Springtime

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Francesco leans against the wall, his left hand tucked into his shirt, pressing against his side. He can feel the blood, warm and slick, pooling under his palm and seeping into the waistband of his underwear.

He still holds the gun in his right hand. This palm is sweaty on the grip, and he clutches it, afraid it will slip out of his grasp if he doesn’t hold on tight. Not that it will do any good—he’s not entirely sure he will be able to raise his arm enough to aim when they come through the door.

He forces himself to take another step, his right shoulder sliding along the wall, the rough surface of the concrete blocks catching the fabric of his coat. At other times, in other situations, he would care about ruining his garments.

Today he has other concerns.

He wonders what they’re doing on the other side of the door. They were his friends once, Antonio and Thomas, before they ambushed him here. He should have seen it coming. He should have pulled his gun first and then…

What, killed them both and then fled?

How many men have tried to run? How many have Francesco himself hunted down and killed? Not too many to count, but close.

All for Paolo.

Francesco has been Paolo’s man for almost ten years now. He has worked hard, followed orders, kept his mouth shut. He has never asked Paolo for anything, never traded favors, never broke the unwritten rules that seemed to matter less and less to those in the family these days.

Antonio and Thomas are taking their time. They know they hit Francesco at least once. They know he’s trapped in here, this empty warehouse where there was supposed to be the product. They can take their time, let the blood loss do its work, weakening him moment by moment.

They’re also afraid, Francesco knows. He’s got a reputation. Not from him talking—no, he would never brag about what he’s done—but other people talk, word gets around. People were frightened of getting on Paolo’s bad side, and Francesco was one of the main reasons for that fear.

But Paolo’s dead, if what Antonio said was true. Francesco has no reason to think it a lie. They would never have tried to kill him if Paolo was still alive.

A new beginning, that’s what Paolo had wanted.

He never said anything, but Francesco knew his boss too well to miss it. Springtime was tough for Paolo. His wife and daughter had been killed on the first day of spring, two years ago. A car accident, a drunk driver (eventually dead by Francesco’s hand), and Paolo had lost the people who meant the most to him.

Spring was supposed to be about renewal, about growth, about fresh starts.

But you don’t show weakness around our people, he thinks to himself. We’re sharks, all of us, and the first scent of blood in the water sends us into a feeding frenzy.

In those first days after Paolo’s family was killed, he put up a tough front. Francesco was busy ensuring any threats to Paolo’s rule were eliminated. He showed everyone that Paolo could still make the hard choices.

But Francesco knew.

He never said anything, of course. He was Paolo’s man. They had an agreement, even if unspoken, and Francesco would never go back on his word (though it was given only in his own thoughts).

Paolo had been planning to run. He couldn’t do it anymore, and it was only a matter of time before the rest of them figured it out. They wouldn’t just let him leave. He knew too much, and they were afraid he’d end up in the hands of the authorities.

One doesn’t retire from this kind of job.

Francesco looks over at the door on the far side of the warehouse. It’s a fire exit, but the alarm has been disconnected. He’s not sure his legs will carry him that far, and if they decide to come through the door while he’s stumbling across the open space…

It’s a beautiful day outside, he remembers. The first day of spring. The two year anniversary of Paolo losing his family, his purpose, his heart.

He wanted a new beginning. He wanted to get away from all the death that is a part of the life they have chosen to live.

But it wasn’t a new beginning for Paolo today. It was an ending.

And it’s going to be the same for Francesco if he doesn’t get moving. There are only two of them—and what makes them think only two of them could take down Francesco? Did they forget who he was?

No, Francesco had made the mistake. He had forgotten who they were. Antonio and Thomas were his friends, yes, but they were something else first. He had forgotten that, and now he was bleeding into his expensive coat, the one he hadn’t really needed today on the first day of spring.

It was unseasonably warm today, as if spring couldn’t wait to get started bringing nicer weather, longer hours of sunlight, leaves on the trees and flowers in the gardens. Francesco had grabbed his long coat without thinking, not realizing it was unnecessary today.

But he’d need it if he managed to get out of here. The coat would hide his wound until he could get somewhere safe, where he could bandage himself up and get out of the city. He knew places where he could get someone to remove the bullet and sew up the hole without asking any questions.

Places he kept to himself, just in case he ever found himself in a situation where he couldn’t trust the family.

Francesco pushes himself from the wall and tries to walk toward the other door. His legs feel heavy and he drags his shoes across the stained concrete as he crosses the open space. If they come through the hallway door now, he knows he won’t be able to move quickly enough to take them down.

Step follows step, and he can hear the sound of the ocean in his ears. If he passes out, he’s dead. If he trips and falls, he’s dead. The door across the warehouse—it seems like it’s still a mile away and not getting any closer—is the only hope he has to get out of this alive.

He’ll get himself patched up, and then he’ll come back. Antonio and Thomas don’t get a free pass on this. And once they’re dead, he’ll leave, disappear. Sure, they’ll try to find him, but no one is as good as Francesco at finding those who have run. He knows all the tricks, and now he’ll use them himself.

Maybe one of them is already dead, he thinks. Francesco did get two shots off toward Antonio. It was a desperate attempt to get them to dive for cover, giving him a chance to get through the door into the warehouse and out of their line of sight. Maybe only Thomas is out there, calling the others on his phone, his hands probably shaking, telling them that Francesco is still alive and still a threat.

Wounded, but still a threat, nonetheless.

Francesco stops and holds himself still as tiny flashes go off in his eyes. He’s racing against time, against the blood that is flowing from his side, but he can’t go too fast or he’ll lose consciousness.

He forces himself to count to ten, slowly, and then he resumes his march across the warehouse. He’s almost there, the crash-bar is almost within reach.

His car is just around the front. If he makes it out this door, he can use the wall to help him stay on his feet and reach the car. He’ll have cover if Thomas comes out the front.

Francesco’s hand lands on the doorframe and he nearly cries out in relief. He made it across the warehouse. He’s almost safe.

Except…

What if he didn’t hit Antonio after all? What if one of them is waiting in the hallway, and the other is outside already, watching this door?

It doesn’t matter. If he stays here, he’ll bleed to death.

Still holding his side, still holding the gun, he leans his hip against the crash-bar and lets his weight shove the door open.

His arm comes up as the door swings wide, the hinges squealing. The sun is blinding as he nearly loses his balance and stumbles out of the warehouse. He swings his arm around, squinting against the glare and expecting to hear the gunshot that will end his life.

But no one is out here. It’s just a narrow alley between the warehouse and the chain link fence that marks the boundary of the property. Francesco considers taking a moment to push the door closed—the squealing hinges will warn him if someone comes through behind him—but he can’t spare the energy.

The sparks come back, and it’s like he’s watching fireworks going off in the bright afternoon sky. He staggers over and puts his back against the outer wall of the warehouse. His coat is going to be filthy—no way to avoid it.

Even here, surrounded by warehouses and manufacturing plants, the smell of spring is carried on the wind and he inhales deeply. The pain in his side limits his breath, but he tries anyway. He wants to smell the scents and stare at that bright, blue sky.

Without warning, his legs give out and he slides to the ground. The gun slips from his fingers as he hits the pavement, and for an instant everything goes bright white and he can see nothing.

When his vision clears, Thomas has come around the corner from the front. He’s got his gun out and pointed at Francesco’s head. Antonio steps through the door from the warehouse, apparently unharmed. He approaches and kicks Francesco’s gun out of his reach.

Francesco looks up into the faces of the men who were his friends and he can see their fear and their anger mixing together. He’s made it difficult for them today, and they want him dead.

He looks up at the sky again and takes another breath, as much as he can. He thinks he can smell flowers, and newly grown grass. It’s the smell of spring as he turns his face to the bright sun blazing across the cloudless blue sky.

Today is the first day of spring, Francesco thinks to himself as he hears the distinctive click of Thomas pulling back the hammer on his gun.  It’s a time for renewal, for growth.

It’s a time for new beginnings…