Saturday, May 20, 1995 Buck got in from Stamford last night about 7:30. We went from the airport to visit with Lois at Azalea Trace, so by the time we got home it was around nine. Buck had not eaten lunch or dinner, and it was about 10:30 by the time he got a fried egg sandwich. But it was a lovely evening and a much-anticipated reunion.
We packed, loaded all our gear, locked everything twice and were on the road to Townsend at 10:30 this morning. Our route took us from Pensacola through Birmingham and Chattanooga; almost to Knoxville, taking the Lenoir City exit over to Maryville, then into Townsend.
Stopping at the Food Lion in Maryville, we got enough provisions to take us through Monday morning.
It was great to see the familiar little town again, although it is too rapidly changing from pastoral village to tourist mecca, the beautiful farmland with its bales of hay neatly rolled . . . and a sign advertising the land as commercial property for sale stuck prominently in the center. The key and a map to our rental house were in the mailbox at Townsend In the Smokies Realty. All of the rental units have names. Ours is “Dancing Bear.” It is located on the Tuckaleechee Cove Road, just shy of the “World Famous” Tuckaleechee Caverns: “Greatest Sight under the Smokies” (so saith the billboards).
Dancing Bear is new and very comfortable. Our view from the deck is a pasture full of cows in the foreground and Rich Mountain looming in the background. Unfortunately, the Tuckalachee Cove Road is traveled frequently, so road noise starts early. Even with decent soundproofing it’s noticeable. The other drawback is a neighbor who does woodworking projects into the evening while we’re sitting on the deck. Above the hum of his drill we cannot help but hear the sibilant tones of his wife . . . who sounds a lot like Thelma in the Flintstones.
Nonetheless we enjoyed sitting on the deck watching lightning bugs. And later, a supper of spaghetti with meat sauce and a tossed salad.
All week the weather was beautiful; warm and sunny in the daytime ad cool enough to enjoy the deck at night. not cool enough for fires in the fireplace, however.
The master bedroom was equipped with a Jacuzzi which we enjoyed five nights out of seven. It was a boon for trail-weary legs.
Sunday, May 21 This morning I awoke at 6:30 EST and enjoyed several cups of coffee out on the deck as the sun rose. It was very quiet at this hour. I could actually hear the cows in the pasture across the street munching on the grass. Two woodpeckers called to each other in a percussive duet, one with higher tones on the scale. I sat on the eck steps following a sunbeam. Later we drove to the Townsend grocery for a Sunday paper, then returned to the house for oatmeal and bananas.
After breakfast we hiked a portion of Bote Mountain Road trail, 4.3 miles; connected to Lead Cove Trail which descended back to the Cades Cove Road, 1. miles; then walked along the road back to the parking lot, 3 miles. Elevation gain was all in the first 4.3 miles, approximately 2500 feet. Time: 3 1/2 hours.
Monday, May 22 Our triumphant return to the Alum Cave trail ascent to Mount Le Conte. Max elevation gain 2560 feet; 10 miles; time was 5 hours walk time with one hour at the summit for lunch.
Tuesday, May 23 Five mile hike on Schoolhouse Gap Trail plus an unnamed manway through the forest. Saw wild hogs and two deer, including a little buck in velvet, plus a baby rabbit.
Wednesday, May 23 9 miles today on the Rich Mountain Loop Trail. It included the Crooked Arm Ridge and Indian Grave trails; 1750 feet up and 1750 feet down; a tough ascent and also a steep, rocky descent. saw several deer, but the most special event of the day was seeing mom and pop wild turkeys and their babies.
Thursday, May 24 Today we coasted on the biking/walking trail in Townsend.
Friday, May 25 The Cucumber Gap Trail from Jake’s Creek Trail to the Little River Trail, to the Rough Creek Trail, to the Sugarlands Mountain Trail, to the Huskey Gap Trail, and back to the Little River Trail and eventually . . . the truck! Seventeen miles on the day and 53 for the week.
She paused a couple of beats and frowned. “Yes, I have a husband.”
Her voice sounded so grim she could have been in court pleading guilty to felony manslaughter. Her shoulders sagged. She averted her eyes like she was ashamed. I didn’t need to hear a lengthy diatribe about Mr. “what’s-his-name” Calabrese to know there was trouble in the marriage. And no doubt trouble for me if I got mixed up in it.
Ordinarily, I would not have become involved to begin with, but she was so lovely and looked so alone. I wanted to wrap her up in my arms and shield her under the canopy of my protective umbrella. Everybody had trouble, I thought, including me. Especially me. I tossed down the remains of my Chianti, knowing damn well I was going to get my tail in the crack over this woman. But I couldn’t help it.
“All right, let’s save your story for the plane so I can hear every word without interruption.”
I dropped two fifties on the table for Gino and led her back to the front door. There was nothing suspicious outside, and Jonas was waiting at the curb. Ten minutes later we rolled up beside the Gulfstream.
“We’ve got good weather all the way into Miami, Colonel,” LeRoy said. “Should be a smooth flight.” Kim headed up the stairs. Lowering his voice, the former Top Gun pilot said, “You’ll have complete privacy in the cabin all the way. There’s fresh ice and snacks in the bar.”
I gathered from his sharky grin he meant to give me every opportunity to become a member of the mile-high club. I ducked my head and shoulders entering the door, palmed the Glock, and stuck it back in my bag while Kim looked over the cabin configuration.
The seating arrangement looked like a posh VIP lounge. Understated luxury in beige and ivory with walnut tables and trim, plush carpet, padded side panels, and pleated leather seats. I took off my blazer. Kim handed me her pantsuit jacket. I hung them both in a closet. My eyes roved down her cream-colored blouse to her waist and hips. She had more curves and elevations than a mountain road.
She sat in a captain’s chair next to a window. I settled into the companion chair beside her and stretched my long legs under a walnut table toward the two facing seats. The aisle curved around the four-seat arrangement next to a shallow bookcase against the windows opposite us and returned to the center of the cabin heading aft with single seats on each side.
“That pilot called you colonel,” she said. “Were you in the army?”
“No, it’s more like an honorary title.”
“How did you get it?”
“I provide some services for a security company.”
“What security company?”
“Brennan International Corporation.”
“That’s the security company Worthington uses. Are you a financial consultant for them, too?”
“I’m more like a teacher.” I fluttered my hand in the air like a dove in flight the way people do when they don’t want to discuss details.
“What do you teach?” She looked determined to get an answer.
I shrugged. It was too late to go squishy. “Hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship.”
“Really? Fighting and guns, too? Where’d you learn that?”
“I grew up in Atlanta. Most men in Georgia fight and shoot guns.”
“But you’re a financial advisor?”
“I told you I have other pursuits.”
“Matthew, you’re worse than trying to unravel knots from a wad of string.”
“Let’s talk about you.”
That stopped her. She looked out the window as the jet taxied onto the runway. The twin Rolls Royce Tay engines powered up, and the takeoff surge drove us deeper into our soft leather seats.
“Good grief,” she said. “What a wonderful way to travel.”
I edged out of my seat. “I’m going to get a bottle of wine.”
“You’re going to get me tipsy.”
“I intend to loosen your pretty tongue. You owe me a story.” I went to the galley, popped the cork from a bottle of chilled white wine, returned with two stemmed glasses, and poured.
“Umm, this is good.”
“I’m glad you like it.” I smiled and patted her hand, the one with the rings that was now in the open on the armrest beside mine. “Talk to me.”
She looked straight ahead. “Well, I grew up in Miami. My maiden name is Jones.”
“Quite a leap from Jones to Calabrese.”
“From the frying pan into the fire.” There was not one scintilla of humor in her voice. Her jaw muscles pulsed.
She told me both of her parents were dead by the time she was nineteen. She went to Florida State on an academic scholarship, worked part-time to support herself, and graduated with a BS degree in psychology. Two weeks later, she married Mario Calabrese, a high-rolling executive from New York. After a honeymoon in Europe, he took her to his Long Island estate with armed guards inside a high wall. She’d been there ever since. I began to get that old feeling that something was wrong with this picture.
“I was swept off my feet. Mario was thirty-eight, wealthy and an executive vice president of Consolidated Metals and Salvage. He’s now president of the company.”
I recognized the name. It was a big outfit, close to twelve billion dollars in market value. The stock traded on the NASDAQ under the ticker symbol of CMSX.
“I wanted children. He said he did, too, but from the very beginning he insisted I use contraceptives. Later, I tried to talk with him about starting a family. He got so angry I thought he was going to hit me. He told me I better not get pregnant, or he would force me to have an abortion.”
She paused. “Matthew, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. We hardly know each other. Maybe we should talk about something else.”
I took her hand and squeezed gently. “You’re doing fine, Kim. Get it off your chest.”
She crossed her arms and exhaled. “Well, a couple months later, I told Mario if I couldn’t have children I wanted a career, either that or a divorce. He stared at me with cold fury and said, ‘Forget it. I’ll never give you a divorce. And don’t even think about trying to leave me.’ I’ll never forget that look on his face. He meant it.”
Her eyes watered. I squeezed her hand again. She nodded and continued.
“I persuaded him to let me go to Columbia and get a master’s degree. When I graduated, he grudgingly agreed to let me work for Worthington. We don’t see as much of each other now. He travels, and spends a lot of nights at his apartment in the city.” She closed her eyes.
“What happens when he comes home?” I was stepping off into the weeds of her personal life and becoming more concerned about her well-being as the picture came into focus. She was in a world of hurt, and I would never have guessed it based on my observations earlier before I raised the question about her husband.
“It’s tense,” she said. “His moods are unpredictable. I never know what’s liable to set him off.”
“You’re scared of him, aren’t you?”
“He has a temper.” She squeezed her wrist so hard; her knuckles turned white. “Yes, I’m afraid of him.”
I stuck my neck out. “Are you still having sex?”
She looked at me like a doe caught in the headlights, eyes wide, lips parted, then blinked and turned away. I wasn’t sure she would answer, but she laid it on the line. “He demands his conjugal rights.”
“How do you deal with it?”
A shadow crossed her face. “I fake it.”
That revelation jarred me. So Mario bedded her solely for his own gratification, her feelings be damned, and she was too frightened to resist. The thought of him using her that way churned my stomach. It was anger, not nausea. A visceral reaction to somebody abusing a woman or hurting a child. Zero tolerance. My growing animosity toward her husband leaped to intense dislike. The scarred knuckles of my clenched fists turned white.
“How long have you been doing that? Does he know?”
“About three years,” she said. “I don’t think he cares. I’m just a trophy wife that he uses for his pleasure. He doesn’t need me. He has girlfriends.” She started chewing on the cuticle of her index finger like she had a hangnail.
“You should leave him.”
“I don’t dare. I threatened to after I started working for Worthington. He grabbed my shoulders and shook me so hard I had bruises for weeks. He swore he would find me and drag me back, and confine me to the house under guard.”
“That’s against the law.”
“Matthew, you don’t understand. Mario is powerful. He always gets his way. He has political influence, wealth, and armed men. One of them drives me everywhere I go. I can’t fight that.”
“You don’t have a car?”
“No, I have a bodyguard who drives me. His name is Rico.”
“How’d you get away to make this trip?”
“Visiting my sister in Miami twice a year is the one thing Mario lets me do. I’m free for a few days, but I can’t just run away. I don’t have the money to run or the skill to hide.”
“Can’t you move in with your sister?”
“No.” Her eyes widened. “Mario would send his men straight to her house to get me. I can’t put her and the children in a situation like that.”
It’s been a while since I was a member of the New York Bar, but she had more legal recourse against her husband than she thought. I understood her fear, though. The criminal justice system is slow and cumbersome, but bad guys with money and guns can turn on a dime and give a quick nickel in change, or a bullet. It sounded like she had solid grounds to be afraid. I killed the remains of my wine and refilled both of our glasses.
“You said this bodyguard, Rico, drove you everywhere. Does he drive you to work?”
“Yes, he drives me to the office in the mornings and picks me up in the afternoons.”
“Was he supposed to drive you to the airport today?”
“Yes, but I called him just before I left my office and told him I’d taken a cab.”
Bingo! It was the bodyguard, Rico, who was following us. The tail was on her, not me.
I added it up. A rich wop with a violent temper; a mansion on Long Island surrounded by walls; threats and spousal abuse; armed men twenty-four seven; a big cash-rich company in the salvage business; bodyguards, and to hell with the law. No one piece in isolation proved a damn thing, but altogether I summed it up in a word: Mafia. Sure as hell. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. Well, you know.
The lighthearted moments and provocative banter we shared earlier were gone. This discussion was deadly serious. She was in danger.
“Kim, how much do you know about your husband’s business?”
“I don’t know anything about his business. Mario doesn’t talk to me about it.”
That did it. She was telling the truth, no doubt in my mind. The girl had no idea what a fix she was in. I knew somebody who could find out about Mario’s business, and I needed to know PDQ.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to the lavatory.”
She nodded. I patted the back of her hand again, slid out of my seat and headed aft to call Wesley.
Wesley Brennan was the CEO of Brennan International Corporation, the owner of the
Gulfstream, the training base near Pensacola, and my comfortable abode. He was my employer, sort of. Owning half the company gave me a lot of sway with the management.
He picked up on the first ring. “Hello Matthew, what’s going on?”
“I’m in a jam, Wesley. I need a rush order.”
“Anything you want,” he said. “I see you’re over the Atlantic about forty miles from
Charleston. Where’re you headed?”
“I don’t know yet. I keep forgetting you’ve got all that technology at your fingertips.”
“Technology is a marvelous thing.”
Wesley’s office had capabilities similar to the Situation Room in the White House. He earned double degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering at MIT in the seventies, added a Ph.D. in physics in the early eighties, and rode the crest of the high-tech wave throughout his career. He was one of the brightest natural-born troubleshooters on the planet and a damned good man to have on your side when the shit hit the fan.
“Your scrambler on?”
“It is now. What’s the problem?” His voice was clipped; the cheerfulness gone.
“I need a complete workup on Mario Calabrese. He’s president of Consolidated Metals and Salvage. I need as much as I can get, fast, like in the next hour.”
“Christ Almighty,” he groaned. “Please tell me you’re not mixed up with that bunch. The company is controlled by the Calabrese crime syndicate in New York and New Jersey.” Mafia confirmed. Mario probably knew from Kim’s bodyguard that she’d skipped with some long-haired guy with a pink tie. Most likely he would have thugs waiting in Miami.
“I don’t have any dealings with them, Wesley. All I did was kidnap Calabrese’s wife.”
“You did what?”
“Well, kidnapped is a little strong since it’s consensual, but her husband’s a nasty piece of work. She’s in danger, and I may take her to Pensacola.”
“What do you intend to do with her?”
“I’m thinking about it. I need to know Mario’s background, connections, the whole nine yards, okay?”
“I’m on it. I’ll get back to you ASAP.”
I thanked him, washed my hands, and returned to my seat. Kim looked up and smiled. I hated the thought of throwing her into a panic, but I couldn’t justify withholding what I knew about her husband. Apparently she sensed from the look on my face there was a problem.
“Why did you ask me if I knew about Mario’s business?”
“As you said earlier, it’s complicated. I assume Mario would be angry if he found out you lied to your bodyguard and left town with me?”
“Oh boy, would he ever.” She crossed her arms tightly across her breasts. “He’d go nuclear. I’d be afraid to go back.”
“You took a hell of a risk.”
“I suppose,” she said. “I didn’t think much about it at the time. Anyway, no one saw us leave together so it’s not an issue. I’ll call Mario tonight and check in. He’ll never know.”
“I’m afraid the cat’s already out of the bag.”
“What do you mean?” She sat up straight and stared at me.
“We were followed from the Worthington Building by a guy in a black Lincoln like the one we were in. You didn’t outfox your bodyguard. He watched the door and saw us leave together.”
“My God, you can’t be serious?”
“We were followed. Jonas is a former NYPD detective. He spotted it. I told him to lose the tail. I thought somebody was following me until you told me about your bodyguard. I’m certain now it was him following you.”
She put her hands against her cheeks, which had turned pale. “I don’t know what to do. If
Mario knows I deceived Rico to go with you it won’t matter what I tell him, he’ll think the worst. I’m frightened, Matthew.”
She was right to be afraid. Mafia types don’t take kindly to disloyalty, spouses included. The thought of her gorgeous body on the bottom of the East River feeding the crabs churned my stomach again.
“He could have you picked up in Miami.”
“I didn’t think about that.”
There was no way to sugarcoat the situation or waltz around reality. She had to know the truth, and it made no sense to postpone it.
“Kim, your husband’s up to his eyeballs in the mob. He’s one of the bosses. That’s why he’s got all the armed guards. You’re in danger.”
She grabbed my arm and looked at me wide-eyed. “How do you know all that?”
“I called the CEO at Brennan International from the lavatory. He confirmed Mario’s Mafia connections. Those people are subject to kill you at the drop of a hat.”
She buried her face in her hands and leaned forward with her elbows on the table. “I can’t go to Jean’s house and I can’t go back to Long Island. There’s no place I can go where Mario won’t find me. What am I going to do?”
My tongue rolled around between my teeth and lips, a mannerism developed over time when I faced a difficult decision. Kim stared straight ahead with worry lines on her brow and around the corners of her eyes. Her shoulders were tensed. She started biting her nail again. Her body language flashed fear and desperation like a sixties neon sign.
Once again, the fault was mine. I caused this problem by inviting her to lunch and offering her a ride on the plane. Fresh as yesterday, the memories of my inadvertent killing of Don Vincent Battiglia’s son, Joseph, and the sight of Valerie’s dying face appeared in my mind’s eye. My gut tightened.
The old rage that I thought was safely tucked away flared up and throbbed in my head. Damned if I would be responsible for another woman’s death. If it meant a second vendetta with the goddamned Mafia, this time would be different. So help me God.
I reached for her hand. “You could stay with me, assuming you feel safe in my company.”
She turned her head and looked into my eyes. “I feel safe with you, but it wouldn’t be right for me to burden you with my problem.”
“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have this problem. The least I can do is protect you.”
“It would be dangerous for you. Mario will surely send armed men after us both. You could be hurt.”
“He won’t know where we are. If he finds out and tries that, I assure you he’ll regret it.”
I suppose my face looked more chiseled than usual. Or maybe she saw it in my eyes. They turn glacial with pinpoints of red in the corneas when my blood gets up. I’ve seen it in the mirror. It was imperative to control my rage. Once out of the box and roaming free, it was hard to put it back. I forced myself to simmer down.
“You can be a little scary. If I didn’t trust you, I would be frightened by that look in your eyes. You’re not just intimidating, you really are a dangerous man, aren’t you?”
She had no idea. “You should go to Pensacola with me and ride this out. I can guarantee your safety.”
She took another deep breath and gazed out the window at the puffy white clouds below that resembled a bed of goose down. The seconds ticked by.
“Where would I live?”
“At my place. I have plenty of room.”
She looked uncertain, and I understood. It didn’t require a genius to see what she was thinking.
“I have a guestroom with a private bath,” I said. “You don’t have to sleep with me.”
“I wasn’t thinking about that.”
“How could you not?”
“Well, sure, it crossed my mind. What were you thinking?”
“I’ve been thinking about the two of us in bed together since I laid eyes on you this morning, but right now you’re in danger and you need protection. I’m offering you safe harbor. Our libidos are a separate issue.”
She’d searched my eyes from the beginning of that exchange, and blinked for the first time. “Okay,” she said.
“I would like to stay with you.” A tiny smile appeared on her lips.
“Good girl.” I patted her hand. She wasn’t going to break down and cry, and lose control of herself. She had the stuff to think through a crisis and make a life-changing decision. Or maybe she wanted to run off with me from the beginning. Either way, she had pluck. Despite my penchant for solitude, I wasn’t the least bit unhappy to have someone to look after again, the Mafia be damned.
“I have to speak to the pilots,” I said and squeezed her hand. “Try to relax. I’ll take it from here.”
She nodded. Her lips quivered. She gulped her wine, and her hand shook. She put the glass back on the table, the stem pinned between her fingers, and closed her eyes with her hair flattened against the headrest.
I stepped forward to the flight deck and opened the cabin door. “What’s our location, guys?”
“About twenty nautical miles east of Jacksonville,” LeRoy said.
“Turn her ninety degrees to the west and take us home,” I ordered. “Balls to the wall.”
The pilots glanced at one another. “Roger that, Colonel.” The co-pilot held up his left hand with his index finger extended. I had one minute to get into my seat.
I helped Kim tighten her safety belt, buckled mine, and yanked it snug. The plane banked hard to starboard. The engines screamed as they spooled up toward max speed. We held onto our wine glasses. I grabbed the bottle as it slid across the table.
“I hope this is a good decision, Matthew, for both our sakes.”
The centrifugal force of the turning jet wedged us together. She’d have been in my lap except for the armrests and her seat belt. I grasped her hand, the one with all the sparklers, and kissed the back of it in slow motion. She smiled, no doubt reading my thoughts, which were all about her and transparent as Beefeater gin.
“I think you’re going to like Pensacola.”
“Frightening as it is, this is the most daring and courageous thing I’ve done in my entire life.” She laced her delicate fingers through my hard knuckles and squeezed like she didn’t intend to let go. “Matthew, if you hadn’t invited me to come with you, I’d still be in a