One Way Out – No. 157

Susan set down her mug, lipstick marking the chipped rim above the Bears’ logo, and crossed her legs. The slide of her skirt rustled against her nylons, and with a shift in his battered armchair, Tyler tried to go deaf.

“I’ve thought a lot about what you said on New Year’s Eve, Ty.”

She folded her hands, manicured fingers intertwined and balanced on her bared knee. When she raised her gaze, Tyler couldn’t help but meet her eyes. Their crystalline blue stared at him as intently as they had from a framed cushion of pillows two weeks earlier.

Her husband’s pillows.

The memory made Tyler shift again, the mug he cupped suddenly fiery. He placed his drink on the squared coffee table between them and worked up a wry smile. “I was babbling for most of it.”

Susan’s jaw firmed, making her high cheek bones stand out and her tumble of auburn hair bounce on the shoulders of her silken cardigan. The body underneath the snug buttoning, tanned and lithe, leapt into Tyler’s mind. He gripped his chair’s armrests, his grin strained.

“You know I’ve never been good with conversation.”

“No, I know you’re right. This is no way to live. If you’re getting out, I…” Susan lifted her chin and a gleam sparked in her eyes like someone had struck flint in her brain. “I want to go with you.”

Tyler rubbed his thumb against the leather and stared across his small studio at the woman who he’d dared to touch, who now wanted to run with him. The latter seemed the far more dangerous prospect.

“Your husband—”

“Can find another trophy wife.” Susan retrieved her mug and her bangs hid her features when she stared into her reflection.

“I’m sure he can but I imagine he’d be kind of pissed about being left in the lurch.”

Sighing, Susan escaped her own visage in one of the pair of windows. Snow piled upon the sill and flakes fell, obscuring the limited view he had of Lake Michigan. Her fingers whitened around the mug and her voice dropped low. “Martin’s always so mad.”

The radiator clanked as if to dispel her whisper and the sudden hint of winter creeping through the walls. Tyler forced himself deeper into his seat’s thin cushions lest he leap over the table and gather her up, warming them both and protecting her from the truth.

Martin York, he reasoned, was a mad man in more ways than one. Regardless, Tyler knew all too well who made the mob king’s troubles vanish.

Not any more.

The vow circled through his mind for the countless time since his January resolution. Tyler held fast to the chair as he did to his decision.

“If you want out, Susan, I think the best route for you is the police.”

“It’s not what you’re doing.”

“You haven’t done anything except hook up with the wrong guy. I don’t think they can jail you for that.” Susan didn’t chuckle or even quirk a grin. Dialing down his bravado, Tyler inched to his seat’s edge. “You’re innocent. Go to the police, the FBI. Tell them what you know and they can protect you. They can give you a fresh start.”

She looked back at him. “Would you have me tell them about you?”

Tyler shrugged. “If that’s what it takes for them to keep you safe, yeah.”

She finally laughed, a tart, mirthless sound. “Why couldn’t I have found a nice guy like you?”

“I’m not a nice guy. I’m,” Tyler cleared his throat, “I was your husband’s number one assassin.”

“You drink tea.” She lifted the mug. “Bad guys don’t—”

Glass snapped and the NFL logo shattered before Tyler realized a bullet had buried into her chest, right at her left breast, where it would stop her heart like a switch.

The details processed as instinct drove him to the floor. After sliding the armchair between himself and the bullet-ridden window, Tyler crawled across his matted carpet to where Susan slumped.

Tea stained his jeans and her blood smeared his tee shirt as he laid her flat. He knew what he’d find, but he checked her pulse anyway. The burbling of blood soaking her cardigan provided the only sign she’d once been living.

Curses poured through Tyler, most directed at himself, until the wind whistled through the bullet hole and the sniper’s unknown identity tunneled his thoughts. Leaving Susan prone and cooling, Tyler dashed to his dresser, snatched his pocket mirror, and flung himself beneath the windowsill.

Cold fogged the panes but, after scrubbing a clear spot in the corner, he angled the view through the mirror.

Flakes drifted in a silent shower, but across the way, on the roof of the neighboring brownstone, he saw a shadow finish disassembling a rifle, and then vanishing behind the ledge.

Sitting back against the wall, Tyler pounded his head upon the brick, trying to jostle his brain into working order. His gaze found Susan, the carpet beneath her dark, her once crystalline eyes sightless.

She’s dead because of me.

A winter gust pierced the window and his sinuses, frosting the chastisement and accompanying emotions whirling through Tyler’s mind. Cold logic filled the frozen fortress and the names of those beyond himself who could make the shot flipped like a rolodex. The faces of those at York’s New Year’s celebration, where he’d finally conveyed his decision and found a soft ear and a warmer, willing body to celebrate, followed and formed into a lineup of possible patrons.

Baker Jones linked to York, Martin’s motivations coming too easily.

On the morning of the first, Tyler remembered his slinking, hung-over departure, the realization of what he’d done, who he’d done, more sobering than any home remedy. He and Susan hadn’t met since, except in his dreams, and even those had ended badly.

But if anyone needed to pay for the one night transgression, it shouldn’t have been her.

A bang on his front door broke Tyler’s stare with Susan’s corpse and the world regain its speed. His refrigerator hummed and the radiator clinked into another cycle.

“Mrs. York?”

Benny’s voice punched through the door like his fist might have if the man had put his mind to it. Tyler held his tongue and the driver-cum-security guard pounded again.

“Mr. Owens?”

He thinks we’re both alive.

The realization dawned, accompanied by another whistling breeze, and Tyler clambered to his feet. He kept his back to the brick, empty hands on the wall while the consequences raced.

If it had been York, there would have been two bullets and Benny wouldn’t be banging outside.

Benny pounded again, each knock drumming the conclusion home.

Tyler lurched toward the door, his legs stiff, his feet numb, and braced himself on the chipped paint.

“Benny?”

“Mr. Owen? Mrs. York’s been called away. I’m afraid we need to leave.”

Tyler cringed and thudded his forehead against the door.

York knew but too late.

Unbolting the lock, Tyler withdrew the chain, and with a lift and jerk of the knob, he pulled the door ajar.

Benny’s blocky face filled the gap, his iron-rod fingers curling around the doorframe. His nostrils flared and his brown eyes widened at the telltale scent.

“Susan?”

“From the opposite roof.” Tyler backed up rather than being bowled over by the seven-foot brute pushing inside and raining clumps of snow.

Benny knelt by Susan, mug shrapnel crunching beneath his soles, but didn’t touch her. Instead, his gaze snapped around the room, as if taking photographs with his eyes alone. Tyler saw him pick out the bullet caught in the back of Susan’s chair, the spider web cracks surrounding the window’s hole. His eyes narrowed, as if he might see into the past and discover who lay on the other end of the rifle’s scope.

“Did you see who it was, Ty?”

“No.”

Benny gaze swiveled and Tyler thought the bigger man might leap for his throat. “I saw you with her on New Year’s.”

Tyler cringed and backed another step while Benny’s glare ratcheted.

“She’s here because of whatever you said, whatever you did.”

“Do you think that’s why—” Tyler gestured at Susan’s body, hoping to divert Benny’s accusation.

The brute, however, glowered on. “York thinks she’s gone soft, like you.”

“York wouldn’t have done this.”

Benny peered down at Susan’s slack face, her pallor fading. “She knows too much, seen too much. Any one after York might be after her. If she talks to the police, heads could fly in all the families.”

“Which gives a lot of people a lot of motivation.”

Benny removed his trench coat, revealing burdened shoulder holsters. He gingerly wrapped Susan’s body and scooped her up as delicately.

Tyler kept his gaze downcast, on the stains remaining on the floor. “Does York know?”

“About you two?” Benny’s face darkened. “You think the man’s blind?”

Tyler resisted the guilty flush in his cheeks and forced his gaze to Benny’s. “I meant about the hit.”

“Why else would he have called?”

“Good, then he’ll be able to track these bastards down.”

“Are you going to leave it like that?”

Tyler smirked. “I’m not a detective and I sure as hell don’t have York’s strings.”

Benny tipped his head toward Susan, who he cradled against his slab of chest. “She’s here because of you.”

The repetition hit Tyler’s heart, harder than the bullets Benny had holstered or the one from the sniper’s rifle. He stared at her limp body, her hand dangling from the coat, left ring finger bare.

“She was here because of me.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

Tyler’s exhale misted before his face, his resolution dissipating like the cloud. When he met Benny’s eye the brute seemed to read his resolve as easily as he’d read into their affair. With a farewell nod, Benny carried Susan’s corpse from the apartment, leaving Tyler with a bloodied carpet, a half-drunk cup of tea, and a brotherhood of assassins to thin by another member.

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