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Lacey Luzzi: Scooped A Prequel By: Gina LaManna My heart thudded against my ribs. More than a little bit of sweat lined my forehead. My hand shook as I lifted a dainty purple cocktail to my lips. Nobody could make me go up there. “I choose death,” I said, my voice lacking conviction. “Seriously, I choose death.” Thankfully, nobody could hear me in the dark, sweaty room packed full of people. Staring at the glitterized stage set at the front of the dimly lit bar – the type of bar with poles protruding from the ceiling – I drew a deep breath. I looked to my friend, a busty redhead who called herself Luscious, for a word of support. I got none. Instead, she grinned, her curls bouncing gaily. Giving me a firm slap on the bum, she hollered, “Yooooou’re up!” I jolted forward. “No, thank you. I’d uh… yeah. I’d rather not.” I backpedaled away. The platform shimmered with body glitter. I was all for sparkles, but this was nuts. Astronauts could probably see us from Mars. Maybe if I shut my eyes, everything would go away… After a long blink, I peeked through my lashes. With supreme disappointment, I noted that exactly nothing had changed. Well, except for Greasy Gary’s choice of seat – he’d sneakily migrated one seat closer to stage, probably trying to improve his view.

Otherwise, TANGO, the bar at which my mother had chosen to work, remained a shade less than classy and two notches below clean. Between the swirling clouds of bluish smoke and the cocktails strong enough to tranquilize an elephant, I lost about five minutes of my life every time I stepped inside the joint. The sketchy-but-sometimes-sweet clientele only added to the eclectic ambiance. The tables themselves were covered with a layer of sequins that had been shed from all sizes of leotards, all shapes of butts, and all sorts of see-through heels that glowed in the dark and stomped to the best dancin’ songs available in the U.S. of A. Luscious put on her best pouty face and leaned forward. It was a major invasion of my personal space bubble, but I didn’t say anything. I was too afraid I’d puke from an onslaught of nerves. “Go on, chickadee,” she said with a wink. “Make your mama proud,” Meg, my best friend, shouted over the music. “I didn’t abandon my hot date tonight to watch you sip a Shirley Temple.” “Your hot date was nothing more than a bottle of wine and a poster of Jimmy Fallon.” I fauxglared in her direction. Meg and I had been buds since we were children. My mom had been a stripper, her mom hadn’t been around. We’d spent a lot of nights sharing the same bed, whispering the night away and cuddling during the snowy Minnesota winters while my mother closed down TANGO. The place was located next to a nail salon and a grimy taco place, with an alley leading to a sign that shouted “GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!“

“For my mother,” I said, downing a cocktail that was anything but virgin. Meg clapped. “Hang on, this is the song! I know it! Get up there, Sugar. Show em’ what you’re made of.” And thus, my stage name was born. I became Sugar. It was a sweet tribute to my mother, Honey, who’d passed away a few months before. Neither of us had seen the brutal, fast-moving form of rare cancer coming, and I was still in shock. I’d spent the past few months alternating between lying comatose on my couch and coming up with harebrained distractions that were meant to push away the pain of missing her. However, last week, it had been rather bluntly brought to my attention that I needed to find a ‘distraction’ that paid me money – money that could then be paid directly to my landlord, whose patience was waning. Which is how I’d landed in these shoes – the ones with heels as tall as an unsharpened pencil and just as skinny. I took one step forward, wobbling like a tightrope walker above the Golden Gate Bridge. I spread my arms out wide and took one baby step after another while my stilettos lit up like disco balls. “I can’t see anything! My shoes are too bright.” I shielded my eyes, careful not to touch any part of my face – a difficult task, considering the six pounds of powder on my cheeks and the inch-long fake lashes glued to my eyeballs. “Don’t look down!” Luscious shouted between chants of Go, Lacey! “No, no. This is a terrible idea.” I took another step, wishing I’d downed three more of those purple, sugar-rimmed cocktails. My confidence needed a multi-drink booster, stat.

Taking infant-sized shuffles forward, I silently cursed my mother’s choice of profession. She’d been a young mom and a wonderful one, despite her not-so-standard career aspirations. Though it had been hard to bring her in for show-and-tell or job-fair-day, I wouldn’t have traded her for the world. Her hair had been long and beautiful and fell in soft curls around her shoulders – nothing like my own, which was kind of limp despite too much money spent on volumizing shampoos. My legs were currently clad in thigh-high stockings fastened to a thong with what felt like death-row chains. It was especially uncomfortable because these legs of mine were normally clad in yoga pants on a good day, old running shorts most other days. Another issue, in addition to the chains, had arisen earlier this evening. My breasts, which were typically just less than a handful, had been touched and prodded and propped into place by my girlfriends. I was wearing the waterbed of bras, which not only bounced my chest up to epic proportions, but it caused a whole bunch of jiggle that offset my balance and made me extra tippy on my feet. Not to mention, I couldn’t see over them. Which actually made me pretty happy, since that meant my stomach wasn’t sticking out too far. Chest – 1, Lacey – 0. The only thing keeping me going was the fact that I’d bought an ice cream cake at Dairy Queen, and it was waiting for me at home with open arms. Or rather, I’d saved it as a reward for finishing my first stripper routine… and by “saved,” I meant Meg had padlocked it in the freezer and refused to tell me the code until I completed my dance.

I neared the stage, each step of the way a grueling one. I ran one hand over my leg, but the sweat from my palm mixed with a slew of body glitter from my thigh in one giant, colorful slipand-slide that did nothing to dry my perspiration. Dilemma numero dos. Stairs. With no idea of how to successfully walk up stairs in these shoes, I needed to invent a slick move that’d allow me to avoid them completely. And I needed to think fast. Maybe I could create a trick that would show off my sexual prowess. Or whatever it was that people wanted from me. Greasy Gary was starting to stare in my direction, and it made me uncomfortable. I kind of wanted to poke him in the eyeballs. Aha! I had an idea. Or so I hoped. I reached out to hoist myself onto the stage. The plan was to slide up the edge of the platform using my arms, plop down on my butt, and maybe toss in a fancy little leg kick to show off the chains. It didn’t take all of five seconds before things went south – all too literally. Tripping straight into the stage, my arms shot out as stiff as a corpse. My shoes, however, remained stuck to the floor by the sheer weight of the heels. I’d become a make-shift ramp wedged against the stage. “Oh, God,” I said. “Stuck. I’m stuck. I can’t move my feet. If I let go, my nose will crack on the stage. Help!”

I stood there planking for a solid thirty seconds before anyone realized my position was not one made by choice. “She timbered!” Meg called. “Haul her up!” Two sets of hands reached under my armpits and yanked me up. Someone’s wig fell off, and a piece of hair extension landed on my face. I scrunched my eyes shut and blew, but the fake hair stuck to the perspiration on my upper lip. “Gross. Hewwwwp,” I gurgled. “Look at this cutie,” Meg said. “She’s got a hipster mustache.” “That’s my weave,” Luscious said. “I want that braid back when you’re done with your mustache routine.” “No. Mustache. Routiwne. Bleehh.” I spit out the hair. “Help me on stage.” I wasn’t going to give up now. If I gave up at this point, I’d embarrass myself as well as the memory of my mother. TANGO might not have been the most elegant place on the face of the earth, but we were family here. Luscious, Meg, Cinnamon, Autumn – the girls cared for one another. In fact, they’d been the only ones who’d showed up at my mother’s funeral. My mom had no other family that I knew of. In fact, she’d made a point of ensuring that I understood I had no family. It had been just the two of us, since always. I couldn’t tarnish my mother’s stellar reputation by giving up before the tip of my glitterized shoe hit the stage. Even if crapola hit the fan up there, at least I would’ve tried. Sure, my track record with success was kind of a bumpy line on the bottom of the X-Y graph, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

“Heave this ho,” Meg shouted, giving me a huge push onto the stage, her fingers much closer to my private places than I would’ve liked. “That’s not the saying,” I mumbled as I clattered to the floor, a bright spotlight swinging around and landing straight on my hiney, which waved shamelessly in the air, my nose pressed into the ground. I inhaled a breath-full of glitter. Pulling myself to my feet amid a giant cheer from the audience, I smiled and waved, thinking that maybe I wasn’t doing so badly. But then my nose itched, and I let out the gigantist of gigantor sneezes. A plume of sequins shot straight out of my nostrils, and I felt like a rather flamboyant dragon. More cheers! “They love you, girl!” Meg said from the ground. She did a shimmy-shake, and even though she didn’t work at the strip club, she was dressed kind of how I’d imagined a cross-dressing bear would. She had a smattering of tattoos on her arms, while studs littered her ears, nose, and belly button. Her halter top made her ladies look like pumpkins in the state fair competition. She had shaggy hair and some extra weight around her middle – to keep her warm in the cold Minnesotan winters, she said. I smiled down at her and winked at Luscious, who was dancing with such passion it dazzled me for a moment. I was transfixed by her moves for a minute before I remembered it was me in the spotlight this time. Inspired by the crowd’s enthusiasm, my friends’ support, and the memory of my mother, I took the energy from the fans and used it to fuel my dance.

The song hit. My song. I belted out the lyrics and twisted one hip to walk out onto the edge of the stage. Pour some sugarrrCrack. Black. Stage – 1, Lacey – 0. ** ** “Am I alive?” I blinked a few times to clear the grogginess from my head, but it wasn’t until I cleared my throat that I saw movement in the shiny mass of…something that crinkled before me. With a pounding head, it took a long moment for me to realize that the shimmering air was not air, but instead a huge bundle of silver balloons. The bouquet of plastic sparkled, and a head popped through. “Hey, Sugar! You made it.” I heard some more squishy noises, and my best friend’s head receded back into the pile of balloons. “What happened?” Meg poked her head through the pile of air and plastic once more. She gave me a huge, cheesy grin and shook her head. “You don’t remember anything?” Batting around the bouquet of airborne animals, I discovered that I was in my own room, which was a disappointing finding. It wasn’t a particularly cozy place. I still had boxes stacked in

most of the corners, I didn’t own a single plate or drinking glass that wasn’t plastic and the heater worked only on days of the week that didn’t end in “Y.” “I’ve got a blank slate up here.” I tapped my head, instantly regretting my decision. The pounding killed. Wincing with one eye open, I glanced through the inscriptions on the balloons, trying to find clues for how I’d ended up in bed with a severely injured noggin. “Why does this say Over the Hill?” The word Hill had been scratched out with permanent marker and replaced with Stage. “Well,” Meg looked a little uneasy. “I debated getting some FEEL BETTER SOON shit, but it didn’t really seem fitting. This was the next best option. They don’t carry stripping-injury memos, which is pretty discriminatory if you ask me.” I looked at her skeptically, but then I noticed a small orange tag that read Clearance face up in my trash can. It wasn’t like Meg was Ms. Moneybags over here. In fact, she’d recently been ‘laid off’ from the police force and was out of work. She’d been ‘let go’ after she’d punched out a suspect for making comments about her extra weight. Now, however, it appeared I was in a very similar boat – the ‘also out of work’ boat. It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t up to filling my mother’s very huge, very shiny shoes. At least that’s what I assumed, judging by my aching skull. “That’s so sweet of you,” I said. “Thank you for being such a great friend. What happened?” Meg’s face crinkled into a pleasant smile. “Girl, you started out so sexy, and then you just let the sexiness get ahold of you and carry you right off that stage. You cracked your head pretty hard on what I hope was a table and not a boner, since Greasy Gary was sitting in the front row.”

I felt the lump on my head. It definitely had to be a table. Even Greasy Gary with his hairy pits and shoe-polished head couldn’t do that much damage with a ding dong. I hoped. “How long have I been out?” “Not too long. The paramedics came ‘cause you didn’t wake up right away. But then they gave you some sleeping pills since you went a little nutso when you started coming to. I took care of you and brought you back here. Carried you up myself.” Meg looked so proud. “Thanks again, I owe you one.” “I’ll take a steak, an order of tater tots, and a gun. Not in that order.” “A gun?” I asked. “I lost my last one,” Meg said. “It was left over from the evidence locker and I can’t seem to find it these days.” “Guns aren’t like keys. You can’t just misplace them. That’s how people die.” I shook my head. “No wonder you’re out of the force.” “That has nothing to do with it,” Meg harrumphed. “What’d you expect me to do, let the asshole call me fat? I ain’t no fatty. I work out. My repertoire of sex positions ain’t easy to maintain-” “I get it, I get it,” I interrupted, shifting slightly to try and sit up. I groaned involuntarily. “How did I get a bruise on my shin?” Meg looked away, twiddling her thumbs.

“Meg…” “Your door frame is very narrow,” she said cryptically. I leaned my head back against the pillow. “What do I do now?” “Eat ice cream, take some pills. You’re living the dream, girlfriend.” “No, no. Well, I mean sure – I’ll take the ice cream cake in the freezer. But I’m more concerned about life. I can’t be a stripper; I’m no good at it. I haven’t gone to college. I’m twenty-six. I don’t know what’s next.” “What’s next is the ice cream cake.” Meg stood and stomped out of the room. “We can’t have any serious life discussions without cake.” Meg was gone for a solid ten minutes, during which time I heard a variety of thumps, cracks, and cuss words I refuse to repeat. I’d forgotten she had locked the ice cream cake in the freezer to prevent me from OD’ing on sugar before my stripper routine. It was her rather brute-force method of making me practice self-control. I hadn’t argued with her. I didn’t particularly want any more gut than I already had. I especially could have done without it while on stage in nothing but my undies. It got exhausting sucking that shit in. And now, apparently, she’d forgotten the code to the freezer lock. Meg reentered my room a good amount of time later, whistling as if nothing had happened. She sat on the edge of my bed. “The cake?” I asked. “How about we talk about that little thing called ‘life,’” she said.

Padlock: 1, Meg: 0, Lacey: -1. “So?” Meg asked. “What are you good at?” “Nothing! I can’t even climb onto a stage.” “But you got hoisted onto a stage like no ho’s ever been hoisted before.” “Heave ho is not a saying about the person.” “I don’t get it, then,” Meg said. “But that’s not important. We’re focused on the thing—" “—thing called life,” I said. “I know. What ideas do you have?” “I’m on unemployment right now. You shoulda gotten fired so you got a severance package like me. ‘Cause after that runs out I’m gonna be a bartender. I’m gonna own my own place.” “Want to hire me?” “Not particularly.” Meg raised her eyebrows in an offended expression. “What? You don’t know shit about booze. Well, except that you like it. You couldn’t be a guard since you couldn’t bounce your way into a twerking set, and you can’t carry yourself onstage, let alone a tray full of drinks. No offense.” “No,” I sighed. “None taken. You’re right. I’m a failure.” “Maybe you should do something with your mind,” Meg said, as if the idea has just dawned on her for the first time. “You know, a doctor or something.” “Nah,” I said. “My mom was a stripper. I thought maybe I could follow in her footsteps. But I’m too old for college now. I blew my chance.”

“First of all, you’re never too old for nothin’. I’m gonna drive cars and have sex and eat hamburgers till the day I die, no matter what anyone tells me, friggin’ cholesterol and all. But in all honestly, it’s a bummer you don’t have more family,” Meg said. “If you knew what your real family did for a living, maybe you’d have a better idea for yourself.” “What do you mean?” “You know, sometimes families are like, all doctors, or all lawyers, or they all went to Harvard or some crap like that. Every once in a while you get a special duck, like your mom – God rest her soul – who marches to her own drumbeat. That beat just happened to be coming from the speakers of the strip club. You know, telling her to shake it like a Polaroid picture.” I reached down and fiddled with the chains still attached to my leg. Apparently Meg hadn’t thought to put me in something more comfortable before dumping me onto my bed. I heaved out a big breath of air. “My mom always said we never had any family.” “You ever wonder why your mom decided to be a stripper?” “No, not really,” I said. “She was good at it. I thought maybe it was her calling.” “You’re sure?” Meg leaned over and her breasts nearly popped out of her bustier. But the look on her face was serious, so I tried to focus on her eyes. “Yeah.” I shrugged, thinking back. “Except there was this one time—" Meg interrupted. “It’s just weird, you know? If her parents had died, why wouldn’t she have told you?” I gave a noncommittal nod.

Meg shifted on the bed. “I mean, maybe they were ashamed of her. I know weirdos like that who don’t appreciate the art of strippin’. But do you really think that’s the only reason? Don’t you think her parents would get over it to see their granddaughter?” I didn’t want to admit it, but the thought had often niggled in the deepest depths of my mind. I’d wanted a family as a child; a gray-haired, jolly grandpa to bring to piano recitals, a grandmother who made delicious-smelling cookies, and cousins who could talk girl-talk with me during our sleepovers. Meg was a good placeholder for the latter, but still, I longed for the F-word. A family. ** ** A family. My thoughts often wandered into dangerous territories: was I really so untalented that my mom didn’t want to introduce me to my grandparents? Sure, I didn’t make the kickball team. The jazz band laughed when I showed up, and I couldn’t even tell you where the Mathletes crunched their numbers. But I’d won a spelling bee once in eighth grade – didn’t that count for anything? “Hang on. What were you saying before?” Meg asked. “I guess my grandparents didn’t care much about meeting me, either. They could have found me,” I said, feeling a bit glum. “No, hang on. What were you gonna say before, when I interrupted?” “I don’t know. I forgot.”

“Well, I’m gonna make you remember,” she said. “No torture techniques today, please,” I said tiredly. “I’m not in the mood. I’ll just take some more Vicodin and hit the hay.” “Not torture,” Meg said. “At least not the evil kind.” She waved a forkful of ice cream cake towards my mouth. After a battle of epic proportions with the fridge, she’d wrestled the entire door, padlock and all, right off its hinges. “Open sesame,” Meg said. I took a bite of the heavenly cake, letting the cold chill my tongue, the creamy ice cream melding with the cookie crumbs in a mind-blowing mixture. “Good girl.” She patted my head, which hurt like a b— “—that was just a teaser. Now, I know you remember what you were going to tell me before – that thing about your mother. You got that look in your eye. Tell me before you forget,” Meg instructed, ever so close to handing me the full piece of cake. The girl knew how to strong-arm me into talking. Withholding cake was worse than waterboarding in my book. But it worked, and I remembered. Giving Meg a smile, I reached for the cake. “Once, my mom told me that she took the job because there wasn’t much of a paper trail.” “Bingo.” Meg flicked the spoon and a blob of ice cream landed right on the lump over my eyebrow. The coolness felt surprisingly good, at least until it started dripping into my eyes. “Bingo, what?” I asked, trying to catch the drops of frosting with my tongue.

“Bingo, that. What you just said.” “The paper trail? Why on earth would she not want a paper trail?” “If you don’t want someone to find you, the first thing to do is get a fake name, fake papers, and work somewhere that people don’t ask questions,” Meg said with a shrug. “Sounds a helluva lot like what your mom was up to.” “Dang,” I said. “You’re totally right. Have you done that before?” “I’m not answering that.” Meg looked down. “Anyway, this might be the key to your secret family. If you want to find out what you should be good at in life, trace back your mom’s history. Do some digging. There’s gotta be something. And I’m betting it’s juicy.” “Where do I even start?” “You got her stuff locked up somewhere?” I pointed around the apartment. The place was three months old to me, but it’d been built around the time Columbus stumbled upon America. I’d moved here a few weeks after my mom died, and I was still content pretending that it was a temporary stop before moving home. “Yeah, I shoved all the boxes into the spare bedroom when I moved. I haven’t had the guts to clean it out yet.” I wasn’t ready to unpack the boxes and resign myself to an apartment with orange floors. I didn’t do orange floors. “Bingo,” Meg said again, except this time the spoon was in her mouth. ** **

The next morning, we started going through my mother’s belongings. A tear rolled from my eye and down my cheek as we unearthed the first boxes. I brushed it away quickly, hoping Meg didn’t notice. I cracked open one of the brown packing boxes – an old liquor carrier probably ‘adopted’ from TANGO. I pulled out one memento after another, and the tears fell harder as each item revived waves of memories. I realized now that it wasn’t photos of fancy vacations or expensive things that made up my childhood. No, my childhood had been filled with the stuff dreams were made of – a truly magical happiness that was now but a golden whisper, a flitting glimpse of the past. My heart ached for that time – the years filled with the naïve belief that everything was right in the world. There was something about my mother passing away that cemented the fact I was now an adult. There was nobody to take care of me. No family to watch out for me. If I passed away tomorrow, I’d have a total of three people at my funeral: Meg, Luscious, and Greasy Gary. I pulled another crumbling box towards me. On top was a ratty flannel blanket. It was from one of the times my mother and I didn’t have enough money to buy groceries for dinner. Somehow, though, she’d still made the evening a fun one. We’d dug around and scrounged up a few bucks. She’d managed to make the entire night an adventure, complete with a picnic in the parking lot at TANGO and a dollar menu hamburger from McDonald’s. To me, it had been the best meal of my life, cozied up in her arms, slurping my very own vanilla shake. Next, I found a homemade fly swatter that Meg and I had invented out of straws. It’d been three a.m., and we were ten-years-old, alone and scared during a blizzard, while my mom finished her shift. (We were convinced it’d make us a million dollars. Newsflash – it didn’t).

I set the flimsy swatter aside to show Meg once I stopped sniffling. At the bottom of the box, I choked up after finding my mom’s first stripper thong. Sky blue and sequined, it was a beauty. A hiccup rocked my world, and I told myself to soldier on, Lacey! Pushing away the fond memories of my childhood, I kept on thumbing through the tubs of old accessories. Three boxes into our search, I found the mother lode of all boxes. Glancing up, alarmed at my finding, I was relieved to see Meg busy examining the stiletto collection in the corner, oblivious to my leaky eyes. She’d been the one saving grace during the most depressing period of my life. After my mom passed away, the months whirled past in a blur. I’d never known my dad, let alone any other member of my family, but Meg had never wavered in our friendship. She’d taken care of me at my worst – feeding me ice cream on the even hours and shoving extra strength Tylenol down my throat on the odd ones. She put cucumbers on my eyes and washcloths on my forehead. She even tried to apply mascara to my lashes during rather deep, drug-induced sleeps. I loved the girl. I reached for the promising package on top and wrenched it open. I pushed away all the negative thoughts that’d been drifting through my mind and focused on finding my family. I almost had dry eyes when one of my mother’s favorite nipple tassels fell out of the box and landed in my lap – I couldn’t hold back my gulp of a sob. “It’s okay,” Meg said, lumbering over and patting me on the back. I’m sure she meant to be gentle, but it felt more like a slap from a polar bear as I lurched forward, the contents of the FedEx box spilling all over the floor.

“What’s this?” Meg reached forward, accidentally clapping the side of my head with her elbow. “Ow!” I shouted. “Sorry, but look—" Meg held up a small picture. “Whoa…” I kept one hand pressed against the side of my head, trying to ease the pain. The throbbing steadily subsided as I retrieved the old, weathered sheet of paper from Meg’s hand. “I think that’s her.” I pointed to a small girl with a raggedy softball jersey and scuffed up knees. I’d never seen the curious smile peeking out the corners of her mouth or the shy look with which she gazed at the camera, but I’d recognize those beautiful hazel eyes anywhere. It was my mother, without a doubt. There was a gaggle of other people in the picture; it looked like the scraggly makings of a family picnic during which someone had insisted on a photograph during a pickup ball game. A short man with a no-nonsense line for a mouth rested one hand on my mother’s shoulder. His gaze was possessive and powerful despite his small stature, and he wore a suit on what looked like a balmy summer day. His hair sat dark black on his head, combed to a tee, lips set in a stern line, intelligence and menace seeping through the ink on the faded photograph. Who was he? I wondered. Could he be my grandfather? Was he the one who’d pushed my mother away until the day she died? “Well, one thing’s for certain,” Meg said, interrupting my thoughts.

“What’s that?” I peeked at the other children, mostly boys, who surrounded the small girl wearing jersey number seven. They all had a similar Mediterranean skin tone, dark eyes with variations of hair color running the gradient from sandy blond to inky black. “Your mom was a ladies man,” Meg said. “You see this? I bet she played on the boys’ team.” “I’m pretty sure you said that backwards. She was not a ladies man.” I looked up. “And I’m also guessing that she’s related to those boys.” “Oooooooh,” Meg breathed. “I see it. They all look alike. I thought that was a weird co-inkee-dink.” “Help me look for clues.” I put the photo closer to my face. “There’s gotta be something we can use from here.” Meg put her palm against my cheek. Slowly, she moved my face further away from the photograph. It seemed like she didn’t think I’d notice her hand on the side of my face. “Excuse me?” I asked, my cheek squished. But I was afraid to move for fear she’d bump my aching head again by accident. “Couldn’t see a damn thing with your swollen noggin in the way.” Together, we peered over the photograph, pointing out trivial details here and there, but nothing stuck. The park looked like one of a million. Minnesota was riddled with parks on every block, so that wouldn’t help. There were no names on the jerseys, no coolers stenciled with a family name, and definitely nobody holding a sign with a working phone number on it. “There.” I finally pointed out a small emblem on the sleeve of my mother’s jersey. “See that? I can’t read it. Maybe it says something, though, like a name, or…”

“Oh hey, hang on a minute.” Meg stood up. I ignored her and scrunched my nose trying to read the small patch. It was impossible. The photo was too old and worn down and crumpled. Even if I could have somehow gotten it digitally enhanced, I feared it was gone forever. I gently set the photo on top of the box and lay back against the floor, resting my head on the carpet of my new, rather sad, apartment. I was fairly certain the last woman in here had lived in the place for eighty years and hadn’t redecorated once. The carpet was not only orange, but it also managed to smell like mold. Plus, the counter tops were missing so much plastic that the brown splotches looked like a map of the world. I think she may or may not have left her cat in the attic. I hadn’t ventured up there, yet. The next thing I knew, someone was suffocating me. I screamed, trying to sit up, flailing my arms. My pounding head bounced against the stupid orange carpet and my hands were tied up in fabric. I couldn’t see. I smelled mothballs. My heart raced. “Chill, girl,” Meg said. I calmed down, my breath still sounding much heavier than normal. “What? I thought someone was attacking me.” “Then you must’ve been having a nightmare, because I just threw you a miracle.” I opened my eyes, and realized that the thing that had been attacking me was no more than a piece of fabric, red and dusty, which had landed on my face as Meg tossed it across the room. “Meg!” I screamed again, this time my tone leaning more towards thrilled than scared-out-ofmy-mind. “You did it!”

“I thought I’d seen that sucker somewhere.” Meg grinned broadly. “I tried it on, but I only got it around one boobie, so I set it in the ‘give away’ pile. Good thing it didn’t go anywhere.” Good thing, indeed, I thought. Before me, fully intact, was the jersey from the photo. And best of all, the patch was right where I’d hoped, the letters clear as day. “Marinello’s?” I shrieked the name of our local restaurant, disappointed that we’d found nothing besides the name of a lousy sponsorship after all that work. Nobody there would remember a measly jersey from a million years ago. “What the fu—" “Slow your roll,” Meg said. “Look on the tag.” My ears burned as my emotions swung from one end of the spectrum to another like a pendulum in double time. An insanely fortunate miracle had almost turned flat. Marinello’s was the name of the best Italian restaurant in all of St. Paul, but still, I’m sure the corporation had sponsored hundreds, if not thousands, of little league teams over the years since my mom had been a child. It would’ve been no help whatsoever. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I read the name on the tag inside the shirt. Cagnolini. “Hey, Meg, can you translate this for me? I’m guessing it’s Italian, if Marinello’s sponsored the team.” I spelled it out for Meg. “Little Dogs,” she said, looking up from her phone. “How adorable.” “Bingo, the little dog,” I said. “We have our starting place.” “Sweet,” Meg said. “I’m assuming you wanna go to Marinello’s. And if so, I’ll go with you on account of my stomach is devouring itself. But if that guy is there…” She pointed to the man

behind my mother, who I strongly suspected might be my mom’s father. “If he’s there, I’m leaving. Cause he looks like one mean, big, scary dog trapped in a Chihuahua’s body.” I admit, I agreed. ** ** “I’m for sure getting the linguini,” Meg said, stretching her arms out wide as she maneuvered a not-exactly-stolen police cruiser towards St. Paul. Meg had been ‘removed’ from the police squad, but thanks to a minor glitch in the computer system, the squad car she’d been driving hadn’t yet been reported as missing. Since neither of us had an otherwise functional car, we decided to stretch the loaner to our full advantage. Meg slapped on the sirens and we cruised down -35 past Spaghetti Junction and into the meat of the city that was downtown. When we pulled up in front of Marinello’s, the valet, who looked more like a bouncer, eyed us suspiciously. Meg leaned out the window. “Any place we can park this bad boy while we grab some grub?” The man, whose name tag spelled Lorenzo, eyed us up and down. Probably determining that we looked like two crazy women who’d stolen a cop car, he nodded. “Here,” he said, pointing to the curb which was clearly painted red, with no less than six signs telling me my car would be towed if I so much as applied the brakes at this location. “I’ll watch it.” His accent was relatively thick and laced with just the slightest bit of menace. If he meant to be the world’s most unhelpful and most intimidating valet, he was doing a fine job of it.

“Uh, okay.” I shrugged, getting out. It wasn’t really our car anyway, which was an added bonus of not-giving-a-flying-crap about parking it in even the worst neighborhoods. Like the one I called home. “I bet he’s guarding the Mafia’s secret hideout,” Meg said. “Rumor on the street is there’s a room upstairs that’s a business hub for the mob…. If you know what I’m saying.” “Yeah, right,” I said, smiling easily at Lorenzo. “The mob doesn’t exist. And even if it did, I don’t care who is meeting upstairs, ‘cause I am hungry.” We hustled into the restaurant, our stomachs leading us the entire way. As the door opened, the smells that instantly hit us were delectable. Incense of olives and oils and pasta with red and white sauces filled the air, an array of lasagnas and salads as far as the eye could see, and the mother of all desserts: a gelato bar that took up one entire wall. I was drooling worse than a Saint Bernard by the time I picked up my tray. “I’ll take that. And that. And a little bit of that. And… well, I mean a little more of that. Just – okay, one more scoop. And sure, how can I pass that up?” I pointed at the penne noodles and twisted macaroni, cheese oozing off every square inch. How could I say no? It was as if the word was temporarily eluding my mind. “I’ll come back for gelato later,” I said, paying for my lunch and Meg’s. The place was reasonably priced, but somehow our bill still came to a strangely high amount. “Thanks, girlfriend,” Meg said. “Wanna go upstairs and eat?” “Yeah, sure thing.” There was a small rooftop deck up top, and since it was fall, the weather was still quite balmy. In a few short weeks, we’d probably be under piles of snow for the next

eight to twelve months, so we had to take advantage of the last stretches of a gorgeous Indian summer. Once on the roof, the series of sighs and moans escaping from our mouths was probably worthy of the porn version of the Oscars, if there was such a thing. Except there’s no way we would have lasted nearly long enough to win the Porn Gold Medal. The food was gone in under four minutes flat. “I think I need to go to the bathroom,” I said. “But I can’t tell because my stomach is so full it’s pressing on my esophagus.” “Yeah, I have a strong bladder that’s used to getting pressed on. I’m gonna sit up here and digest and make some room for the gelato.” I knew what Meg’s ‘making room’ consisted of, and the fumes were sure to be deadly. I wanted to be nowhere in the vicinity when the process occurred. In fact, it was quite lucky she was in an open air environment. I hoped that would be enough ventilation for her digestive business. Moving slower than sludge, I took the steps carefully to the half level between the deck and the gelato haven. Taking the scenic route to the bathroom, I stared at all the pictures posted on the walls. They were old-timey, mostly the Marinello family themselves. I kept moving, stopping suddenly when I noticed a picture of a softball team. It was different than the one I’d pulled from my mother’s box at home, but it looked somehow familiar. Maybe because the young girl my eyes were drawn to was the same girl in my photo. Wearing number seven as before, my mother stared out of the frame at me, and there was an odd hitch in my throat. I blamed it on surprise.

Examining the picture further, I noticed the same man, standing in the back row. His eerily intelligent eyes and piercing stare were unmistakable. I took a step back, shaken by the contents of the photo. “Yes, everyone’s gone. The room is yours. I cleared it out for the rest of the day.” A man’s low voice reached my ears. Nothing about what he said was in itself incriminating, but the tone in which he spoke led me to believe that he didn’t want to be overheard. I glanced around quickly, finding a door on the other end of the hallway. I rushed inside, regretting that I hadn’t been nearer to the bathroom. Instead, I’d picked a storage closet. I guess if worse came to worst, there was a bucket and nine hundred rolls of paper towels. The voices passed by, and I heard a noise that sounded like a door opening. It was so close, I feared that they were coming into the broom closet. It’d be kind of hard to explain how I’d mistaken this as the bathroom. Thankfully, it wasn’t the closet they were headed towards. Instead, their footsteps disappeared into what I suspected was a hidden room next door. I crouched in my corner, planning to leave once the door had shut and the conversation disappeared. I didn’t want to rush out in case there were others joining the two faceless voices. My knees creaked for the next few minutes and my butt went a little bit numb, but there didn’t seem to be any more foot traffic in the hallway, and the voices in the room had dulled to a low murmur. I stood to leave, except right then, an outburst from the first man who’d spoken drew me back in. The conversation elevated in volume, and I could now understand the words:

“Why aren’t you bringing him to me?” “Sir—” “No – unacceptable. I want the bastard to admit to me, staring me in the eyes, what he’s done.” “But—” “There are no buts. If he can man up and apologize, maybe I will let him live.” The icy quietness of the man’s voice was the scariest part. His words were crisp and clear, like how sound travels on a frigid winter morning before the noises of the earth have awakened to ruin the stillness of a fresh, fluffy snowfall. The pause hung in the air, a threat not to be touched. Even I knew that. “Yes… sir.” I could imagine the second man bowing his head and walking out of the room. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and straightened, ready to jut out before spending any more time in forbidden territory with a man as ruthless as a tiger on the other side of the door. Let a man live? Who did he think he was, God? The hairs on my spine tingled as I heard his voice once more. “Take care of this. You know what to do.” I slipped out of the closet, not even caring if somebody saw me. My bladder was near bursting and I’d heard enough. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the man with a voice sharper than the pointiest stripper stilettos my mom owned.

** ** After relieving myself, I snagged no less than ten free bathroom mints to pad my pockets. I met Meg on the deck, where she was sunning herself without shame. Her shirt was pulled up to just under her neck and her shorts unbuttoned and rolled down to just about dangerous territory. Her eyes were closed, and I was willing to bet she’d nabbed the cucumbers currently resting on her eyes from the communal water jar near the entrance. “You ready?” I asked Meg. “Don’t you got some business to take care of?” She shifted one cucumber up to the middle of her forehead – her third eye, ‘for brain relaxation’ – and peeked at me. “I ain’t part of that. My business is here. Rejuvenatin’.” I’d almost forgotten our reasons for coming here in the first place. And as I thought about it now, my stomach turned over in a real queasy fashion. “I think I’ve gotten enough business done today,” I said. “Girl, keep your regularity schedule to yourself.” “No,” I hissed. “I have to tell you something. Information.” “I hope it’s the name of your real family, ‘cause we all know you sure as hell ain’t no Lacey Smith, even though your mom said so.” I groaned, but I knew she was right. If I didn’t toughen up and take care of business now, I’d never find out the name of the family that’d let my mother down. And I couldn’t do that. At least I couldn’t do that and sleep well at night. Honey deserved better. “Fine,” I sighed. “I’m going to go grab some gelato for thinking power.”

“I’m thinking you’re on target,” Meg said. “And that thought right there just cost me some precious calories that some double nutty chocolate gelato could replenish real quickly.” “I get your point.” I turned and left Meg to her business, which at that moment consisted of burning calories while thinking about gelato. That girl, sometimes. Downstairs I moseyed over to the gelato wall, keeping my eyes peeled for men who looked like they were capable of having someone killed in cold blood. Because I’d seen The Godfather, and I knew what take care of it meant loud and crystal-friggin’-clear. Fortunately, or unfortunately, all of the men on the first level looked rather jolly and into their food. There was nobody staring around the room in a black suit, a cigar poking out of his mouth. Bummer. I’d have loved to put a face with a name, but for all I knew, mystery man was still upstairs in the room ordering peoples’ deaths. “Can I help you?” The man behind the corner was smallish and happy looking, his round stomach and red cheeks a sign that he probably ate well. Not that I blamed him, considering he worked for the most fabulous Italian restaurant in town. “Yeah, I’ll have… that. And that. And the pistachio. How ‘bout a scoop of nocciola?” I sighed. “I think that’s it.” The older man looked at me. “Uh, would you like that all in one bowl?” “Will it fit?” I asked. He shrugged. “I’ve never tried.”

“There’s a first time for everything.” I gave a weak smile. “But if you spill over into a second bowl, could you add a blob of strawberry and a titch of the dark brown one? Yeah, the chocolatey one.” After a few minutes of what looked like a very rigorous arm workout, the man had my gelato ready… in three bowls. “Thanks.” I smiled again and took out my money to pay. The man shook away my hand as I looked for an additional fiver and grinned. “It’s buy two get one free.” I looked up in surprise. “Really?” “For you, a beautiful woman, of course.” I blushed pinker than my fast-melting strawberry gelato. “So sweet. And thank you, I really appreciate it.” “Not a problem. But tell me your secret – where do you put it?” He leaned over the counter and gave me a quick, non-sexual glance up and down. I wondered for a moment if he wasn’t gay. “I guess it’s just my genes,” I said. “I’m lucky.” “Lucky – that’s the brand of those jeans? I have got to get myself a pair.” He patted his rolly stomach. “Think it’ll help with this?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a sly smile. “You look great.”

The man chortled, and I was taken by his pleasant nature. It was nice to receive a compliment from a man who didn’t seem to be attempting entry to my pants. Jeans, or genes, or no jeans at all. “Can I ask you something?” I asked. “Only if it’s not my number,” the man said with a wink. “I’m married.” “Oh, no. I mean, not that I wouldn’t – never mind. I was just wondering if you knew anything about the softball teams that Marinello’s has sponsored in the past.” “Oh sure, great time watchin’ the kiddos. In fact, my sons have more pictures on this wall than everyone else.” He gestured proudly around, and I wished for a second that I’d snatched the picture with my mother in it from upstairs to show him. “Why you ask? You don’t look old enough to have a kid. You want someone on a team?” “Not exactly,” I said. “I’m kind of looking for someone.” The man’s eyes darkened and he suddenly had gelato scoops to clean and counters to wipe down. “I’d keep your voice down about that, miss. I don’t know you, but people don’t come here looking for someone and leave happy, most of the time.” He glanced around the room warily. “You seem innocent enough, so I’d suggest whatever beef you’ve got with anyone around here, you let it go.” “Oh – no.” I raised a hand. “It’s not like that at all. My mother passed away recently, and I’m just trying to find out more about her family. You know, to distribute her assets and everything. She ran away when she was young, and I want to… at least, let her parents know she’s… gone.” I didn’t have to fake the salty tears welling up in the corners of my eyes.

“Hon, well that is an entirely different thing. There, there.” He patted my hand. “Here, take another.” He scooped another bowl of gelato and set my four containers in a to-go bag. He gestured towards the excessive amounts of food. “Everything makes more sense now.” I nodded and swallowed back a gulp that was thick in my throat. “Yeah, I have a photo of her on a softball team, and that’s pretty much everything I know about her roots. I don’t even know her real last name. She wasn’t feeling creative when she switched it to Smith, I guess.” “Listen, I’ve gotta finish my shift, but I’d be happy to talk with you later tonight. I’ve worked here mosta my life, and I’m fifty-eight. If there’s anyone in that picture that’s been around here in the last forty years, I’ll recognize them.” “Okay, thank you so much. I really appreciate that.” “No problem,” he said. “But let’s not meet here. Just in case.” “Any suggestions?” “There’s a little bar called Shotz on the other side of town. It’s a ten minute drive with the traffic at 10 p.m., so let’s meet there.” “Wonderful. That’s Uptown in Minneapolis?” “Exactly. And by the way, I’m Enrico.” “Thanks again.” I smiled and left the rest of my cash as a tip. I was running low on funds; it wasn’t like my mom had a 401K as a stripper. I’d inherited about five grand when she passed away, and I had used most of it on funeral expenses. “I’m Lacey. Lacey Smith.”

I only hoped that when we met later, he’d have an equally generous tip for me. ** ** I stopped home to grab the photo of my mom and slipped it safely into an envelope. I sometimes have a tendency to wreck things, and I hadn’t wanted to lose it during my recon mission to the restaurant. But now, bringing it out of the house was inevitable. I needed to show Enrico, my new gelato dealer, so he could identify my mother’s real last name. If he couldn’t, I might be back at square zero. And that was definitely not a square I wanted to be at. Meg showered while I carefully tucked the envelope into a laptop carrying case. I brushed my hair, threw on respectable clothing that included stretchy black yoga pants – ones that kind of almost qualified as dress pants – a tank top and a zippy sweater. The bar we were going to was not one of the ‘fancy’ variety, so I wouldn’t be overdressed in my current getup. I spritzed water on my hair and attempted to blow dry it, which turned out to be rather useless. My hair was kind of floppy, no matter the amount of teasing I did to the roots. I slapped on some red lipstick and a few swipes of mascara and figured I looked halfway decent. The pants did a decent job slimming the after effects of the one point nine bowls of gelato I’d finished during the car ride back. Meg emerged from the shower just as I wiped off the lipstick. I was going to find information, not get a date. After all, Enrico was nearing retirement, and I still hadn’t decided on a big girl job. We were entering different phases of our life. Even though I wouldn’t mind going straight to retirement some days. “Really?” I asked. “That’s what you’ve chosen to wear?”

“Sexy, ain’t it?” Meg turned around and smacked her booty with her hand. A cascade of rainbow streamers fell to the floor. She was wearing what looked like a feather boa carefully pinned to strategic parts of her body, ending in a plume of streamers flowing out of her rear end like a peacock’s feathers. “Yeah, but we’re not going to the strip club tonight.” “I dress to make myself feel good,” Meg said. “I don’t give a rat’s behind if the girls at normal bars are jealous.” “Okay. You look great, but I’m just worried that there might be some unfortunate slips of private areas if you start molting.” “Fortunate, unfortunate… tomato, tom-ah-to.” Meg did some spirit fingers and turned in a circle. “I’m ready!” “Okeey, then. Here we go.” Meg and I packed up and took the stairs towards the squad car sitting outside my rather unenthralling apartment. Except even more un-enthralling was the empty space where the car had been parked only three minutes before. “Shit-balls,” Meg said. “Oh, crap.” “Friggin’ effin’ A.” “This is a bummer.” I looked up and down the street. “Did you put it in park?”

Meg gave me wide eyes. “Of course I put it in park. Did you see someone steal it while I was in the shower? If you didn’t live in such a poop-storm of a neighborhood…” “Meg, do you honestly think someone on this side of town would steal a cop car?” “Good point.” Meg looked down at her phone, then put it to her ear as if listening to a message. “Hang on a sec. Ahhhhh.” The breath she let out could’ve blown a mosquito into Wisconsin. The next second she sucked in her breath. When she was done making mini tornados with her mouth, she glanced over at me. “I guess we need alternative transportation.” “Who was that?” “Just a former co-worker. Calling to check in on me. You know, shoot the shit.” “It was the Police Department telling you they towed your car back.” “Yep.” Meg gave a firm nod. “Well, that’s a real shame, then.” “Or, it’s just a sign from the universe that we need to get our creative juices flowing. Maybe our chi’s were being blocked up by the ease of having our own car.” “Right.” Meg looked around. “See? There’s one of those duplex bikes. Beauteous, huh?” She pointed to a hunk of junk that was half blue, half pink and all around rusted. “It’s not mine.” “We’ll just borrow it.”

“No. I don’t want to make enemies of my neighbors. They’ll shoot me. I saw one of them take pot shots at a squirrel the other day.” “Nah, they’ll never know.” Meg heaved the tandem bike forward. “I’m tellin’ ya, we got thirty minutes to get there, and it’ll take every ounce of pedalin’ we got to make it there in time.” “Can’t we call a cab or something?” “Do you know a cabbie that’ll come to this side of town?” “Fine. But we have to leave it just where we left it when we get back.” I crossed my arms. “They can never know.” “Of course not.” Meg leaned one foot against one of the pedals, and it popped right off. “Whoops. No worries, we can screw that sucker back on later.” “Oh, god,” I said, climbing on behind Meg. “Oh lord, save me.” With a crunch and a grind of gears as old as my apartment, the two-seater tandem bike slid forward. Meg’s seat sagged considerably more than mine, but for the most part it appeared we were supported. It was pretty fortunate that the bike was currently mounted on a downhill, so we could ease into the whole pedaling thing, especially since Meg had sneakily taken the seat with one pedal, so she had to work only half as hard. “Obhh, nobhh.” I spit out streamers as we picked up speed and coasted down the hill. “Meg, brake.”

“What? Nobody braked. We’re flying!” Meg’s streamers were flying straight back into my mouth and eyes, and I couldn’t see a single thing except reds and yellow, glimpses of greens and flashes of blue, and a teensy shimmer of pink somewhere near her left butt cheek. “Brake!” I shouted again, the word muffled by the streamers in my mouth. “No, it’s a left at the lake.” Lake? I couldn’t see anything, but the thought of us crashing relentlessly towards a body of water was enough to make my blood run along the icy side of cold. “Duck!” Meg said. “We’ve got company. Fuc—” “DUCK OR FUC—” The answer was clear, as a Nerf dart whizzed right in front of my face, nearly taking my nose off. Taken by surprise, Meg and I both jerked in opposite directions. We crashed into bushes lining the side of the road, and skidded painfully through some particularly scratchy branches. Our front wheel wedged itself beyond stuck. “Stop, or the next one’s real!” A kid raced into the streets, his jeans sagging just below his behind. “Yeah,” Meg said. “A real Nerf bullet? You wouldn’t shoot me. I’m a cop.” The kid raised the hand with the Nerf gun and scratched his forehead. “You ain’t a cop…they don’t wear that. Not even the undercover variety. Know how I know? Exactly nothin’ is undercover. Including your skin.”

With a guttural yell, Meg yanked the front wheel of the bike from the bushes and set us back on course down the slope. I held on for dear life, my head flopping around a bit as Meg pushed us forward. She looked back, winked, and handed me one of her streamers. I knew immediately what she was aiming to try. Pushing away from the curb, we formed a loose ‘U’ shape with the streamer that trailed behind as we flew down the hill. The tail-feather worked like a lasso, and we just managed to hook kid around the waist, tangling him up just enough so that he stumbled before the streamer snapped. I looked behind, watching as he tripped over his low-riding pants. “Serves you right,” I said. “Pull up those pants- aaah!” It was my turn to shriek as our front wheel hit a bumpy patch, which happened to be a boat launch. I’d missed it during our latest stunt, since I’d been watching behind me for Nerf bullets. By the time Meg squeezed the brakes and we rolled to a stop, we were in waist-deep lake water, accompanied with gusto by lots of hissing and a few squeaks – the sounds of a rapidly deflating front tire. I dismounted as quickly as I could, trying to hold the bike steady for Meg to dismount. But she had more power than I could handle, and she accidentally belly flopped from the seat straight into the water. I turned around to pull the bike up and out of the lake. Meg spluttered bubbles and flapped around like a bird. “Don’t think about it.” The kid stood in front of us, the Nerf gun replaced with something that looked all too shiny like real metal. “Nobody clotheslines me with their ass feathers and steals my fuggin’ bike. Look at my tire! Look what she done to it.” “Hey, hey. Language,” I said. “How old are you? You shouldn’t know those words.”

“Old enough to work this thing.” The kid looked all too confident, so I kept my hand raised. From the quick glance I managed at Meg, she was doing her best to disappear into the middle of the lake like a pontoon doing a back float. “Okay,” I said. “But let me explain. If you don’t like it, then…” “Fine. Start jabberin’, I ain’t got all day. My popsicles are meltin’ since I forgot them on the front steps when you two lovebirds flew by.” I took a deep breath. “My mother died a few months ago. It was just me and her, and I don’t know where she’s from. She ran away when she was young and my dad disappeared before I was born. My mom was a stripper, and that’s all I know. I’m trying to find my family, and I have a meeting in thirty minutes in Uptown. My car got towed, and this was all I could find in a pinch. I was going to return it.” The boy looked at me. He was maybe fifteen. “I can pay you thirty bucks for it if you want,” I offered. “Shit…” The kid swung his head back and forth and lowered the gun. “You got it worse than me. At least I got a mom to make sure I shower. You know your hair looks like crap, right?” “Yeah,” I said. “But I had tail feathers blowing in my face for that whole ride.” “’Aight,” he said. “I guess you’re one of us. You live in my building, right?” “Yeah.” “Coo’. Then I know where to find you. I want thirty-four bucks, since I need new popsicles, and I want the nice banana kind ‘cause mine are gonna be all squishy when I get back.”

“Okay, wonderful. Thank you so much. Now, if you don’t mind…” I looked down at my sopping wet clothes. “I don’t have time to change, but I do really have to get going.” “For a fee of six more dollas I can help you out.” I raised an eyebrow. “Now you’re talking. You got a car?” “I can get a car. My ma’s. She won’t even notice. She don’t leave except to buy cigarettes, and she just got a pack.” After hauling Meg out from her comfy position in the middle of the lake, we followed the kid into the parking lot. He pulled up his pants with every step, and with every step, they fell right back into place around his knobby knees. I suddenly wondered if he simply couldn’t afford different sized pants. Then I threw that idea out of my head as I saw the ritzy logo on his jeans. Either he didn’t skimp on jeans, or he had an alternative way of getting his pants. In two seconds flat, he had a green minivan revved up and the passenger door open. I hadn’t been watching, but I didn’t see him jingling any keys. “Can I get the key?” I asked. The kid scowled. “This ain’t his ma’s car,” Meg said to me, rolling her eyes. “So shut it, if you want the car.” “But Meg – you were a cop.” “We’ll return it,” Meg said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with borrowing it for a hot minute.”

The kid held the door open and looked at me. There was a trace of something in his eyes I couldn’t quite place, but his voice was forceful. “Ma’am, you wanna find you family or not?” “Thanks, bud.” I said, hopping in the car. “I’m in apartment 10C. Stop by tonight, I’ll give you cash.” “Deal.” We fist-bumped, and I felt a whole heck of a lot cooler in that moment than I’d ever felt in my whole entire life. I was sitting in a stolen car, crap-tastic or not, driving away to investigate my family, and on good terms with a tough guy. Maybe I was cut out for this shady business. “Hit it, girl!” Meg hollered, leaking lake water and pond scum all over the seat. We zoomed out of the parking lot, and I did a few wild shrieks. “Don’t give yourself away, jeesh,” Meg said. “You’re such a noob.” “You’re not a noob at stealing cars?” “Just drive. You’re gonna be late and my tail feathers need plumping.” Drive I did, my heart beating a little fast. Besides stealing a car and having a gun pointed at me, I’d just barely managed to rescue my rucksack from the water, thanking God I’d put my photo into a protective sleeve. We were going to see a man about a photo that could get me somewhere. Somewhere I could only hope I wanted to go. ** **

The drive went so smoothly – I couldn’t believe we were going to get away with it. Was breaking the law really this easy? If so, why hadn’t I done it before? I figured the sirens were a figment of my imagination, my paranoia going wild. It was only when Meg smacked my arm and told me to drive faster than I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw the cop car tailing me. I slammed on the brakes and pulled over to the side. “What’d you do that for?” Meg groaned. “I’m not running from the cops.” “This is going to be real embarrassing for me.” Meg gave me the ‘look.’ “What if I know them? My feathers are limp right now. My lip gloss is off. My hair…. Don’t even get me started on my hair.” “Oh, and it’s not like you had anything to do with this decision,” I shot back. “Really? Plus, my hair isn’t all that great right now, either.” “You’re right. It’s pretty crappy.” Meg eyed me up and down. “I feel much better about myself now.” I groaned as the cop approached the window and knocked. “Chuckie!” Meg leaned over me before I could even wrench the door open. “How’s it going, buddy?” Squished against the back of my seat, I slowly pressed the button to roll down the window. It inched down with every painful lurch of Meg’s arm, pressed into my abdomen.

“Is that Meg? What’s happening?” “Not too much, buddy. I miss ya.” Meg smacked the large man on the arm. He smacked her right back, and my head pounded into the back of the seat. “Uh, excuse me.” I lifted my finger, but Meg just wrapped her hand around it like it was a microphone and stuck it back down. “How’s the wife and kiddos? She let you out to play poker still?” “I sneak out once in a while,” he said. “Though I miss takin’ your money.” “Ah, you little shit. I let you win once…” Essscuse me,” I lisped, a feather from Meg’s bum stuck to my lip. “Can’t breathe.” “Oh, sorry. Meet my friend Lacey. Lace, this is Chuck. He’s one of the good ones.” I was heavily skeptical of Meg’s definition of a ‘good one’. Probably because she had just encouraged me to steal a car, had stolen her own cop car herself, and had also illegally borrowed a gun from the evidence locker. “Hi,” I said. “Nice to meet ya.” “Likewise,” he said. “Sorry to broach an uncomfortable subject, but what are you doing in a stolen vehicle? You guys could get charged for this. Meg, with your list of felon—” “Hear her out,” Meg said. She nodded at me. My eyes bugged out of my head. “What felonies?” “Tell him where you’re going,” Meg said.

I filled him in on the story of how we’d ended up here, except I took the liberty of altering the part about the stolen cop car, the kid holding a gun in my direction and a few other small details that seemed trivial in the grand scheme of things. I played up the part about the meeting to find out more about my family. The sympathy card seemed to be working the best for me today. “Oh, shit, man.” Chuckie wiped a tear away from his eye. “That sucks. I can’t imagine if my kids grew up without a dad, and then without a mom.” “Yeah,” Meg sighed. “It’s been tough.” I slid her a look, but she just opened her eyes as if to say ‘shut it.’ So, being smart or dumb, I took her advice again. I looked back. “Yeah, tough it has been.” Chuckie took a deep breath. “Alright then, I feel like I owe a good deed today. And I think this will be it. Lacey, if you want a ride to your meeting, hop in the back of the squad car. I’ll take ya. Meg, I’ll be happy to look the other way this one time if you promise me you’ll bring the van right back to the kid’s ‘mother’.” “Yeah, sure thing.” Meg nodded. “Kid lives in—” “I don’t want to know anything about the kid. This is a once in a lifetime favor, so just let’s do this now before the calls go out over the radio and I have to explain this.” Chuckie glanced at me. “You coming?” “All right.” I looked at Meg and shrugged, but she was already undoing her seatbelt and hopping over the median onto the driver’s seat. “Ooofph—” I tried to get out of her way, but she squished one of my lungs before I could dodge her.

“Squeeeeeze me,” Meg said. I managed to slip out before the other lung was pinned to the seat. “Right this way, ma’am.” Chuckie led me to the car. “Oh yeah, but you’re gonna have to share the backseat with a guy. He’s harmless.” “Oh, wow. Okay, didn’t know I’d have company. Are you sure you don’t want me to go with Meg? She could drop me off first if you need, and then return the van.” “Nah, it’s fine. This guy’s a regular. But nothing bad. Just a little indecent exposure now and then when he’s drunk, that sort of thing.” I peeked in the window. The guy was a real looker. “Oh, okay then. No problem.” I slipped into the back seat next to a stud without a shirt or shoes, his jeans riding low against a toned waist. He didn’t look like a perv. No, he looked more like a sexy rocker who’d had one too many shots of Jaeger and relieved himself behind a very thin, Charlie Brown style Christmas tree, only to be caught and handcuffed. “Hey there, sexy,” he said with a slightly drunken drawl. His breath was fresh, as if he’d just popped in a few pieces of Trident, and his expensive-smelling cologne masked any of the booze I expected to smell. “Hey, yourself,” I said, barely believing I was flirting with a criminal. I didn’t do stuff like this. Well, except for today. Today was one giant exception in this game we call life. Chuckie put the car into gear. I glanced back to see if Meg had turned around to bring the car back, but as we pulled forward, she did as well, a determined look on her face. I looked forward quickly so as not to draw attention to my friend.

The cop’s groan signified that he’d made the tail as well. “She ain’t gonna leave us, is she?” “Yeah, no. Not with that look on her face. That’s the look she gets when she’s…” “—taking a really tough shit, but not getting off the pot til it’s over?” The criminal next to me interrupted. “Well, that’s not exactly what I was going to say, but I guess it works.” I eyed up his figure once more, cute disheveled hair and all, noticing the sparse tattoos littering his arms and chest. “What brings your sweet cheeks in here?” I looked into his melty brown eyes, as gooey as the insides of an undercooked brownie, and got a little lost for a moment. Or at least my words did. They got lost somewhere between my esophagus and my lips. “I, uh…” “Grand theft auto,” Chuckie supplied from the front seat. “I’m not bookin’ her though. She’s had a tough break of things recently.” “Aw, Chuckie man, I’ve had a tough break too. How about you don’t book me neither?” The man smiled and winked at me. I realized for the first time that he wasn’t handcuffed, tied or restrained in anyway. He was lounging half over the seat, looking as if he were being chauffeured around by the police department. “Blake, bro, I’m not booking you today. It’s Shaun’s bachelor party. The only reason I picked you up is the bar staff would be pissed if they thought one of you didn’t get in trouble. I’m takin’ you home.”

“Good man, Chuckie.” Blake, apparently, leaned forward and clapped the cop on the back, trying to wink at me again, but in his drunkenness actually blinking both eyes at once. “You, sweet cheeks. What’s your name? You wanna come home with me, too? It’ll make the drive quicker for our mutual friend, here.” “Sorry, but I… I have a meeting to get to. But maybe some other time, I’m Lacey—” I said in a rush, sticking my hand out. “Lacey, darlin’, you’re real fine. You aren’t married, are you?” “Absolutely not.” I said, blushing. “I don’t know why I said absolutely, but what I mean is no, I’m single.” “Me too.” Blake leaned forward, rolling his eyes. “My first adult friend is getting married, and I tried to get a drink without a shirt and shoes, and they got real pissy.” “Why don’t you have a shirt or shoes?” I looked down at him. “Not that I’m complaining. I mean, that came out odd. I just mean…” “You know what?” Blake looked at the ceiling. “That’s a great question. Chuckie, why’d I leave my shirt and shoes at the bar?” “You were stripping to a karaoke song,” Chuckie said. In response to my questioning eyes he gave his shoulders a lurch. “What? I was invited to the party, too.” “I was a stripper for a hot minute,” I said. “Realllllly,” both men said in unison. “No, quite literally a minute,” I said. “Now I’m trying to find my family. But my mom was a really good one.”

“I’ll believe it, if she looked like you.” Blake winked. “Give me your number. I’ll call you sometime. And when I take you out, I promise you I’ll wear a shirt and shoes.” “Not necessary,” I mumbled, glancing out the window. Chuckie snorted, and I hadn’t realized he’d heard me, since we were already nearing the bar. I blushed. “I’m not sure this is the best way for us to… you know, meet. I’m kind of arrested; you’re kind of arrested…” “Give him your damn number. He’s not a bad guy,” Chuckie looked in the mirror. “You’re worse than two kindergarteners with a check yes or no sign on a crumpled piece of loose leaf.” “Alright, fine. Do you have a pen?” Chuckie handed me some paper and a pen, and I scrawled my digits on the back of an unused parking ticket. “We’re here,” Chuckie announced. “Make out sesh is over, kids.” Meg pulled up behind him and waved. I slipped out of the seat as Blake waved his fingers at me and slid the slip of paper into his pockets. I wanted him to call me. I waved back. I didn’t want him. I did. Meg raised her eyebrows at me as I hesitated outside of the car. “Dang, your stars are aligning today, girl. You got to share a backseat with Ryan Gosling over here?” “Uh, Meg, meet Blake,” I said dumbly.

Meg leaned through the squad car’s window. “Hey, you sexy ass convict, you. I bet your mug shot will be one for the books. Anyway, thanks for taking care of us, Chuck. I’m Lacey’s bodyguard, so I’m gonna walk her in since it’d be irresponsible of me not to. Then I’ll just return that van right to that kid’s momma’s house. Just like we found it.” Chuckie rolled his eyes. “You’ve got an hour to get the van back before the alerts go out.” “Yes sir.” Meg saluted. I waved and Blake smiled a goofy grin as the cop car pulled away. I turned around to face the dim bar that potentially held the single flame of information that could lead me to my family. If that flame went out… I’d be a very sad, fat woman. Probably fat, at least, due to all the ice cream and wine I’d consume to drown my sorrows. Even a phone call from Blake wouldn’t be able to cheer me up. ** ** After Meg and I waved goodbye to Chuckie and Blake, we headed into the bar. Shotz was a dark, gritty sort of place with a lot of character. It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing location on the planet, but the bar’s personality made up for its lack of cleanliness. The corners of the joint were perfect for private chats; with high, wooden booths and heavy, thick curtains lining the walls, conversations were private, muted events. The bar itself contained just the right level of stickiness – signifying cheap drinks and generous pours. The wait staff was polite, yet non-intrusive, which the ‘mind your own business’ type of clientele greatly appreciated. I spotted Enrico in one of the corner booths. He waved me over, a bottle of wine already on the table, two glasses standing empty in front of him.

Meg tapped my shoulder. “Yo, I’m gonna go do some investigatin’ at the bar.” I glanced towards where she was staring and saw a beefy man, skin covered with tattoos, sloshing beers behind the counter. “Cool. Enjoy.” As Meg sashayed over, I tried not to hurry too quickly to my target. I didn’t want him to sense my over-eagerness and mistake it for desperation. (Of course it was desperation, but I didn’t want him to know that, either). The line between eagerness and desperation was much finer than I’d ever realized. “Buona sera.” He greeted me with a nod as I slid into the booth. “Good evening. I trust your gelato was tasty?” “The best, as always.” I smiled. “May I?” He gestured toward the wine bottle and the empty glasses. “Please. And thank you.” There was a slightly awkward silence as I watched the red liquid slosh into my glass. Though this was a business meeting of sorts, I didn’t feel quite right pouncing on Enrico for information. At least not before we’d clinked glasses and enjoyed a sip of vino. That would just be rude, even though the excitement inside my body was building up to such a level that I felt my head might pop right off. “Your friend, she found a man, yes?” Enrico tilted his head toward the bar. I glanced over. Meg’s chest spilled onto the coasters at the bar. She was twirling her peacock feathers in one hand. “Yeah, she usually does.” “But a good friend, I think.” Enrico smiled, but his expression seemed distracted.

“Absolutely.” I gave a single nod. “She’s the best there is.” “I imagine.” He swiveled his head back. “You have a man?” “No, not for me. No man, no family. I’m alone right now.” “Oh, I’m sorry—” “Oh god, that came out really pitiful. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m fine. I’m happy on my own, really.” I forced a smile and took a sip of wine, hoping the warm liquid would give my cheeks a pink tinge of rosy happiness, a bubbly sensation I couldn’t quite muster on my own. “I can handle being by myself. I’m just looking for my family more for, well, logistics’ sake, I guess.” Enrico gave me a wide, sad smile. “Of course. On that note…” I looked up and followed his wandering gaze. “Yes?” He coughed, spluttering a bit, and fumbled for his wallet. “Here.” I opened my mouth to ask what was wrong, but then I noticed two men in inky black suits entering the bar, and I closed my mouth. They were small and looked some variety of Latin heritage: dark hair, olive skin and muscled arms. The men’s eyes flicked around the bar with an intense concentration, pausing ever so slightly on the table I occupied with Enrico. “I need to leave. For your safety,” Enrico said. “Take this. Go.”

“Wait, will you be okay?” I grabbed his wrist, feeling a slightly damp piece of paper land in my hand. Apparently he was nervous, too, judging by the sweatiness of his palm. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble with anyone. To be honest, I don’t really understand what’s happening.” “It’s fine. I’ll be fine. But you should go out the back way. I’ll tip your friend off. I’ll talk to them.” He nodded at the two men that looked like some combination of FBI agents, Secret Service, and high profile bodyguards. I was slightly intimidated, to say the least. As I stood, he closed his hand around mine, pressing the paper into my palm. He shot me a meaningful look, and rose, marching off towards the new visitors. I tried to be casual, but wasn’t completely sure I succeeded as I scurried towards the bar. I yanked one of Meg’s tail feathers. “We need to go,” I hissed. “No, we don’t,” Meg said. “We don’t gotta leave my bar ever.” “Uh, yeah.” I glanced behind me. “We need to leave now.” “Nope.” Meg turned around and faced me, her cheeks red with an excited flush. “It’s mine. I ain’t going nowhere.” “What’s yours?” I asked, warily looking behind us. Enrico jabbered in a foreign language, using what sounded like a rather rapid, angry tone of voice. “Can we please discuss this outside?” “We don’t have to discuss anything outside. This bar is mine.” Meg gave me a huge grin. “I just bought Shotz.”

“What? No way. What?” I pulled her off to the side, setting my wine glass on the counter and not even caring when it tipped over and shattered in the sink. “That’s impossible. The money? You have cash? Meg,” I gasped. “You didn’t rob a bank, did you?” She shifted, and I couldn’t tell if it was out of awkwardness or guilt. “It’s just a gentlemen’s agreement right now, just between me and him.” She nodded at the beefy bartender, who ignored us. “But yeah, I bought it. And, yeah, I do have the money.” I raised my eyebrows. “Around the time your mom passed away, my great aunt Cheryl also left this earth to go kick it with God– she was the aunt with the licorice sticks as hard as toffee. She was like nine hundred years old, but she left me a lot of money. I guess her kids didn’t visit her all that much, so I was a big part of the will.” “Meg, that’s –I’m sorry about Cheryl, but I’m – congrats?” I winced. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Lace, your mom had just died. That was a much bigger deal. Cheryl had been playing peeka-boo with the Pearly Gates for about the last century. It was her time. It wasn’t your ma’s time. It seemed unfair to complain or tell you about it.” I gaped at her, wondering how I’d been so lucky to get such a kickass friend. I couldn’t think of a thing to say that would follow up Meg’s announcement in an appropriate fashion. “I was gonna tell you about the money sooner or later,” Meg said, looking around shiftily. “I wasn’t trying to keep a secret, I just… the right time hadn’t popped up yet.”

“Meg, I don’t care about the money. That’s, well, good for you. You finally bought the bar you’ve always wanted. And I bet your Aunt Cheryl would be proud.” I flinched a little, wondering if my mother would be proud I’d stayed on at TANGO. “Aunt Cheryl sure would. She downed Jack ‘n Cokes like water her last few years. I always respected that woman,” Meg said with a tear in her eye. “Yeah, me too,” I said, my gaze suddenly drawn to a target behind Meg. Enrico was shooting daggers at me with his eyes, and I knew he was trying to tell me he could only hold off the guards for so long. Which was a scary thought, considering they looked like a pack of hungry dogs leaping at the edges of their ropes for food – a tasty delight named Lacey and Meg-the-Peacock. I tugged Meg’s arm. “We’re going to go celebrate! I’m buying you a steak. Far from here.” Meg followed my twitchy line of sight and, thankfully, caught on. “Ooooh.” Her eyes scanned the two men with blatant suspicion. “Gotcha.” We’d have to work on her subtleness at a later time, however, ‘cause we needed to boogie. She relented to my tugs at her feathers and followed me behind the bar. I felt like I was walking a peacock that sounded like an elephant. It was the least sly exit in the history of sneaky exits. “That way. I parked the car around back.” Meg led me to the rear exit, and gestured towards the hidden van, which had gotten us into a good amount of trouble. But in our defense, it had gotten us out of just as much. Or it would, if my slowly forming plan worked in our favor. ** **

After tiptoeing around the corner, we picked up the pace and jogged in the direction of the van. Or rather, I started jogging and Meg picked up her pace to match that of a gimpy turtle. I was jiggling the handle on the door when she arrived. “Oh shoot,” I said. “We don’t have the keys.” “Were ya born yesterday, chickadee?” Meg fumbled with a few wires under the hood, worked some magic on the lock, and hopped in the vehicle as it roared to life. “Did they teach ya nothing in school?” I grumbled out the window about memorizing a song about state capitals instead of learning to lift cars but was cut short as Meg careened around a few corners. “I’m gonna lose these mofos,” she said, turning the steering wheel. Her arms twisted into kama sutra-esque poses, and I admired the flexibility of her elbows. “Meg, I don’t think anyone’s following us.” I turned around, but toppled straight into Meg’s lap as we swerved into an alley. “Maybe not yet, but I’m preemptive with my actions. That’s why they call me a plannerahead.” “If we were planner-aheads, we would’ve never stolen the dang car in the first place.” “Planner-aheads have the right to improvise if necessary.” Meg honked to dispel a pickup game of kickball among teens as she careened down a residential gravel alley. “Slow down!” I gasped, looking behind us to make sure all of the children had leapt out of the way. Fortunately, they had survived, seemingly unscathed. “I’ll slow down when I lose them.”

I craned my neck at the serious turn in Meg’s voice, and saw a sleek black car following us. I wasn’t a car person, but it looked expensive and shiny, kind of like a real-life Bat Mobile. “Oh, crapola.” “Shitola crapola is right,” Meg said. “It’s a lucky thing you got me. I basically drove for a living at my last job.” “Your cop job?” “Heck yeah. I turned my siren on and raced circles around the city. Whipped shitties in every part of town.” “Uh, do you mean doing donuts?” Meg grunted and glanced in the mirror. Seemingly disgusted with what she saw, she cranked the wheel and we slid towards the driver’s side once again. I face planted into Meg’s lap. “Whoa, girlfriend, it might have been a while since you got any action, but I’m doing just fine.” Meg lifted my face from her lap with a yank on my ponytail. I latched onto the stability handle above the window to avoid revisiting Meg’s privates. “Oh, no. You have to stop,” I said. We were rushing towards the end of the kickball alley. At the end of the block, the alley would dump us into an incredibly traffic-filled street. My friendturned-bartender-turned-racecar-driver showed no signs of slowing, let alone stopping. “Not in this world, girlfriend. WHOOOOOP!” Meg cackled as we approached the end of the alleyway. With a wild shout – I’m not sure from whose mouth – we burst straight into traffic. I forced my eyes shut and said a little prayer.

By the force of the stolen-car gods, Meg somehow maneuvered the car to shoot straight through a miniscule gap between a semi-truck and a teensy smart car. We were not squished, dented, or banged up in any way. Meg smiled and kept right on truckin’ down the alley on the opposite side of the busy street. “Holy—” I tried to slow my racing heart, but I couldn’t manage to speak, move or utter any other sound. I did squeak out a quick sign of the cross. “Amazeballs is the word you’re looking for, I believe.” Meg winked at me. “Meg!” “Praise my name all – oh, Sweet Mother of... freakin’ A.” Meg slammed on the brakes and skidded to a stop. The black car that had been trailing behind us one second before now blocked the alleyway in front of us. Either they were magic, knew time travel, or had multiple cars. And whether the answer to that was A, B, or C, it didn’t matter. We were in trouble. Meg reversed the car and sped off, the wheels screeching as our bodies were flung backwards. The black car chased us down the alley, and I saw something peek out the window of one of the cars. It might have been a gun, or binoculars, or really any number of shiny metal objects. It was impossible to tell. The only fact I was sure of was that my hands were sweating and my heart was about to bust out of my ribcage. The dilapidated minivan shot back into the busy street, and this time I didn’t have time to say a prayer. Though we made it into the street alive, we cut off a bright, shiny new cop car. Coincidence? I think not.

I should have said a prayer. It took less than half a second before the copper’s lights flashed on and the siren screamed for us to pull over. I glanced back and saw a baby-faced newbie, a kid whose ink on his police diploma probably wasn’t even dry yet. He looked nervous and eager, which didn’t bode well for us. But suddenly, I had a change of heart. I glanced at Meg. “I have an idea.” “What’s that?” Meg bit her lip as she prepared to dodge traffic. “Pull over. Let’s get arrested.” “I can outrun that baby cop,” Meg said. “Don’t insult me like that.” “I’m not worried about the police. I’m worried about the army of black cars.” Meg and I looked around, and even she had to admit that the place seemed crawling with them. Maybe it was paranoia, but it felt like every third car on the road was flashy and black. Even more eerily, it seemed they all had a driver sizing us up with shifty eyes. “And if we get arrested?” Meg raised her eyebrow. “I trust you know what to do.” I threw the ball in her court, hoping it’d ramp up her enthusiasm for the only idea I could see getting us out of this situation in one piece. Since when had we become fugitives? Or something worse? We weren’t even running from the law. We were running from criminals. “Oh, I always know what to do,” Meg said. She eased the creaking van over to the side of the road, threw it into park and plumped her hair. As the cop came over, she pushed her ladies up

and did a little wiggle and wink in my direction. Then very sweetly she puckered her lips and lowered her window. “Hey sugar, do we have a problem here?” The baby-faced cop looked at the two of us, seeming a bit confused, and tripped over a simple, “Hello.” “You can arrest us,” Meg said. “I assume I was being reckless with my driving. Rather wild, one might say.” Was Meg trying to get arrested or a date? I rolled my eyes and looked out the other window. “Uh, yes… ma’am.” His pink cheeks deepened in their blushed color. “Reckless driving, no use of signal, speed above the lega—” “Yeah, yeah, and if you look on your computer, you’ll find out this car is stolen.” Meg grinned. “So? We’re ready.” She held out her hands, waiting for the cuffs to appear. “Uh….” The cop glanced over in my direction. I shrugged. “What about it?” “Is this vehicle really stolen?” “It’s more like it’s borrowed. But the report will probably say stolen. Technicalities.” I glanced out the window and saw a few of the black cars that I could’ve sworn I’d seen before passing us. Were they circling the block? “How about if we make this easy and come back to the car with you?” “Uh…” The cop glanced at Meg.

My best friend leaned over to the poor guy and hissed in a loud whisper. “I used to be a cop. You should arrest us. It’ll look good on you, bringing us in all grand theft auto and shit, during your first week on the job.” “How’d you know it as my first week?” he asked. “Baby, it’s written all over your face.” Meg leaned over and grabbed the cuffs that were dangling around the kid’s waist. He lunged for them, but Meg had already snapped a metal ring around her wrist. “Always secure your handcuffs to your belt, honey.” “But…” The poor cop looked helpless, and I felt bad for a hot second. Then that feeling disappeared as another black car passed us by. “Just take us in already,” I said, reaching over and snapping the free cuff to my wrist. Meg and I were now attached. “Call Chuckie,” Meg said. “He’s a supervisor. You tell him that you’ve got a Meg arrested here in a stolen van. He’ll know what to do. He’ll give you a gold star, I promise.” “Chuckie….You mean Chuck Daniels? My supervisor?” Meg winked at me. “How fortunate are we! He’s your boss?” “Alright, if you say…” He opened the driver’s side door and gestured for Meg to get out. She shifted both feet onto the ground, standing up much too fast for me to squeeze in a protest. Meg was fully out of the car before she realized that I was still attached to her arm. In the meantime, I’d been dragged across the middle seat, landing in an awkward position with a parking shifter wedged in a location where the sun rarely shines. It was not comfortable.

“Ow, god. Ow. Pointy. Help me out.” I groaned as Meg lifted her arm. “Oh, turd buckets,” she said. “Sorry about that.” She reached for my other hand and tried to help me out gently, but by the time I was on two feet standing next to her, my hair was a rat’s nest, my butt was sore, and I had scratch marks from my ribs to my belly button. “I never want to be Siamese twins with you,” I said. “Just for the record.” “Me neither. Your taste in men is questionable. I couldn’t stand to talk to some of them, let alone kiss them.” “Hey – you’re not exactly Miss Good Judgment on the male front.” “Ladies, are you coming?” Baby Cop cleared his throat. He looked like he wanted to take some semblance of control over the situation. “Sure, after we solve this,” Meg retorted. “Who do you think has the better taste in men? We need to know in case we become Siamese twins and one of us needs to pick who we sleep with.” The cop had tomatoes for cheeks. “Don’t answer that,” I snapped. I took a few steps forward to try and drag Meg towards the squad car, but I was yanked right back as she put her hands on her hips. “I control the walking,” she said, lifting her chin high and marching forward. I followed obediently, biting back an argument. I was trying to be the bigger Siamese twin, at least in spirit, on account of how badly I wanted to stay alive. The circling black cars were a constant reminder of danger, making me feel like a surfer in a sea of hungry sharks.

We loaded into the cruiser and the cop started driving us away. “So, do you ladies normally get arrested?” He glanced back in the mirror. “Never—” I said. “Sometimes—” Meg said. “I like handcuffs.” Another wink from her and a groan from me. “And what about stealing cars?” he followed up. “Never—” “Sometimes—” “You guys don’t make great Siamese twins,” he said, as if that were the greatest observation since Newton discovered gravity. “No, really,” I drawled. “’Cause I do all the work on a tandem bike,” Meg said. “I’m going to call Chuck now,” the cop said with false authority. “If you guys are pulling my leg, I’m going to be really peeved.” “Whoa, now,” Meg said, with a head roll in my direction. “Tough guy, over here.” Baby Cop shot daggers at her with his eyes in the rearview mirror but refrained from commenting as he dialed.

“Hey, Sergeant Daniels.” He glanced back at us. “I’ve got two ladies here in the back of my car… yeah, they claimed they stole a van when I pulled them over for reckless driving. One of them is named Meg, and she said to call you. You know anything about them?” The phone was not set to speaker, but the cuss words that came over the airwaves didn’t need to be amplified. And the sigh that followed cemented Chuckie’s frustration. It was finished with a ‘bring them in’ that I didn’t necessarily like the sound of. Baby Cop hung up and turned to relay the conversation. “We heard,” Meg and I said in unison before he could speak. Then we smiled at each other. Maybe this whole ‘twins’ thing would improve with time. ** ** After an hour of waiting at the police station, we’d filled out bogus paperwork, we’d asked for a cup of coffee and been promptly denied, and we’d been successfully de-siamesed and moved into an interrogation room for questioning. Chuckie walked in as Meg and I were finishing a glare-off (I’d had one last mint in my pocket from the trip to Marinello’s bathroom. She’d snagged it, even though my stomach was grumbling louder than hers). Chuckie gave another long, loud and very dramatic sigh as he plopped down on the other side of the table. “What’s going on now?” “Can we get a cup of coffee around here?” Meg asked.

“Tell me what’s going on, then I’ll decide.” “That’s cruelty to humans,” Meg said. Another sigh from the cop. “The faster you talk, the faster I decide.” Meg started speed talking through the events of the hour since he’d left us in front of Shotz. Chuckie’s eyes narrowed at the sign of the two thugs in the bar. He harrumphed at the mention of an army of black cars. And then he’d outright chuckled when I said they were following us. “Are you sure of this?” He looked at me to either negate or affirm Meg’s story. “Yah,” I said. “It’s all true. I don’t know what any of this means… or who my family could be.” “Did the man you were meeting have anything to say?” “No, he left to distract the two suits before…” I paused and slipped my hand into the pocket of my pants. “Actually, he gave me this. Slipped it into my hand before he left, but I haven’t had a chance to look yet.” I splayed the wrinkled slip of paper on the table before us. We all leaned over to look at the cramped handwriting on the page before us. In all caps, it said: MUSEUM OF HISTORY PORTRAIT 49 HOLDS THE ANSWER TO YOUR FAMILY NAME. “How did he know?” I asked. “Even I don’t know my family name.” “You said you met the guy at Marinello’s?” Chuckie asked. “Who were you meeting?”

“Enrico,” I said. “If he’s the guy I’m thinking of – the gelato scooper – he’s been around forever. If you look anything like your parents, he’d be able to piece it together. Enrico’s a good guy. In fact, all them over at Marinello’s treat us cops real nice.” “What’s the Museum of History?” Meg asked. “What’s Portrait 49?” I asked. Chuckie shrugged. “They move stuff around over there all the time, I’ve got no idea.” “Are we booked here? Or can I go find out?” I stood up. “I’m getting real impatient to find out what’s going on.” “What car are you going to drive?” Chuckie crossed his arms. “Oh, crap. Gosh dang it.” I sat back down and pounded my head against the table. But only lightly, since I didn’t have a whole ton of extra brain cells to lose now that mine were all caught up in this mystery. Not to mention, there was a solid chance I was still concussed. “You’re lucky.” Chuckie grinned. “My curiosity is piqued. I’ll accompany you two criminals over there. After, I’ll bring ya back here, and you ladies spend the night in jail. Then we’ll call it good. No more stealing.” “Dealio,” I said. “I might sneak off at some point during the museum tour,” Meg said. “I expect so.” Chuckie turned towards the door. “Let’s go.” ** **

The three of us parked in an illegal spot outside of the museum, thanks to our escort service (the police) and cop car (not stolen this time). Things were looking up. The cops were on our side, we were not in possession of a stolen vehicle, nobody was shooting Nerf guns at us… I smiled as Chuckie led the two of us through the front doors. “Admission?” An overly cheerful, overly bouncy woman asked at the gate. “Thirty dollars, please.” “Police business,” Chuckie flashed his badge and waved the two of us through. I had a minor stare down with the woman, as she skeptically watched us flounce through the entrance free of charge. “Can you tell me where Portrait 49 is?” Chuckie puffed out his chest as he spoke to a pimply teenager, who looked pretty bored holding a broom. I smelled an entire brownie’s worth of marijuana essence on him. Meg leaned forward and sniffed. “Uh, huh. The photos are in order. Go up that flight, down and over, and then over some more. And, um, am I in trouble?” The kid’s lip twitched. “Should you be?” Chuckie raised an eyebrow. Meg grinned. “He should not be in trouble. Or he shouldn’t, at least, if I can get some of what he’s smoking.” The kid turned and darted into a mummy exhibit. We headed in the vague direction of the teen’s formerly pointed finger. We passed a room full of woolly mammoths and another full of Pharaohs. The next room looked like a jungle and the

one after it a spaceship. I couldn’t make sense of how the portraits were ordered, but we seemed to be getting close. The last portrait in the spaceship room had the number fifty above it. “Are you ready?” Meg paused looking at me. “I’m not great at math, but I expect the next number to be forty-nine.” I took a deep breath. “I don’t know.” “I’ll go first. I can handle it.” Chuckie rotated his shoulders once and strode forward. Apparently the sight was a shocking one: the cop, who must have seen a lot in his years on the force, paled and stumbled backwards. “I, er, wish I hadn’t’a seen that.” “That bad?” I gulped. “Jus’… look for yourself.” He wiped his brow. “You go.” I gave Meg a little push from behind and put a hand over my eyes. “Welp,” Meg said as she stepped forward. She glanced at the portrait. I couldn’t read her expression. I put a hand over my eyes. Meg drew my fingers away from my face. “I’d like to say congratulations to you and your male family members.” Meg chuckled. Then, she turned serious. “But honestly, does this man have a brother? Or a grandson maybe?” I opened my eyes and let Meg pull me into the next room. I hesitated before looking up. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but it wasn’t this: a large, granite statue of a grumpy-looking man, posed and twisted like a contortionist. He was also completely naked with the largest

package of stone junk I’d ever seen in my life. Not that I saw many stone ding dongs, but still. The thing could’ve been glued onto an elephant and it wouldn’t have looked out of place. “Oh, ah. Wow. Wonder how this is supposed to be a clue.” I averted my eyes. I wasn’t sure if the statue was of a family member or a cruel joke by Enrico. I felt quite perverted staring at it, however, in case it was the former. Nobody wants to see their Uncle Larry’s junk carved in stone and displayed for the world to see. Or touch, in Meg’s case. “Get your hands off that!” I pulled her hand back. “I’m lookin’ for clues. Hold your horses,” Meg retorted. “I believe penises are like snowflakes. They’re all unique and different, and maybe if I can get a good feel…” She cupped her hand lightly over the man’s family jewels. Possibly my family jewels. “Nope, not familiar.” I rolled my eyes as Chuckie was suddenly overcome with a severe coughing fit. “Maybe if I read the caption—” I took a step forward. And then I whirled back around. “You guys.” “What?” Meg was staring the stone dong straight into the eyeball. If it had one, that is. “I can’t even count the lines on here like I can on tree trunks. I’m not sure how to tell the age of this man, ‘cept that he’s not quite wrinkly enough to be above the age of fifty. I once slept with a fif—” “This is sixty,” I said.

“No, honey. I draw the line at fifty-eight. I don’t do sixty, if you get my drift.” Meg winked, while Chuckie’s coughing fit sounded like it was in danger of landing him in the ER. “No, this sculpture is number sixty.” I gestured behind me. “It wasn’t counting down. The numbers jumped up. Forty-nine is somewhere else.” “Huh. So I did all this inspectin’ for nothin’?” “Don’t pretend that you didn’t like it.” “I wasn’t pretending nothin’,” Meg grumped as she followed me. I waltzed far away from the naked porno star of the middle ages, in search for the real number forty-nine. “You know, what with your stripper history, I wouldn’t have been totally surprised if that was the real deal,” Meg murmured. Chuckie grunted a laugh. I glared at them both. “Shut up.” After pounding up and down three flights of stairs and innumerable hallways, we reached the forties. As we came to a stop in front of forty-nine, I couldn’t bring myself to look away from the tiles on the floor. I’d come this far, but for what? What if this was a dead end? What if it told me everything I needed to know, but it turned out to be everything I didn’t want to know? What had my mom been hiding from me? Chuckie’s arm came up and landed around my shoulder as he exhaled. “For crying out loud-” “Crikey,” Meg said.

“What is it?” I stared at my shoes. Ever so gently, Meg tipped my chin upwards until my line of sight hit the framed portrait on the wall, the small plaque hanging over it reading “49.” “Oh, oh. Oh, no.” I gasped and backed away from the wall. “Impossible.” ** ** Hanging above the plaque were the words “Most Infamous Mobster Family of the Twentieth Century.” The man in the photo was the same man in the pictures with my mom. The similarities between my mother’s eyes and his were impossible to mistake. And as I read the caption below the header, it explained that the man in the photo was Vincenzo Luzzi, head of the Italian Mafia in Chicago. He had six sons and four daughters. One of his sons was currently alive and well in St. Paul, Minnesota. That would be Carlos Luzzi, my grandfather. “You don’t think?” I asked. “Luzzi blood. Wowzers.” Chuckie said. “Enrico was good friends with the Luzzi’s – there’s no way he’d steer you wrong. If anyone could recognize a Luzzi, it’s him.” “Yikes,” Meg said again. “That’s interesting. We cops have a unique relationship with the Luzzi clan.” “Lacey Luzzi,” I tried the name on for size. Ironically, it seemed to fit. “Lacey Luzzi.” “That’d explain why your mom wanted to hide you from the family,” Meg said. “She probably wanted to go straight, and she prolly wanted you to, as well.”

“Oh, man,” I said. A rush of emotions flooded my stomach, and I couldn’t decipher them amidst a bout of acid reflux. I was one big ball of confused. “Okay, well I have some thinking to do. Are you going to take me back to jail now?” I held up my wrist, but Chuckie glanced at it as if I were holding the detonator to an atomic bomb. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m not arresting you in case you do have Luzzi blood. I don’t have a death wish.” I opened my mouth, shocked, as Chuckie took off. I turned to Meg, who was looking at me oddly. Almost proud, a little skeptical, a little… “Are you okay?” I asked. “A Luzzi,” she said. “Who woulda thunk?” ** ** The maze to get out of the museum was a blurry kaleidoscope of moose antlers and constellations and a variety of hieroglyphics painted on a wall. Bubbles floated and copters whirred and beeps sounded, but it was all white noise to me. A Luzzi? I wasn’t badass. I could barely walk in heels. I didn’t speak a lick of Italian, and my pasta noodles turned out burnt at least fifty percent of the time, don’t ask me how. I wasn’t cut out for the mobster life.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Meg said, as if reading my thoughts. “Just because you know, doesn’t mean they have to know about you. Your mom made that possible. She left you with the choice.” “Yeah, but I don’t know for sure,” I said. “But do you want to know for sure?” I paused at the front gate. That was a very good question. One I wasn’t quite ready to answer. “Do you know where they live, by any chance?” I looked at Meg. “Just to do a quick drive by. I wouldn’t do anything stupid.” “No, of course not.” Meg shook her head at me, her eyes twinkling behind her badly disguised smirk. “You’d never do anything stupid.” “Uh, how are we getting home, or… anywhere?” The two of us stood on the front steps of the museum. “I’m all biked out, I can’t possibly handle another grand theft auto arrest, and my feet are killing me…” “Here we go.” Meg started walking to a maintenance closet, except when she opened the door, it led to a small alley. “Meg, where are you going?” “Huh?” She gave me an extremely pleased smile as she showed off her latest conquest. It was a vehicle that sank under her size, but nonetheless roared to life after a bit of coaxing with a freshly plucked bobby pin. “That’s a beautiful ride, there.” I could feel a smile creeping onto my face. “We can’t get arrested for this?”

“Well maybe, but we’ll pretend we can’t. Anyway, it’s less than a felony, probably.” “Probably?” “Who knows? We won’t get caught… we’ll return it in just one hour.” “That’s what you said last time.” “Yeah, well, crap happened.” “But—” “Are you going to get on this hog or not?” Meg patted the backseat of the golf cart that was slowly creeping forward. “’Cause I ain’t got cash for a cab on me, and I’m not hauling my ass home on a tricycle.” I hopped on behind her. “We will have covered every method of transporta-ahh!” I screamed as Meg floored the gas and brought us right out onto the shoulder of the highway. “Meg! Side streets. Take. Them.” “Nah.” And that was the end of that discussion. ** ** About thirty extremely windy minutes later, we rolled into a residential section of town I’d never been to before. I couldn’t see any houses, but I imagined they were hidden away behind the tree-lined driveways and sprawling estates. “Who lives out here? These people have some serious cash.” My head was on a constant swivel, looking for other forms of life.

“These people are your family,” Meg said. “Your grandfather owns about a million bajillion acres over here.” “Oh.” “Yeah. We tend to leave this area alone.” Meg slowed the golf cart down to a crawl. “Anyway, around this corner you’ll find the house. I’ll drop you here.” She nodded. “You go take a peek. I’ll give you one minute, then I’m gonna cruise by very slowly. You have the option to jump on this beauty, and we hightail our asses out of here, which frankly is the smart thing to do. Or you can choose the dumb thing, and not jump on.” “Okay,” I said, my breath becoming harder and harder to swallow with each heave of my chest. “Okay.” Meg pinched my butt so hard right then that I had no option except to leap right off that golf cart and skid to a stop in front of the largest gate I’d ever encountered. The edges of the metal black fence were as pointy as toothpicks but about a million times as large and made out of deadly-looking steel. There was a man guarding the entrance in a small booth, and I could see one or two men patrolling down the long, twisty driveway. But at the end of the driveway was the largest surprise yet. And by large, I mean humongous. It was an estate bigger than the Coliseum. Not that I’d ever seen the Coliseum, but how I imagined it in my mind. “Ma’am?” an accented voice asked. “Yah?” I said, feeling a little dumb. I turned towards the voice.

In the background, Meg hit the gas pedal on the golf cart and rolled forward, ever so slowly. She gave me the thumbs up sign and cruised off at the pace of a snail. I then realized the man with the accented voice was approaching me with hesitation. And, he had a gun. He stopped next to me, and together we watched Meg sail on by. She alternately made evil expressions at the man and kissy faces at me. Or maybe it was the reverse, I couldn’t be sure. “What you want?” The man turned to me and fingered his gun as Meg crept out of sight around the corner. I was distracted, hoping Meg hadn’t completely left me stranded. Hopefully she was just off to get a piece of Dairy Queen cake before heading right back here. “Uh…” “It’s okay, I’ll take her.” A mind-bogglingly fit man appeared to the left of the guard manning the gate. All of the sudden, a whirring noise startled the first guard, who twitched and pointed his gun straight ahead at the sound. However, a second later, Meg appeared, reversing so painfully slowly I thought she might start rolling forward. She had eyes only for the newcomer, and I noticed she’d perked up her chest and plumped her peacock feathers. The kissy faces were now directed at one person, and it was the tall, thickly-built man who looked as if he was as confused as I’d be if asked to speak Latin.

“Come with me.” The newcomer gestured for me to follow him, simultaneously waving off the other guard. “Me only? What about her?” I gestured towards Meg. “Peacocks are not allowed in the estate.” “Oh, uh. Okay. But she’s my friend.” The man’s cheek clenched. “She can wait outside. Are you coming?” “Oh, yes. Okay.” I followed him in, waving to Meg as she licked her lips in the background. Nothing like a great first impression. Especially when finding my family for the first time. What if I was related to this guy? The walk down the driveway was long and tedious. It seemed the Greek God next to me only spoke when it was absolutely necessary. He remained silent all the way to the front door. “What do you want?” He turned to me, his gaze curious as he spoke. It was the first sign of any emotion I’d seen from him. “I think I might be a relative of the Luzzi family,” I said. “I guess, well, I guess I needed to know for sure after my mom died.” With one brief nod, the door was opened by an ancient butler. “Hello, dahling,” the butler said in a thick English accent. “I’m Harold, may I take your coat?” “Uh… no, thank you?” I couldn’t help the question in my voice. I didn’t know who these people were but they were rich. Out of this world rich.

I couldn’t help but wonder why, if my mother came from this sort of wealth, she chose to run off and live for pennies while wiggling her booty for strange men. “Nice house,” I said. Harold’s face turned up in an odd smirk. “House… yes, indeed. That is one word for it.” “A better word, the one you’re looking for, I believe, is fortress.” It was my dreamy guide, jumping back into the conversation. “Who are you?” I asked. The handsome man looked away. His lean figure was outlined in an all-black uniform. He moved easily, and I was pretty sure his spirit animal was a jaguar. But there was a danger about him that made me hesitate in getting too close to him. Even though he smelled delicious. He turned back to look at me. “I don’t know why he asked to see you, but he’s waiting for you in the kitchen.” The man led me through an entryway as big as a ballroom with what looked like stained glass windows stolen straight from the Vatican. I almost made a joke about whether the Pope was missing his artwork, but I had an odd sensation that stealing expensive artwork was not out of the realm of possibility for my new family. Potential family, I reminded myself. There was a small part inside of me hoping that they would be my family. Because if they weren’t, then I’d still be all alone. And something was better than nothing, right? “Keep up, please,” he said, as I stopped to stare at a sculpture I thought might be the one and only David.

“Yokay,” I said, hustling forward. I didn’t want them to think I was checking out the junk on this statue, too. Once was enough for today. The next hallway was a mishmash of pictures: a few mugshots, one or two participation medals for children’s sports, and a Wanted poster for someone with the last name LUZZI. I briefly wondered what I was getting into, but I’d come so far, I had to finish the task. I had to see if there was actually a light at the end of the tunnel. “Did you have anything to do with all of the black cars in the cities today, by chance?” I asked. The guard’s mouth became a thin line, and he gestured towards the door in front of me. His non-answer said plenty. I had a feeling that the answers to most of my questions were waiting on the other side of the swinging wooden door. Mr. Guard told me to wait in the hallway. I squirmed impatiently as he stepped inside the room. Low voices murmured back and forth, but I couldn’t understand the words. I wasn’t sure if it was English or another language, the sounds were so muffled. Then, the same man stepped out. “So, you found us, you must have some smarts. Did you plan to trick the guards into thinking you were no threat?” “No threat?” I asked, a little confused. “The mistakes you made were on purpose?” “Oh, yeah. Of course.” I nodded, hopefully with a firm expression that I, of course, planned all of my ditzy moments ahead of time, in a devious plan to throw off the scent for the bad guys tracking me.

“Because of this, you are allowed to meet Carlos. He will explain the… situation.” “Any advice on the sort of situation this is?” “One involving your family,” he said, taking a few steps away and gesturing for me to enter. I looked into his deep, Ghirardelli-colored eyes, and lifted my chin. “The way you say family, I feel as if it has a capital ‘F’.” The guard raised an eyebrow, and for the first time, a hint of surprise crossed his face. His gaze suddenly suggested I might not be as dumb as his first impression told him. This time when he spoke, his voice even had a gentle edge to it. “Go on in. It’s okay.” He extended his smooth hand and gave mine a long, firm shake. I didn’t want him to let go, but he had no such problem. He gave me a subtle nudge towards the swinging door. I took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves. Then I pushed open the heavy, mahogany door and stepped inside. A pair of curious, inquisitive eyes met my gaze. Where the guard’s gaze had held a bit of compassion and some sexy intrigue, these eyes were sharp and crisp and intelligent. He was a powerful, dangerous man – that much was immediately apparent. From the salt and peppered hair to the perfectly tailored suit and the shoes that shined like a spiffy apple, he was the picture of influence. At the same time, there was no doubt in my mind that the man behind the eyes was related to my mother. He seemed to agree after a quick assessment. “Yes,” he said. “A Luzzi, you are. You look exactly like your mother. Welcome to the Family.”

THE END Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed the story, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. I appreciate every single one, and the reviews really do help us indie authors out! ** ** Free Review Copies Available: If you’re just finding my books and reading the prequel first – I offer review copies for interested readers. Simply send me a link to your honest review on Amazon or Goodreads, and I’ll provide you with a gifted copy of the next book in the series. Thank you for reading.  Gina

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