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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #16

The two on the phone were definitely in a booth near a track. From the sound of the voice, Uncle Pauly's companion was a child, just tall enough to reach the phone to be heard.

There was only one Jason who would use the code word "Gethsemane." Somehow, the old phrase, "Speak of the devil," didn't fit this situation, but Vic couldn't think of anything else that fit. Jason -- as in FBI Agent Jason McCoy, who investigated Mob activities from the inside. Jason McCoy, who had helped a hood with a bright future break free to save the life of the computer geek who had become a liability to the Family.

"This is Tony, Uncle Pauly," Vic said, and smiled bitterly at the sound of his coldly steady voice. He hadn't used that voice in a lifetime. Three lifetimes, actually. "Where are you?"

"Fleetwood Park." The old man chuckled, a ragged sound Vic knew well. "What you been putting me through? Don't you got no manners?"

"Did Jason tell you I've got a new life--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know all that. Can't expect my old head to hold onto everything. You got to get out here, Tony." Pauly took a loud, long, deep breath. "It's for a kid. I know I don't deserve no help, but there's a kid gonna get hurt."

"I'll meet you at the top of the grandstands closest to the gate. Give me an hour, okay?"

When Vic hung up the phone, he slumped back against the lowered blinds that covered the waist-to-ceiling window. The plastic and aluminum crinkled and rattled, but he didn't hear over the banging of his heart and the screaming of memories. Twice before, the past had reached out and grabbed him. But the past had never asked for help before. It never came with Jason's code word spoken in a child's voice.

Vic knew he should pray, but the pressure, the sense of drowning blocked all thoughts except those that had been trained into him so long ago.

"Help, God," he finally whispered, as he reached for his jacket -- automatic reaction to bring a jacket to alter his appearance, no matter how hot out it was today -- and headed for the door.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #15

The skills Tony Sutera had learned might have to come back into play, if anyone threatened Rene.

Please, God, I don't want to be Tony anymore, Vic prayed as he listened to Uncle Pauly wheeze and sigh, with a background of what sounded like race track hustle and bustle. What was the old man doing at the track? He wasn't allowed, because race track betting was like a crack addiction for him.

If this was a trap, wouldn't his enemies know that he would know Uncle Pauly had a price on his head if he went near the track? Meaning they would know he wouldn't trust anyone claiming to be Uncle Pauly, calling from the track. Meaning they wouldn't try such a trick. So maybe… maybe this was legit?

"This is his Uncle Pauly," the old man said on a moan. "You tell him Jason gave me a package to deliver to him. Jason says something about gabardine."

"It's Gethsemane, Uncle Pauly," a sweet little female voice corrected, the speaker standing close enough to get picked up by the phone. "Jason said the code word is Gethsemane."


Vic nearly dropped the phone. He turned to lean his back against the creaky plastic shelving and closed his eyes. Pieces of Tony resurrected, analyzing the sounds, while another part of him dropped to his metaphorical knees and started praying.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #14

The phone rang. Vic nearly leaped to his feet to answer.

"Gold Tone Gym. Vic speaking."

Silence from the other end. Or was it? Did Vic hear breathing? Something else... faint, muffled crowd sounds. Cheering?

"Yeah, lemme talk to Tony?" an old man's voice wheezed.

"Can I tell him who's calling?"

Vic's thoughts turned to his emergency bag, hidden behind the false back of his utility closet. It held another set of new identity papers and enough cash to get him and Baxter to Canada or Mexico and established in new lives.

"It's personal. An emergency." The old man's voice cracked. "Come on, fella. Don't you know when a guy's ready to fall apart?" He let out a gusting sigh, with a rattle of flabby lips at the end.

That sigh did it, as individual as a fingerprint.

Vic closed his eyes, feeling dizzy as the pieces all fell together. Some of his fondest memories as a boy were with Uncle Pauly at the tracks. The man wasn't his uncle, but one of the hangers-on in the Family who could be trusted to keep the sons of the big guys out of trouble, to train them to put the Family first and see the dirty work as glamorous.

Uncle Pauly had been put out to pasture by the time Vic graduated to the adult ranks. The old man had a weakness for the ponies. Any new system that came along got his attention.

Why was Uncle Pauly calling him here in Tabor, and how had he gotten his number?

"Is this a personal call?" Vic hated himself for putting the old man through this. He had to. He had Baxter to protect. More than Baxter, he had to think about the danger, the damage from a collision between his old life and his new life in Tabor.

What if someone came after Rene to get to him?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #13

"It's okay, man," Baxter murmured in that voice too smooth and deep for such a small frame. He glanced over his shoulder at Vic and grinned.

"What are you talking about?" Vic leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms, ready for one of those friendly bickering sessions; a tradition since their school days.

"You never check on me until closing time, unless you're dragging your sorry butt down Memory Lane again."

"Oh, really?"

"You need a new life, you know that?"

"No, thanks. Life number four suits me just fine." He chuckled when Baxter groaned and slumped in his ultra-deluxe leather desk chair to glare at the ceiling.

"Rene looks especially fine today. Stop playing the Cowardly Lion and ask her out."

"It's Wednesday. She has choir practice."

"So? Do I have to do everything for you? Come on, you two are perfect for each other. When are you going to stop giving each other those 'some enchanted evening' looks and get together?"

"Some enchanted evening? Somebody's overdosing on Broadway again." Vic straightened up and got off the doorframe. "I'll have you know someone said they smelled something burning. I was just checking to see you hadn't burned out half the circuits in here again."

"Uh huh. And you weren't drooling over Rene in that jade workout suit she bought last week." He waggled his pencil-thin eyebrows and turned back to his computer.

"Rene's too classy to drool over her." He tried to ignore the twinge inside that admitted Baxter was right. Would he have to wait another four years to get beyond the "best pals" stage? "I don't want to scare her."

Thursday, September 17, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #12

He skirted the perimeter of the gymnasium. Half the equipment was in use, at only three-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. Pride in his business mixed with relief to raise his first real smile of the day. Gold Tone Gym was doing better than he had hoped when he decided four years ago to put together the kind of gym he would want to use. Yes, he could imagine other gymnasiums being jealous and fearful. It had been a smart move to convert the old armory building, just a block away from the center of Tabor. They had more than enough traffic from the various businesspeople, store owners, doctors from the hospital three miles away, and the professors and students at Butler-Williams University. Not to mention all the young families and yuppies who chose Tabor Heights because of its proximity to the bus lines, the Rapid Transit station and Cleveland-Hopkins Airport.

Next to the storage room for towels, tools, and supplies for the latest vitamin and health-food craze, another room hummed and clicked behind its ajar door. Vic always felt a moment of pride when he thought of that room. He had provided it; a safe haven for the nerdy little kid who had helped him with his homework in middle school -- the pal he had been ordered to kill seven years ago.

Vic didn't bother tapping on the door before he opened it. Baxter wouldn't hear if he was up to his elbows in assembling a computer for the business he ran out of the back of the gym. Or if he was engrossed in some new avenue on the Internet.

Sure enough, the 'jumbotron' screen glowed, silhouetting Baxter's elegant, shaven head and pointed goatee. His muscled shoulders hunched slightly and he seemed a statue but for the long-fingered hand manipulating his mouse with tiny, deft movements that always amazed Vic. Compared to his almost elfin black friend, Vic felt like a clumsy giant. Baxter had been the genius escaping his ghetto neighborhood on a scholarship, protected on the first day of school by the boy who was destined to grow up to be "muscle" for one of the Families who ruled the city. Just like his father and grandfather before him.

Back when they both had different names, different futures, different lives. Back before Baxter became a Christian and refused to calculate odds or hack into target businesses for the Family. Before Vic had been ordered to "remove" his best friend, once he became a liability.

Monday, September 14, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #11

Vic tried to pray, but it was hard. He was almost relieved when he went to work in the office and monitor the front of the gym that afternoon. Keeping busy would block his worries.

But he found out after only half an hour that the specters of the past and his worries didn't stay behind him in his apartment. Despite praying, he was still edgy. Vic prowled the perimeter of the gym, checking each piece of equipment every time somebody walked away from it.

Memories ran through his head, despite trying to push them away. He played scenarios until he had a headache. But he had convinced himself that no one he knew from the old days, none of their errand boys, would play petty tricks like sabotaging the gym. Rene knew about the alleged accidents from the beginning. Was it only a week ago it had started? She had suggested that a rival gymnasium was sabotaging them because they heard Gold Tone was looking into starting up a franchise. The theory had made them laugh. It wasn't a joke now.

A business rival with a childish, nasty sense of humor? Vic only hoped so.

Still, more memories tumbled through his head, taking him back to the old days. Back when he had another name. Another home. Another business. Another Family.

Baxter was the only remnant of that other life -- besides scars from fists, chains, and a trip through a car windshield. As always when the past hammered at the locked and guarded door in his mind, Vic had to go check on his friend.

Friday, September 11, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #10

By seven-thirty Wednesday morning -- half an hour after opening the Gold Tone Gym -- trouble had already slapped the staff and equipment. Every clean towel in the gym was in the dirty laundry hamper, with no explanation for how they got there. Pins were missing from nearly half the weight stations, tossed into corners or tucked under the pads of the seats. How could anyone use the equipment if they couldn't adjust the weight? Vaseline -- or something equally slick -- coated seats and hand grips on nearly a third of the stations.

If Baxter and Shane hadn't been on the alert for trouble already, several customers could have been hurt before the sabotage was discovered. A dozen more would have walked out, unable to exercise.

To make matters worse, Charlene's cousin, Connie something-or-other, nearly strangled herself on the cable of the triceps station. Fortunately, Shane caught her bringing the bar down farther than specified in the instruction poster on the wall next to the machine. Plus, she stood with her back to the station and brought it down over her shoulder, across her chest, instead of facing the station. Shane grabbed the bar just as Connie lost her grip, before the bar and steel cable caught around her neck.

"Weird lady," Baxter added as he reported the mishap to Vic over a second cup of coffee in his apartment behind the gym. "She was actually ticked at Shane for saving her. Like she wanted to get hurt or something."

"She was probably embarrassed Shane had to save her from herself," Vic offered.

"Yeah. Probably right."

Still the conversation stayed with Vic through most of the day. He worried it like a sore tooth, rubbing it with his tongue until that grew sore, too. In this case, the soreness found itself aiming at God.

Hadn't he done enough to pay for all his crimes before he became a Christian? Tabor was the third town he had settled in since fleeing New York. He didn't want to leave.

But what if this stupid, petty sabotage of the gym was the calling card for someone with a score to settle? What if things were about to heat up?

"I can't take it, Lord. I'm not the same guy I was seven years ago. I don't have the steel nerves anymore. Why can't I stay here?" he blurted, his voice rising to echo through the vaulted ceiling of his loft apartment. "With Rene," he added a moment later, on a whisper. The apartment didn't throw the words back at him, but that was no comfort.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #9

"Somebody got liquid soap all over the floor in the women's locker room this afternoon," Baxter said, when they were far enough from the rest of the group to speak without being overheard.

"It'd take a lot to get the bottle out of the dispenser rack, wouldn't it?" Vic stared unseeing at the ripples in the amber water of Williams Lake.

"I swear, somebody's out for us." Baxter shook his head and kicked at a few pebbles embedded in the packed dirt around the shack. "First pins go missing, then those cables get frayed where they've got no business being frayed... and just how much rubbing does it take to fray steel fiber cables, man?"

"We hoped it was just accidents, or carelessness."

"More like deliberate. I know what it takes to put those things together." Baxter scowled and kicked a few pebbles toward the water. "No accident makes pins come out and end up three feet away on the floor, or dispensers tip out of the racks and cover the floor with pink goo."

"So what do we do? Go to the police and tell them somebody is sabotaging our gym?" Vic took a deep breath, hating this part. They had conversations like this in the previous two towns where they had tried to build new lives, new identities. After four years, he had thought he and Baxter were finally safe from the people who wanted them dead. "What evidence do we have, without telling them the truth?"

"Chief Cooper is a Christian. I think it's safe to tell him. Half the guys on the force go to our church."

"No. Not yet. Let's just... double up the work schedule. Keep track of when the sabotage happens. Compare it to the sign-in sheets. See if we can catch a pattern, okay?"

"Then we go to Chief Cooper."

Saturday, September 5, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #8

Vic knew he should look away, but that would mean looking straight at Rene. Not that he didn't enjoy looking at Rene with her delicate, pixie features and athletic build. He loved the sparkle in her big gray eyes and the way her short hair bounced when she moved. Looking was all he allowed himself to enjoy. Other than hugging her a couple times when they went to Progressive Field and the Indians made fantastic plays, he had no idea what she felt like, what her lips would taste like if he kissed her.

Sometimes, playing the white knight and making up for all the scummy things he did in New York became too heavy a burden. Especially when his principles collided with the hunger in his heart. This time, he had a reprieve. The thought of the shock and terror on Rene's face, the flashback to her rape he would induce if he backed her up against the car and stole a kiss, made him sick to his stomach.

"It's about time you got here," Baxter called out, as the foursome crossed the grass to the pavilion full of picnic tables. He had left work at Gold Tone Gym early that afternoon just to stake out tables for their group. Now the late afternoon sun glinted off his ebony shaved head, threw his small frame and wide shoulders into stark relief, and gilded his short goatee.

"They're right on time," Pastor Glenn called from the row of portable gas grills set up on the edge of the cement pad. Flames were just starting to shoot up from the grease of the hamburgers and brats he grilled at every picnic.

"Got to talk to you," Baxter said, lowering his voice as he met Vic and took three two-liter bottles from him.

For a moment, Baxter was no longer the absent-minded computer genius who handed out towels, assembled and de-bugged computer systems, and made the customers laugh at the gym. He was the hot, young, black Internet wizard who had been a gold mine for Vic's New York boss.

Vic nodded and tipped his head toward the gaudily-painted wood snack shack further down the slope toward the lake. The swimming crowd wouldn't begin to linger after the sun started to dip below the trees until after the Fourth of July. That gave their Bible study picnic sole ownership of the grounds around the former sandstone quarry-turned-lake. And now gave him and Baxter a chance to talk unobserved.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

THE TEDDY BEAR DANCER -- Excerpt #7

Tuesday night, instead of their regular Bible study, their group met for a picnic down at Williams Lake in the Metroparks. Rene teased Vic for bringing three quarts of seafood salad from Heinke's instead of actually making something. He just laughed. After all this time, probably everyone who mattered in town, and especially in their circle of friends, believed Vic didn't cook unless he was out of frozen dinners and all the restaurants in town were closed. What they didn't know was that he liked to cook and experiment. His kitchen was custom-made with gourmet gizmos and he recorded the latest cooking shows and enjoyed cooking competitions more than other people enjoyed "Dancing with the Stars" and "Survivor." However, sharing those experiments with anyone besides Baxter and Rene was a step he wasn't willing to take. Mostly because he got his cooking talent from his great-grandmother, and a cousin of his who looked enough like him to be a twin ran a five-star restaurant in Manhattan. The fewer people there were in the world who could connect him with gourmet cooking, the safer he would be. By extension, that meant Rene and Baxter's safety.

Still, it was nice to be teased and know that Rene protected his secret, even if she didn't know why he preferred to keep his cooking skills hidden. She had more than enough talent for both of them, and always seemed glad to whip up treats whenever they were needed. For example, Rene and Bekka had signed up for desserts for tonight's picnic, and the back of his car was loaded with Tupperware containers full of cookies, cupcakes, and pudding-type concoctions that would probably melt before anyone got to them.

"That's why I say, eat dessert first," Shane said, as he helped Bekka unload the car.

He had volunteered to take care of the beverages, and had loaded their portion of the picnic in Vic's trunk at the gym. Shane rode a motorcycle, which was not conducive to carrying much of anything besides him and Bekka. Shane without his motorcycle would seem as strange as Shane without his signature gray Stetson, and the build of a steel worker.

"My philosopher," Bekka said with a sigh. It turned into a laugh a moment later when her fiancé pinned her against the car, a tray of cupcakes between them, and stole a kiss.