marton opened his eyes. Time slowed and suddenly he knew, actually knew, where she was. Only two had their weapons ready; the rest were waiting. The door was six feet behind Marton, slightly to the left. He relaxed his grip on the gun in his hand and took another breath.
The sound of a car outside distracted one of the guns. Marton shot the other and then Michael in quick succession. Everyone jumped and Marton rolled toward the door, shutting it behind him and forcing a piece of rebar he found leaning against the wall under the door, kicking at it to wedge it as tight as possible. It would buy him just a minute or two.
He flew down the stairs, once again getting his brass knuckles on. Punching another guy into a wall and grabbing his semi-automatic, Marton made his way to the cars, shooting everyone he met. He picked the third Escalade, which always held the grenades, climbed in and opened the center console.
He started the engine and floored it, tossing live grenades out the window as fast as he could. As he made it above ground, the first one went off. He streaked for Michael’s house, certain he was too late.
His only consolation was that if there were that many guns at the warehouse, there would only be a few at Michael’s.
As Marton pulled to the front door, he grabbed the semi-automatic that had fallen on the floor from the front seat. Stepping out of the car, he made quick work of the three standing at the front door. He stepped over them and walked into the silent house and down the stairs. Opening each door, he found her behind the third one and his suspicions were confirmed. There she lay, beaten and bloody. Her head turned.
“Johana! Or should I say Anya?”
She gasped and rolled, grimacing.
“Marton,” Johana croaked. “You found me.”
“I will always find you,” Marton said, reaching over and taking her hand. “I will always take care of my sister.”
Marton helped her stand, and they both hauled their broken bodies out to the Escalade. She climbed into the front seat, her bright green eyes popping out from behind the swollen and bloody face.
“What now?” she asked.
“We leave. I found them at the warehouse, and I did what I do best. I handled the inside job. I don’t know who is left, but I don’t care.”
“What about my job?”
“Sorry, Johana. I don’t think you’re going back.”
Johana sighed. “I actually liked that job. I was good at it.”
“I’m sure you were. We’ll find you a new one. Somewhere else.”
Johana turned her head away from Marton. He glanced at her, but kept his eyes trained on the the rearview mirror. Nothing suspicious yet.
As they left the city, he flung his phone out the window. They would be fine. The third car was always the getaway car, and he’d buy a new one at sunup with the cash they always stashed in the spare tire well. He and Johana would disappear. And he’d be ready if anyone ever came looking for them.