Jamie awoke with a start and gasped, reaching for her neck. She struggled to her feet and groped for the gash where the bullet had torn tender flesh. She found no wound, no scar: just smooth flesh in the prime of youthful good health.
Looking in the mirror above her bureau, she confirmed that her neck was undamaged. From the looking glass, an unblemished countenance returned her gaze - unkempt, but gracefully poised: perfect oval face, creamy skin, cascading burgundy hair, and a startled natural beauty with blue eyes opened wide in dismay.
To all appearances, the face in the mirror reflected privilege and power. To those accepting such stereotypes at face value, Jamie offered the lily-white picture of a sheltered soul enjoying the life of a princess. Her remarkable beauty impacted those she encountered with startling intensity. After meeting Jamie for the first time, some could recall little but the effect of her loveliness.
Appearances deceived in Jamie’s case, and the facade in the mirror belied a bitter reality. Long ago, before she could walk, evil had drilled a bloody nest deep into her infant soul. Nightly rapes and vicious beatings had been simple facts of life from the crib until her escape from home at the ripe old age of 16.
Age and empowerment had delivered Janelle
Jamie James from the terrors of youth, but the price of survival had been high. Each night as she slept, cruel memories swarmed from the abyss of her haunted past. They arose like ghouls, anxious to afflict her soul, as if enraged by the fact that she had escaped their grip during her carefree waking hours.
Jamie had long downplayed the abuse she had suffered during her fractured, wasted childhood. Forgetfulness had protected her from the type of pain that could drive a soul to madness. To this day, to look at her, one would scarcely guess the truth.
It was only a dream, she told herself, staring at her neck, so clean and unblemished. But it was so real!
She shuddered in revulsion, wet with morning sweat that crawled slowly down her neck. Her heart pounded in the aftermath of the nightmare. Only a dream.
The sunlight battered her eyes, bullying its way into her universe: intense and aggressive. Against her wishes, Jamie’s husband had left the blinds open in their spotlessly clean bedroom.
Remembering her dream, she felt a moment of fear. Was it a warning about Donny? She reached for her telephone and punched in her husband’s number. He picked up at the first ring.
Hey babe, what’s up?” Hearing Donny’s voice, she felt reassured.
Her husband Donny - a tall, blond Florida cowboy - possessed the practical virtues of patience and persistence. During the past five years, she had found him to be an interesting study in contradictions: dependable but never boring, as faithful as the sun and occasionally as brazen.
I just called to say hi,” she told Donny. Not wanting to burden him with unneeded drama, she paused. “
You left the blinds open,” she added. Keep ’em on their toes
Jamie, are you awake? Before noon?”
Ha ha. Funny.”
Uh, listen, can I call you later? I’ve gotta go into the courtroom.”
Are you okay?”
Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?” She bluffed.
No reason. Just asking.”
I’m okay, okay?”
Listen, Jamie, if it’s important, we can talk now.”
It’s not that important. Don’t drive me crazy, Donny. Just take care of yourself, okay?”
Okay, babe. I’ll be in court all day. I’ll call you later. I love you.”
Back at ya, pal.” She slowly hung up the phone.
Nightmares had plagued her for years, but the intensity of this dream had exceeded them all. It felt like a premonition. She remembered it and shuddered, cold in spite of the morning warmth. Officer down. She would tell Donny later, when he got home.
Jamie’s husband - a sheriff’s deputy - served on the road patrol. She hated his job with a passion; but he loved it, so what could she do? She refused to ask him to quit a job that he loved.
She arose and pulled on her robe, walking to an old oak desk in the corner of the room. Reaching beneath a drawer, she found a small, worn business card and gently detached it from the tape that secured it safely out of sight.
She read the card and smiled wryly. Ira Freeman, Martial Arts and Crafts. Years ago, someone had written a telephone number on the back. She turned the card over and mulled the message scrawled below the number. “
Need help? Call me. Nightmares cured, or your money back.” She smiled and shook her head. Nightmares cured? I could use that right now.
She should have told Donny about the card when she received it in the mail, but she had held her peace. Donny might lose his career if the authorities believed that he knew the sender’s identity without reporting it. Jamie had decided to live with that risk, but did not expect Donny to do the same.
Jamie felt certain that “
Ira Freeman” was an alias for a notorious outsider who had saved her life once, years ago. Since that time she had married, earned a bachelor’s degree, and completed coursework for a doctorate in Forensic Psychology. She had recently begun an apprenticeship in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s witness protection program... the same FDLE program that had once hidden her away in the wilderness, safe from certain death.
As the years passed, Jamie had not forgotten those who helped in her time of need. She would not betray their trust.
As Jamie suspected, Salvatore Benuto - a person of interest in a notorious Tampa arson murder - had mailed the business card to her. A decorated veteran and a former cop, he did not have the typical resume of a person of interest in an unsolved federal terrorism case; but he remained one, nonetheless.
A few years ago, Sal Benuto had hit a patch of black ice on the highway of life. When a Mob assassin had killed his only friend, he had gone mad, destroying the underground headquarters of Tampa’s most powerful Mafia family. In the wee hours of a nondescript winter morning, he had used high explosives to detonate a deserted city block in the hardened cobblestone heart of Ybor City, Florida.
Sal had taken fiery revenge on Tampa’s premier Mafia family, the Provencentis, smoking a select array of Cigar City hoods like burning stogies stubbed into the Mob’s evil eye. He had excised part of the Mafia malignancy - Ybor’s Strangler Fig - like an inflamed carcinoma torn unceremoniously from the body politic.
After he punished the Mob, on the run from Tampa authorities, he had not sought his own personal safety. Instead, he had traveled south to Oree County to guard Jamie’s safe house as she waited to testify against Joe Boy Provencenti. Before the trial ended, Sal Benuto had saved her life.
The Italian gangs of Ybor City still ruled organized crime in the Sunshine State. A new don had taken the reins of the Provencenti family. Having turned the page, the wise guys no longer mentioned Sal Benuto’s name. Federal agents suspected that he was a terrorist, and by the letter of the law, they were correct.
The feds knew him as a person of interest. His friends knew him as Streetcar.
Jamie was his friend. And on this beautiful summer morning, when all seemed well in her brave new world, she did not trust appearances. Her instincts had sounded an alarm, and she believed with uncanny certainty that her vivid dream held a portent of trouble to come. Somehow she knew that beneath the shallow surface, evil had turned in her direction.
She felt the threat in her marrow. Evil depraved had turned her way: denuded of decency, unimaginable and unavoidable, inexcusable, relentless, unmentionably obscene.
She sensed it down deep in her soul.
Soon - very soon - she would call upon Streetcar for help.