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Yet another Yellow Cab passed Bella Lacarie, this one stopping half a block up for an older, well-dressed man. She kept her curses soft but vehement as she fought the urge to look once again at her watch. She wasn't late. Yet. But the traffic was insane. Yes, it was New Year's Eve Day, but it wasn't technically a holiday until tonight, and that meant midtown was a mad mix of jostling pedestrians and unruly vehicles all coated with black slush.
Another cab came, numbers lit, and this time she stepped right into the gutter, threw her right hand in the air and whistled with her left. The combination worked, and the taxi pulled up, spraying her coat with a fine mist of mud.
"520 Eighth Ave," she said, climbing in, then immediately spilled the entire contents of her tote bag on the floor. She would not take this as an omen. For all she knew, spilling an overloaded huge purse was the best luck ever. Still, it was hard not to sigh as she bent to collect her belongings.
Just as she picked up her hairbrush and lip gloss, she heard the driver's door open and a man yell, "Get out!"
"What the hell?" came a high-pitched, accented voice that had to belong to the driver. "Who are you? What do you want?"
Fear froze Bella as she listened to the scuffle.
"Don't shoot, don't shoot!"
Oh, God, that was still the driver. The taxi rocked. She reached for the door handle, but before she could grab it, the cab shot forward, throwing her back.
She stilled where she landed. If she sat up, the assailant would see her. He had a gun. He'd shoot her. But she wasn't all that well hidden, and the floor was big enough to hold tote bags, but not bodies.
Okay, she had to breathe. Stay quiet. He'd get where he needed to go and then run away, because the cabbie would certainly call the cops, right? So no reason to panic. Especially if she couldn't identify the man behind the wheel.
The cab turned a sharp corner, sending her and everything on the floor into the door. She squelched a cry, but not completely. Oh, God. The only good sign was that she wasn't seeing a montage of her life flash by.
He sped up, cursed, then said, quite calmly, "This is Detective Greco. My car's been disabled on Church and Leonard, it'll need a tow. I'm currently in pursuit of—"
Bella bolted upright. "Detective?"
The car swerved into oncoming traffic and the detective cursed her roundly as he struggled with the wheel. "What the hell?"
"You're a detective? A police officer?"
He looked at her in the mirror, his brown eyes wide, then he cursed again and took a hard left that sent her back down onto the seat.
"Where'd you come from?" he asked.
"I was here," she said, sitting up again, "when you hijacked the cab."
"Great. Jesus. Just great."
"I'm not thrilled about this, either. Let me out."
He said nothing, just stepped on the gas, narrowly missing another car.
She clutched the seat. "Detective! Let me out."
"What? You have to. You can't take an innocent person on a car chase." Besides scaring the crap out of her, she was pretty sure this was illegal. She stared at the back of his dark head, wondering if she should try to knock him out, although that might get them both killed. "Did you hear me?"
"If I stop, I lose 'im."
They drove way too close to a black SUV and she squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for impact. Seconds later, she opened her eyes. "Can't you radio for help?"
"Yeah." He snorted. "I will. I just can't lose him. Hold on." He took a sharp left, cutting off two other cars, and throwing her against the door.
She groaned at the force of the door handle jabbing into her side. That was going to be a nice bruise.
"The scumbag is going tojail if it's the last thing I ever do," he muttered. But at least he flipped open his phone.
"I don'tneed it to be the last thing I ever do. Pull over."
The detective didn't seem to hear her. "He's right over there. In the old Caddy. Bastard isn't even stopping at the lights."
"Detective Greco, I'm going to have you arrested if you don't let me go." She looked in her tote, but of course, her cell wasn't there. "Now."
"Look, ma'am, I'm sorry. I'll let you out. I just need to—"
"The only thing you need to do is stop this car." This was the most important audition of her life. It could change everything. She'd worked very, very hard for this chance, and she wasn't going to let anyone blow it. Not to mention get her killed. She lifted a shaky hand and shoved the hair away from her face. "I mean it."
He cursed again.
"Yeah, that's going to help."
A minute later, John pulled the car to the curb, trying not to go ballistic as he grimly watched Sal get away. The prick had been right there, and if he hadn't slashed his tires…
His passenger hadn't even opened her door. He looked at his phone, but calling in was useless. Sal would be long gone by the time another unit could be dispatched. He turned to his unwilling passenger only to find her bent over the backseat. Great. Now he'd have to pay to get the cab cleaned. He didn't hear anything, though. "Ma'am?"
"What?" she asked, surly as hell.
"I've pulled over."
"Your reckless driving tossed my bag all over the floor. You'll sit there and wait while I get it picked up."
He turned back to the wheel. Anger flared again as he realized he'd have to come up with a way to explain all this to the captain. As a rule, they frowned on cops commandeering a working hack to go in pursuit. Especially one with a passenger on board.
"Dammit, I can't find my cell phone. Look under your seat."
She didn't sound like a native, but her attitude was pure New York. "Yes, ma'am."
He bent, awkwardly, and fished around for the cell, knowing he wouldn't find the damn thing. Not the way this day was going. "Nothing."
"My whole life is on that cell. It has to be here."
"What's the number?"
She was silent for a moment. Then she gave it to him, her voice slightly mollified. Maybe even impressed enough not to report him.
He dialed and a tune rang out. Jesus, the opening notes from A Chorus Line. Shaking his head, he turned to give her a hand. That's when he saw the gun. Sticking in through the window. Pointed at her.
John dropped his cell and went for his weapon.
"Uh-uh, Johnny. I don't want to hurt the pretty lady, but if I have to, I will."
John stared at the beefy man, slowly showing him his hands. Clearly he knew who John was, but John didn't recognize the guy. He wasn't from the neighborhood, even though he had a trace of an Italian accent. Was this even about Sal? Or another case John had been working on?
"You wanna go down with Sal?" he asked the man, who smiled calmly as if he knew John was fishing.
"Pass me your gun. Nice and easy."
Shit. John picked up from where he'd left it on the seat and slowly handed it over his shoulder.
"Excuse me. Sir?"
His passenger's voice was remarkably steady, given the circumstances. John finally got a good look at her. She was pretty, all right. A damn knockout. Long, silky, brown hair. Red lips, pale skin. But her eyes, they were light blue, aquamarine. Doe eyes with dark lashes.
She turned to the guy with the gun. "I don't know this man," she said. "I'm just trying to get to Eighth Avenue, so if you don't mind, I'll just slip right away and leave you two to work this out."
"Sorry, doll. I can't let you do that."
The woman faced John again. "You've got to be kidding."
"Let the lady go. Whatever this is about, she has nothing to do with it."
"No can do, Johnny." He opened the back door and stuffed himself into the rear seat, forcing the woman to slide over. She reached for the door handle, but the guy's thick hand stopped her. "Unless Johnny here does something stupid, you'll be fine. So sit back, relax, and before you know it, you'll be where you need to go."
"I'm already late for an audition. This is a callback for me. I'm so close. I know the director wants me and I'll be the lead ingenue. Please, try to understand my position."
The big man sighed, and Johnny could swear he smelled garlic. "You seem like a nice lady, but I don't got a choice here. Shut up and you'll be all right." Keeping his gun pointed straight at his target, he said, "Drive."
"Just go straight till I tell you to turn."
John put the car in gear and took off, slowly, down the street, trying to think of a way to get Blue Eyes out of this. "You wanna be in the cell next to Sal's, is that it? So he won't be lonely?"
"He's not goin' to jail, Johnny, and neither am I. Turn right."
"Sal's crazy if he thinks I'm gonna let this go." John's mind raced. The guy hadn't denied knowing Sal. But how? What had that idiot gotten himself into?
"Yeah, well, we'll see who's crazy. Take the second left."
John's gaze darted between the road and the rearview mirror. Maybe there was something familiar about the guy's thick black brows and the droop to the left side of his mouth. But John still couldn't place him. Shit, he'd probably seen him in a mug shot.
"Another left at the light."
John's hands tightened on the wheel as he realized where he was heading. "What is this? Some kinda joke? You takin' me to the neighborhood?"
"You're really a very attractive girl," the man said. "So what are you, an actress?"
Bella, who'd held her breath at every bump and turn, terrified the gun would go off, looked up in surprise. She'd hoped the detective and the maniac would get so caught up in the conversation that she'd have an opportunity to get out of this stupid car. "I do my best," she said, channeling the ballsy babe she'd played in her last stint off Broadway. "But you gentlemen seem determined to keep me away from the biggest audition of the year."
"Given this is the last day of the year, that can't be too bad, right?"
"It was an expression, somewhat hyperbolic, but close enough."
"Never mind. What is this neighborhood you're dragging me to?"
The man gave her an oily smile instead of an answer, and met John's eyes in the mirror.
"Is this neighborhood in the city?"
"It's not far."
"Then you'll let me go?"
He shrugged. "It's not up to me. What's your name, sweetheart?"
"My name is inconsequential. Just think of me as the innocent bystander. The one who's done nothing whatsoever that would cause anyone to shoot me."
He laughed. At least she thought it was a laugh. It could have been a cough. The man had a very thick neck, topped by a couple of chins. His face had that ruddy, unhealthy look, as if one more plate of spaghetti would send him to the hospital. Counseling him on his eating habits probably wasn't a good idea. She just hoped he didn't have a stroke before he stopped pointing that gun at her.
"You can call me Vince," he said, his gaze going to her chest.
She pulled her coat closed.
"Where you takin' us?" The detective glanced back at the big man. "A warehouse? That field by Tony's? You don't want to kill a cop. That's life, buddy. Hard time."
"Shut up. I'm talkin' back here."
"No, no," Bella said. "Feel free to discuss whatever you want. I'm not even listening. I'm humming quietly to myself." She bit her lip. Why did she have to babble when she was nervous? If she'd just stay quiet, do what he asked… Oh, God, if she could just not throw up…
"You're damn cute." He lifted the gun a bit. "Where are your people from, huh? France, maybe?"
"My people are from Arizona. Tempe, to be exact."
"Naw, I'm talkin' about your famiglia, your ancestors."
She wasn't going to tell this cretin a thing. Not a true thing, at least. But she didn't want to piss him off, either. "Yes, France and England. That's where my ancestors are from. Are we almost there?"
He looked front, and she stole a glance at the door handle.
"Turn right, next block."
The detective started swearing a blue streak. "You're takin' me to Sal's house? Where his mother and his grandmother live? Right under his roof?"
"Pull into the garage. It's empty. Oh, and Johnny, you better hand me your cell phone, 'cause this ain't no joke."
"No, shit. I kind of figured that out when Sal shot me."
Bella tensed again, and was pretty certain she was going to be sick all over her best dress. They were taking her to a man who'd already shot a cop, who had no qualms about letting his family know. Maybe if she fainted, they'd take pity. She was good at fainting. Best in her class.
With the gun pointed at her like that, she couldn't act anything but terrified.
Before he'd even put the cab in Park, the garage door closed. In the dim light, John thought about how he was going to get the actress clear so he could shoot Vince with the gun he had stashed in his ankle holster.
The door that connected the garage to the old two-story brick house opened, and there was Sal himself, pointing not his beloved Sig Sauer but a friggin' double-barreled shotgun.
"Put your hands out the window, Johnny. On top of the car."
"You know what you can do with that shotgun, don't you, Sal?" The idiot kid always had to have the biggest toys. John couldn't believe he'd given Sal the time of day, let alone tried to help him get into community college. Sal took after his mother's side. He was as thin as a rail and dressed like an extra on Miami Vice.
"Just do as I say." Sal's gaze went to the woman. So did the barrel of his shotgun. "Who the hell is she?"
"Put the fucking gun down before you shoot somebody." Vince sounded exasperated, and to John's surprise, Sal backed up a step and lowered the shotgun.