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Cleveland, Ohio January, 2000
Niccolo Andreani did not frequent bars. When he drank, he preferred a classic Chianti over dinner with friends, a dry marsala on a solitary evening, his Tuscan grandfather's own vino santo lifted in a toast at family gatherings. He did not frequent bars, but he frequently walked past this one on his restless nightly prowls. Whiskey Island Saloon bedecked Lookout Avenue the way a faux ruby bedecked a rhinestone choker. It was the centerpiece of the street, a ramshackle, cheerfully rowdy establishment with a steady stream of pa- trons and a generous sidewalk that made it easy to avoid them.
Unfortunately, on this particular night, the whim to turn down Lookout and walk past the saloon had changed his life forever.
Niccolo registered this thought as he came to an abrupt halt, the leather soles of his hiking boots squealing against the asphalt leading into the saloon's narrow parking lot. A question followed. If he silently retraced his steps, could he find help before the situation confronting him exploded?
A shout from the back of the lot and a woman's terrified scream were his answers. The street was empty, and the sa- loon was sealed tightly against winter. A carjacking was in progress, and the only help available was one Niccolo An- dreani.
With a grim sense of finality, he entered the lot, raising his hands shoulder high to show he was unarmed. One of two men flanking a car at the back of the lot whirled and pointed a handgun directly at Niccolo's chest. "Where the fuck'd you come from?"
Niccolo raised his hands a little higher and stood perfectly still. "I was just cutting through," he lied.
"Bad choice." The man with the gun trained at Niccolo's sternum was dark-skinned, with a face like a jigsaw puzzle that had been inexpertly assembled. As if they had carefully discussed racial quotas and partnered accordingly, the other gunman was an anemic blond.
"Look," Niccolo said, feeling for words. "Why don't you two just get out of here? I'll count slowly to five hundred, and I'll keep them here, too," he said, nodding toward the people trapped helplessly inside the wine-colored Mazda. "But some- cops."
"You'd better hope they're deaf." The man leered at Nic- colo, then motioned him closer to the Mazda. "That's my car now, and I'm gonna drive it out of here."
As if to punctuate his partner's words, the blonde banged his gun barrel against the driver's window. Niccolo heard a second muffled scream from inside.
Closer now, under the glow of a streetlamp, he could see that there were two young women in the front seats of the car and a child in the back. Both women looked to be more or less in their twenties. The driver had a waving mass of cop- per-colored hair, while the passenger's was dark and straight to her shoulders. He would have had to move closer to get a good look at the child, but he didn't have to move anywhere to know that all three of them must be terrified.
"I'll shoot right through it," the blond carjacker shouted at the driver.
Niccolo could feel himself sweating under protective lay- ers of wool and Thermolite. His voice seemed to echo in the frostbitten air. "The driver's probably scared to move. Why don't you step back and give her some room? And give the other woman a moment to get the child out."
"You giving orders?" The blonde leaned his elbows on the top of the car and sighted over it, taking aim at Niccolo. "Like
"Just a stranger." Niccolo raised his hands higher. "Who talk them out of there?"
"Go on. Step back," the black man shouted to his partner.
"He's right. Let'm out."
The blond carjacker had worn an inappropriate grin since Niccolo's first glimpse of him. It broadened farther as he waved the gun from side to side, weighing alternatives.
At last he stepped back a few inches. Niccolo could feel his heart making up for beats suppressed. He raised his voice so the women would hear him. "I think you'd better come out right now. He's going to give you the room you need. But he doesn't have a lot of time."
"Shit, man!" The blonde took one more step backward, colliding with an old Chevy wedged tightly beside the Mazda. "Get out!" he shouted at the driver. "Now. Right now!"
The parking lot was small and narrow, with two rows of cars and a middle aisle. A streetlamp at each end, crumbling asphalt, a Dumpster hiding what was probably a kitchen en- trance into the Whiskey Island Saloon. It was a Tuesday night, just weeks into a new millennium, bitter cold and growing icy, too late for dinner, too early for a quick round before closing. The lot was only half-full, and the street was still quiet.
Niccolo prayed silently. Let the women do what they're told. Let no one come by to upset the balance. Let the gun- men drive away with no one harmed. For a moment he was afraid his prayers had gone unheard. Then the car door opened, and the driver, a tall woman whose pale coppery hair glowed in the lamplight, stepped out.
"You can't have her." She lifted her chin. "You'll have to kill me first."
"You're threatening me?" The blonde was incredulous.
"You think you got some special pull? I got a gun!"
"You can't have her."
The dark-skinned man turned his head. "Lady, it's just a car. You gonna trade your life for a hunk of metal? He'll shoot you, you don't give him those keys."
She hesitated. "Just the car? You just want the car?" "Lady" "Please," she said, just loudly enough that Niccolo could
"Gimme the keys."
The driver stubbornly folded her arms over her chest to pro- ley."
The blond gunman leaped forward and pinned her against the side of the car, the gun nestled against the hollow of her throat.
The passenger door opened and the dark-haired woman obviously Peggyjumped to the ground. She was younger than Niccolo has guessed at first sight, slight, with dark chestnut hair and an oval, almost surreally beautiful face, which was understandably contorted with fear. "Just let me get Ashley out of her seat," she pleaded.
The carjacker holding the gun on Niccolo answered. "Get her and shut up!"
Peggy, who was a full head shorter than the driver, scur- ried sideways and flipped up the front seat, reaching for the little girl in the back. "Ashley, quick."
Niccolo could see the little girl shrinking back against a booster seat. "No!"
"Do as I say, Ashley."
The child wailed. "Don't let them take me!"
Peggy leaned in farther, untangling the child from her re- ley!" she pleaded.
"No!" the little girl cried as the young woman lifted her from the car. "I want my mommy!"
"Please. Just let the three of them come over here now," Niccolo beseeched the gunman. "I'll be sure they don't do anything stupid."
The dark-skinned carjacker, who seemed to be the more reasonable of the two, motioned the woman and child toward Niccolo. "Get over there."
Clutching her burden, Peggy stumbled to Niccolo's side. But he wasn't watching. His eyes were on the blond car- jacker, who still had his gun pressed against the driver's throat. As Niccolo watched, the driver unfolded her arms and held out a key ring. "Let her go, please. She'll be out of your way over here," Niccolo said, as calmly as he could. "We're not going any- where until you've driven away. Like your friend said, it's
"Yeah, let her go," the other carjacker echoed. "Let's get going."
"I don't know," the blond man said, running the barrel of his gun up and down the driver's throat. "She's kinda cute, don't you think? Maybe we oughtta bring her along for com- pany."
The little girl struggled in Peggy's arms. "I don't want to go back"
"Hush, Ashley," Peggy murmured. "Hush."
Niccolo glanced sideways and caught the terror on the young woman's face as she pressed the child's against her shoulder. The little girl, who was too young to understand that she was in no immediate danger, began to moan.
"Ah, let the bitch go," the black man said, louder this time. "Let's get going."
The blond gunman hesitated, then he stepped back to let the driver escape. For a moment Niccolo thought the worst might be over, that this random act of violence would end with nothing more than a stolen car. But before the driver could take two steps away, the blonde slammed his palms against her shoulders and knocked her against the door again. Her head snapped back. "I tell you to do something, you do it," he shouted in her face. "Got it?"
"Yes" Her voice wavered.
"Next time I tell you to get outta the car, you get outta the car."
"Next time I tell you gimme the keys, you gimme the keys!" "Whatever you say."
"I say maybe you ought to come with us. Maybe we ought to see just how willing you are!"
"Shit, man," the other gunman said. "You trying to get us caught? There ain't gonna be a next time. Let's get outta here!" He backed up slowly toward the Mazda, aiming al- ternately at Niccolo and the females beside him in warning.
Niccolo gritted his teeth, but he knew better than to utter another word. The blond carjacker was on a power trip, and big man he was. Even the child seemed to sense the import of the moment and ceased her moaning.
"Oh, go on!" The blonde grabbed the driver's arm and flung her roughly in the direction of the hood. "Get over there."
Niccolo saw relief flit across the other carjacker's features. The Mazda's driver stumbled across the lot to join Niccolo and the others. Niccolo's own relief was short-lived. The quiet of the street was split by the banshee wail of a siren, and the night was tinged with swirling ruby light.
"Deliver us from evil" Niccolo whispered.
"Fuck it all! We gotta get out of here. Grab the kid," the blonde shouted, waving his gun at his partner.
"Are you crazy?" The second carjacker looked terrified now.
"Get the kid! They won't let us out of here if you don't!" Niccolo stepped sideways to shield Peggy and the child in her arms. "No! Just get going. I'll tell the police you did-
For the second time that night the black man whirled and pointed his gun at Niccolo's chest; then he started toward him, covering the ground in long steps. "Get outta my way!"
Fired at close range, a bullet would pass right through his women behind him, Niccolo knew. He had no doubt that if he stood his ground, a bullet would be fired. As the gunman drew closer, Niccolo could see the frantic twist of his asym- metrical features. The man was desperate. He would shoot
Niccolo stepped aside, his decision made. The blonde had already planted himself behind the Mazda's steering wheel. In a moment the other gunman would wrench the child from Peggy's arms. By then the Mazda would be pulling toward them. Niccolo knew he could not let the men take the child.
"I'll come with you instead." Peggy was sobbing now.
At the same moment that the car should have roared to life, the black gunman stretched out one arm to grab the child, but the only audible sound was another blast of the siren, followed by the blare of a police radio.
Niccolo waited for the second when the gunman would be off balance and his aim askew. "Down!" he shouted to the women as the gunman leaned forward. At the same moment, with all his considerable strength, Niccolo slammed his fist against the gunman's wrist.
The gunman spun with the force but didn't lose his bal- ance. As the copper-haired driver threw herself against Peggy and the child to knock them to the ground, the gunman swung his gun at Niccolo and fired.
Niccolo didn't have time for a better plan. He lowered his head and charged, using his head like a battering ram. The gunman fell backward under the impact of Niccolo's blow just as the police cruiser pulled into the lot.